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America's Black Press, 1914-1918

Our boys over there? Mark Ellis looks at how America's black newspapers and population reacted to US involvement in the First World War and at the steps the government took to try and ensure a favourable press.

When the United States entered the First World War in April 1917, several groups of Americans refused to support the abandonment of neutrality. They included the Socialist Party, pacifist organisations such as the American Union Against Militarism, Irish Americans, who rejected the idea of an alliance with Britain, and German Americans, many of whom were of divided loyalties. However, no section of the American people had a more complex outlook on the war and the call to arms than the black population.

Since the end of Reconstruction in the 1870s, blacks had steadily been denied the vote in the southern states where most of them lived. By 1910, racial segregation, legally in the South and by custom in the North, was firmly established, and after 1913 Woodrow Wilson's Democratic administration extended segregation of federal employees in the workplace. White supremacy was maintained partly by exemplary violence: black people were hunted dawn by white rioters in Atlanta, Georgia, and Springfield, Illinois, in 1906 and 1908, and an average of sixty-five blacks were lynched annually between 1910 and 1919.

When Wilson announced that America had declared war 'to make the world safe for Democracy', therefore, many black spokesmen warned that they could not give him unreserved support without an assurance that steps would be taken to correct the failings of American democracy. When these reservations implying that the United States was unfit to lead an international crusade for democracy, were repeated in the black press, the government was swift to respond. It could not afford to allow 10 million Americans to be indifferent, still less hostile, to the war effort.

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