Wars can be socially transformative events. World War I saw several hundred thousand African-American soldiers discharged from a virulently segregated U.S. military into a virulently segregated society. This was in the midst of the Great Migration, the movement of what ultimately would be millions of black Southerners from the racist terror and impoverishment of their home states to an often unwelcoming North. The mix was explosive.
Chad Williams sees African-American veterans and their post-war militancy as the “vanguards of the New Negro” of the 1920s and the Harlem Renaissance. They battled discrimination, race riots, lynching, and the bitter irony of having served in a war to “make the world safe for democracy,” only to find Jim Crow terror and other forms of white supremacy still distorting and choking America.
Most of the 200,000 African-American troops sent to France were used in heavy labor battalions. “We were treated like dogs. I mean worse than German prisoners,” one veteran described the experience.
Indeed, to fight in France at all they had to either be “loaned” to French command, or be undermined as scapegoats to prove that they couldn’t fight (while at the same time being portrayed as sexual predators by their white commanders). The recent awarding of the Medal of Honor to Henry Johnson nearly a century after he won France’s Croix de guerre was a stark reminder of the era.
Williams traces the varied ideological approaches of “the black veteran, emerging from the crucible of war with renewed self-determination to enact system change.” Not every veteran was an activist, of course, but W.E.B. Du Bois’s exhortation applied to many: “We return. We return from fighting. We return fighting.”
Williams has three case studies to show the influence of war-transformed men at The Messenger, the socialist magazine edited by A. Philip Randolph (and spied on by the Military Intelligence Division); the League for Democracy, set up by veterans themselves; and the Universal Negro Improvement Association, the black nationalist movement led by Marcus Garvey.
Each is a case of awakening and ripening political and racial consciousness, a clearing away of old habits and thinking. The stage was being set for a renaissance to come.