Historically, the civil rights movement in this country has paralleled black Americans’ participation in America’s wars. As far back as the American Revolution, many slaves were manumitted or set free as a result of their “meritorious service” during the war. Hoping that their willingness to volunteer for military service would lead to better treatment, black Americans have answered the call to arms throughout the nation’s history.
One prime example of this notion is being commemorated as I pen this opinion piece, for it was 100 years ago last Thursday, April 6, 1917, that America declared war on Germany, thus entering the First World War. Now, let me be clear, serving in World War I did not exempt black soldiers from segregation and discrimination. No, as our nation was preparing to send troops “over there” to help “make the world safe for democracy,” blacks in this country were having to deal with widespread racism, Jim Crow, and discrimination, even at the same time when lynching was common. But in spite of segregation and discrimination, many blacks eagerly volunteered and were drafted to answer the call to duty, hoping their willingness to serve in World War I would lead to better treatment for black Americans in general.
As the U.S. declared war on Germany in April 1917, some 400,000 blacks were drafted, with 200,000 serving overseas, mostly in France and 42,000 in combat duty. Among those drafted in 1917 were Albert Parker, my maternal grandfather and his first cousin John Erskin Pope, who paid the ultimate price, dying in Oct. 1918, just one month before the war ended. The vast majority of those who served overseas served in labor and service units. After considerable agitation from black leaders and the NAACP, the government established on officers’ training camp for blacks at Fort Des Moines, Iowa where “639 Negroes were commissioned—106 captains, 329 first lieutenants, and 204 second lieutenants.”
Interestingly, many black Americans saw America’s entry into World War I, on the side of democracy, as an opportunity that might help elevate the place and status of black Americans in their own country. At the very least, it couldn’t hurt. By all historical records, blacks did their full share as part of the American effort to “make the world safe for democracy” in the First World War. Plus, blacks had registered for the draft to be able to defend the honor of this country. They wanted full equality as part of the American promise set aside for all under our Constitution.
Moreover, the black man felt “He has won at the same time by the manifestation of his courage, and his devotion and his loyalty, a more even chance in American life.” Over the last 100 years, spurred on by the actions of black soldiers who served in World War I, America has made great strides in both civil and human rights. We owe a great debt to our World War I soldiers.
Larry Sutton is a retired school teacher from Clinton High School.