In 1914, World War I broke out in Europe and President Woodrow Wilson, true to his pledge, kept the United States neutral.
By 1917, however, the U.S. had entered the war on the side of the Allies and the great civil rights leader Dr. W.E.B. Dubois, much as Frederick Douglass had during the Civil War, encouraged Black men to exhibit patriotism by signing up to help the war effort.
While many Blacks did join the military and would serve with gallantry and distinction, these soldiers still were subjected to condescension from their fellow white soldiers and superior officers, as well as Jim Crow laws and customs en vogue in varying forms across America.
General John J. Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Forces, went as far as writing in a communique that as for Black soldiers, that “we must not eat with them, must not shake hands with them, seek to talk to them or to meet with them outside the requirements of military service. We must not commend too highly these troops, especially in front of White Americans.”
Even worse, as the war effort drew more prominent, many Black soldiers training at southern bases and camps were subjected to sheer racism in the towns nearby. The most notorious example of this occurred in segregated Texas when during the early days of World War I, an incident at Camp Logan, a segregated Army fort near Houston that housed the all black 3rd Battalion of the 24th Infantry, would be forever etched into the Racism Hall of Shame.
On August 23, 1917, a Black soldier happened upon two civilian White police officers beating a Black woman and when he attempted to intervene, he was brutally beaten and arrested. A Black corporal in his unit later went to the police station to determine the facts and he, too, was beaten and even shot at by White officers. Upon hearing the news, 156 Black soldiers armed themselves and marched toward Houston, where they were met by an angry and armed group of Whites who were bent on putting the “uppity” soldiers in their places.
Who shot first is now a historical mystery, but four Black soldiers and 16 White civilians died that night. The Black soldiers were then court martialed before a panel of all White officers. 19 Black soldiers were hanged in unison on hastily constructed gallows. 41 Black soldiers were sentenced to life without parole. President Woodrow Wilson personally reviewed the death sentences and found them “just” despite the best efforts of the NAACP and Dr. Dubois to have the sentences commuted. (Nota Bene–No White officers or rioters were charged with any offenses and today, no markers commemorate the lynched soldiers’ final resting place).
Dubois later mocked Wilson’s famous exclamation that American soldiers “Would make the world safe for democracy” all the while denying democracy to Blacks at home by writing:
“We are returning from war! The Crisis and tens of thousands of black men were drafted into a great struggle. For bleeding France and what she means and has meant and will mean to us and humanity and against the threat of German race arrogance, we fought gladly and to the last drop of blood; for America and her highest ideals…But today we return! We return from the slavery of uniform which the world’s madness demanded us to don to the freedom of civil garb. We stand again to look America squarely in the face and call a spade a spade. We sing: This country of ours, despite all its better souls have done and dreamed, is yet a shameful land.”
The trend of summary executions for Black soldiers would continue through World War II when courts-martial ending in death sentences found that of the 70 service men condemned to death by hanging or firing squad in the European theater for crimes including alleged rape, 55 of those 70 executed were Black men. During the Vietnam War, at Cam Ranh Bay, White Navy sailors donned KKK type robes and paraded around the base while near Saigon, at the infamous Long Binh Jail, Black soldiers incarcerated for crimes rioted in August 1968 in protest of what many described as deplorable conditions and outright racial hostility from White soldiers and fellow inmates.
(Depicted are White soldiers in Vietnam with Confederate Battle Flag and 40 years later, White Marines in Iraq with the same symbol)
So, the next time some Keyboard Patriot tries to suggest that Black people who protest the flag, the Star Spangled Banner, or America herself lack patriotism, remind them of the thousands of Black soldiers who fought, bled and died on behalf of a nation that considered–and in some respects still considers–Blacks as second class citizens.