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The Walter White Project

Randy Stakeman, Jackson Stakeman, Authors

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The NAACP and World War I

Over 300,000 African American men and women served in the armed forces during World War I and with honor. Many served abroad and were decorated by the French government for their service and bravery.  The war effort created a dilemma for the leadership of the NAACP. Despite their central tenet of opposing segregation in all things, white NAACP chairman Joel Spingarn enlisted and spearheaded an effort to establish segregate camps to train African American officers.  W.E.B. Du Bois went against his own pacifism to urge blacks to serve in an editorial in The Crisis called "Close Ranks". He wrote:

Let us, while this war lasts, forget our special grievances and close our ranks shoulder to shoulder with our white fellow citizens and the allied nations that are fighting for democracy.

 Historian Mark Ellis makes an argument as to why they did so.  Both Spingarn and Du Bois felt that African Americns had something to gain from the war.  Spingarn was an officer in military intelligence and hope to persuade the government to take action for reform and ensuring black rights as a matter of national security.  He argued to them that African American "subversion" would be lessened if the government took the lead in preventing lynchings and instituting other reforms.  He pleas ultimately fell on deaf ears and he was in fact transferred from Washington to France during the war.  Before he was transferred however he tried to arrange for W.E.B. Du Bois to be commissioned as an officer in the subsection of military intelligences Negro subversion section which he was trying to create.  Ellis believes as did many other black leaders of the time that Du Bois wrote the article in order to strengthen his case for the commission.  The statement that African Americans should stop fighting for their rights is so out of keeping with the usual and subsequent Du Bois writings that such an explanation is needed.  Du Bois himself denies that there was a connection between the commission and the editorial but Ellis presents a strong case that there was.  In any event the commission offer was withdrawn and there never was a Captain Du Bois.
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