Enlisting the Black Press: The War
Department's Editors Conference of 1918
Worried that blacks, who were smarting from repression, would refuse to support
World War I, the War Department held a conference with 31 of the nation's
leading black editors in June of 1918. The gathering was a seminal event in the
relationship between the black press and the U.S. government in wartime. It led
to President Woodrow Wilson making a public denunciation of lynching and
commuting the sentences of 10 black soldiers who had been sentenced to death for
World War I forced the Wilson administration to take on a wartime challenge
that no previous U.S. government had ever faced: Deploying a huge military
machine overseas. Transporting a million men to France was only part of the
task. Supplying them required not only mobilizing industry to produce materiel
but also a special effort to maximize food production. The magnitude of the
effort meant that all Americans, military and civilian, needed to pull together,
war planners emphasized.
Many in the black community, which accounted for one-eighth of the U.S.
population of about 100 million, were in no mood to cooperate, however. The
reason was that repression of blacks was worse in the years leading up to U.S.
participation in the war than it had been in decades. It included a
continuing epidemic of lynching, white-provoked race riots, plus
expansion of segregation in housing, public accommodations and public
transportation. Many blacks questioned why they should help a government
they believed had turned its back on them.
The black press was fervent about bringing racial injustices to
African-Americans' attention. It not only covered the injustices in news
stories, but railed against them in stinging commentaries. The Wilson
administration viewed the publications as such a galvanizer of African-American
anger that it believed they threatened the war effort. Only days after the
United States declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917, government intelligence
officials began trying to intimidate the black publications they considered the
shrillest to tone down their rhetoric. Although they softened their language,
the handful of publications the officials had targeted continued to speak out.
Since the government had the resources to go after only a few black
publications, most of the nation's 200 black newspapers and magazines continued
to hammer away at injustices with the same verve. The extensive coverage of
racial repression in both the targeted and non-targeted publications was one
reason that a year later anger in the black community was still running high.
At this point the administration decided to try a public-relations approach to
get the black press "on the team." In June of 1918 the War Department held a
conference with 31 of the nation's most prominent black editors that was one of
the most visible government overtures to African-Americans since Emancipation.
The three-day conference helped the administration achieve its goal of
persuading more black newspapers to tone down the stridentness of their
complaints about racial repression until the war was over. It even persuaded
some editors who had been lukewarm about the war effort to become ardent
Although the conference failed to generate civil rights advancements for
blacks, it did lead to two symbolically important race-related gestures from an
American president. One was a public condemnation of lynching, although the
race-neutral wording of Woodrow Wilson's declaration made it bittersweet to some
blacks. The other was the commutation of the death sentences of 10 black
soldiers convicted of rioting.
The conference also played a part in W.E.B. DuBois's losing his undisputed
position as the leader of the civil rights movement. After he helped steer
the other editors to the enthusiastic endorsement of the war effort that the
government had wanted, his publication, the NAACP monthly the Crisis, published
a surprising accommodationist editorial he had written. Then the news
surfaced that the race's foremost radical was ready to accept a War Department
offer of a military commission. Many blacks accused the once-uncompromising
champion of the race of writing the editorial specifically to get the
commission. The damage to DuBois's credibility led to younger leaders in
the militant wing of the civil rights movement attracting supporters DuBois had
had, creating disunity for decades.
Although the conference helped the government obtain a more supportive black
press in the short term, an irony was that black publications became even more
strident about racial grievances after the war. The fact that the
government had gone to such pains to court them made the editors realize how
much power they had over black public opinion. When the war ended in late 1918,
eliminating the need to tone down their rhetoric about injustices, black editors
became more militant in leading the charge for equality.
The topic of the black press during World War I has been attracting increasing
attention in recent years. Mark Ellis has examined how the government tried to
persuade black publications to support the war effort with propaganda,
intimidation and flattery. The propaganda effort involved the wartime
propaganda agency, the Committee on Public Information, sending news releases to
black publications. The flattery component involved reaching out to the editors
by convening the conference. The intimidation effort involved threatening
editors who were too strident with prosecution under the Espionage or Sedition
acts, or cutting off their postal privileges. Theodore Kornweibel Jr. has done
the most extensive research on the intimidation effort. Jane Lang Scheiber
and Harry N. Scheiber have pointed out that Wilson's reaching out to blacks was
done only to get them aboard the war effort -- that the president never intended
to pursue policies that would afford African-Americans permanent civil rights
gains. David Levering Lewis has taken the most comprehensive look at the
life of W.E.B. DuBois, including DuBois's leadership role at the editors
conference and the circumstances under which he wrote "Close Ranks" and was
offered a military commission.
No author has made a comprehensive examination of the black editors conference,
however. The purpose of this paper is to examine the conference as one of the
seminal events in the history of the black press's relationship with the U.S.
government during wartime. The examination will include a close look at the two
documents the black editors crafted at the conference, and how black
publications such as the Washington Bee and Chicago Defender covered the
conference and its aftermath.
Why the government saw the black press as a threat
The conference occurred during a golden era for black publications, both in
circulation and in the quality of editors. Circulation at leading publications,
a few of them monthlies but most of them weeklies, exploded during the war years
of 1914 to 1918. The Crisis, the monthly paper of the NAACP, which DuBois
edited, jumped from 41,000 subscribers in 1917 to 74,000 in 1918 and to 104,000
in 1919. The circulation of Robert S. Abbott's weekly Chicago Defender
soared tenfold, from 12,000 to 120,000, between 1916 and 1918. Two reasons
for the surges were national circulation campaigns that led to the Crisis, for
example, being sold in all 48 states, plus the migration during the war of
hundreds of thousands of rural Southern blacks to Northern cities such as
Chicago with black publications. All told, the nation's black newspapers were
reaching millions of readers a week by the time the War Department convened the
The raw circulation numbers were not the only reason the government decided to
reach out to black papers, however. Another was the eloquence of the editors,
which reflected the fervor they brought to a position they viewed as
encompassing both civil rights leader as well as journalist. The articulate,
often-emotional reproofs of DuBois, Abbott and their comrades dug deep into the
souls of many in the black community.
When Secretary of War Newton Baker told black leaders in the fall of 1917 that
the War Department had only a limited capacity to address racial inequalities,
Washington Bee Editor W. Calvin Chase responded: "We did accept this, the war,
'as an opportunity to serve,' and we mean to serve, and serve loyally and
valiantly, but we have a right, as American citizens without one single break in
our 250 years of loyalty and dependableness, to at least respectfully request we
be 'served' also; that we, when the country needs men, loyal men, be given equal
opportunities and equal privileges in every branch of the service, without
respect to our color or race." Other editors besides Chase with the power
to arouse readers included Robert L. Vann of the Pittsburgh Courier, William
Monroe Trotter of the Boston Guardian, Fred S. Moore of the New York Age, J.H.
Murphy of the Baltimore Afro-American, Ed Warren of the Amsterdam News and A.
Philip Randolph of the Messenger.
Unfortunately for the nation's 12 million African-Americans, black editors had
a long list of racial injustices to write about during the war years, some on
the civilian front and some on the military front. On the civilian front, white
mobs lynched an average of 65 blacks a year between 1910 and 1919. A
white-instigated race riot in July of 1917 in East St. Louis, Illinois, killed
39 blacks. In August of 1917, 125 black soldiers retaliated against weeks
of provocation by whites in Houston by shooting up the city, killing 17 whites
-- with the result that 29 of the soldiers were sentenced to death.
While these injustices were occurring, Woodrow Wilson, who during his campaign
for president in 1912 had pledged to improve the status of blacks, abandoned the
pledge the first time members of Congress from his political power base in the
South challenged him. He not only dropped his plans to appoint
African-Americans to patronage positions the race had traditionally held but
also went along with three Cabinet members' moves to segregate working, dining
and toilet facilities in federal offices under their purview. Meanwhile,
states, municipalities and even Congress passed or attempted to pass dozens of
laws mandating segregation in housing, public accommodations and public
transportation during the Wilson years.
By the time the United States entered the war in 1917, black editors were so
outraged over what was happening on the civilian front -- especially the
lynching and race riots -- that even moderate publications showed flashes of
militancy. Shortly after the St. Louis riot, which was started by striking
white union members angry about black strikebreakers, Washington Bee columnist
J.J. Cunningham advised African-Americans to arm themselves. "We are
law-abiding, but since we are being pursued and shot down in the streets, and
our homes are being destroyed by the miserable ruffians of this country, and
since the authorities of the law refuse to give us the protection which is due
us, the colored people are compelled, from this time on, to be prepared to
defend themselves when their homes are being attacked by these ruffians," he
wrote. "Let us continue to gather at the house of prayer, and pour out our
complaints to Almighty God, but don't forget that prayers will never do the work
of bullets. . . . you'd better sleep with your loaded guns under your heads,
for you know not what hour the mobs will attack you."
Although many African-Americans were eager to don a uniform because of the
possibility of advancement, they found repression on the military front as well.
Southern congressmen wanted no African-Americans in the Army beyond the four
all-black regiments that had existed since the Civil War. They persuaded
government officials to accept only white volunteers for military service. The
reason was that an all-races enlistment program might have led to blacks being
allowed to become sailors and Marines, positions long denied them. The
Southerners even tried -- though they failed -- to include language in
military-manpower legislation that would have prevented the government from
drafting blacks. Their fear was that hundreds of thousands of African-Americans
with arms training would be a threat to the South. The government rejected
their request on grounds that it needed the additional manpower on the
Many African-Americans in training camps were subjected to racist verbal and
physical abuse, and the toughest, dirtiest extra duties were often foisted off
on blacks. Saying they were trying to reduce the chance that black
soldiers would be harassed by local whites, many of the soldiers' superiors in
Southern cantonments granted them less off-post time than whites. In France,
white American officers tried to persuade French officers to abandon their
traditional equitable treatment of blacks in favor of the segregated, repressive
treatment blacks received in the United States.
The combination of repression of African-Americans in their hometowns, on U.S.
military posts and at military assignments overseas prompted many black editors
to make an argument in their columns that the War Department felt was
particularly threatening to its mobilization effort: Why should blacks fight
overseas to save the world for democracy when they were unable to enjoy the
fruits of democracy at home? When Secretary of War Baker commented in
December of 1917 that wartime was not the time to settle the race question,
the Washington Bee asked: "The race question must be settled some time, and
what is a better time than the time when the aggrieved ones are waiting for the
command to plunge into battle, to offer their blood, their lives to 'make the
world safe for democracy?'" "Now is the time to let the world know we are
not satisfied," agreed the St. Louis Argus.
The government's first attempt to solve the black press problem, which it
instituted more than a year before the editors conference, involved intimidating
editors whose publications it considered inflammatory. None of the editors it
targeted had called on blacks to oppose the war. They had simply decried racial
injustices. The difference between the targeted editors' publications and the
"acceptable" ones was the shrillness of the words used to denounce the
The first target of the intimidation effort was Robert S. Abbott of the Chicago
Defender on April 13, 1917, only a week after the United States entered the
war. Others included DuBois of the Crisis, J.H. Murphy of the Baltimore
Afro-American, J.E. Mitchell of the St. Louis Argus , Cyril Briggs of the
Amsterdam News and A. Philip Randolph and Chandler Owen of the Messenger.
The government went so far as to prosecute and send to prison one editor, G.W.
Bouldin of the San Antonio Inquirer, whose crime was condoning in print the
black soldiers' riot in Houston. Some in the government, such as Major
Joel Spingarn, who had become head of an Army intelligence section dealing with
the black population after being chairman of the NAACP, were uncomfortable with
the strategy of intimidating the editors, however. Spingarn and others believed
the government could gain more by reaching out.
The lead-up to the conference
A warning that Robert Moton, head of the Tuskegee Institute, gave Wilson in the
spring of 1918 was a galvanizing force in the convening of the black editors
conference. Moton said he had never seen African-Americans so restive.
At the time, the U.S. declaration of war against Germany was a year old, but
deployment of most of the troops the country would send to Europe -- and thus
most of the U.S. fighting -- lay ahead. Coming from an influential
accommodationist like Moton, who had succeeded Booker T. Washington at Tuskegee,
the warning struck a chord with administration officials prosecuting the war.
These officials knew it was imperative that blacks -- because of their sheer
numbers -- were fully behind the war effort, both in uniform and on the civilian
The actual idea for the editors conference came from Major Spingarn of the
Army's Military Intelligence Bureau. Before joining the Army for the war
effort, the independently wealthy former Columbia University literature
professor had worked closely with DuBois at the NAACP. In fact, the two were
friends as well as co-workers. Spingarn also knew other prominent black editors
from firsthand experience or by reputation.
He suggested the conference to Emmett J. Scott, an African-American whom
Secretary of War Newton Baker in October of 1917 had appointed a special liaison
for black military affairs. Scott took the idea to George Creel, head of
the government's wartime propaganda arm, the Committee on Public Information.
Creel persuaded Baker and other administration officials it was a good idea.
Baker agreed that Scott, a racial moderate whom many black editors respected,
should preside at the conference. Scott was optimistic about the
conference's impact on the editors, predicting to Creel that it would help lead
black public opinion "along helpful lines rather than along lines that make for
discontent and unrest." The lineup of speakers justified his optimism,
consisting of men likely to appeal to the hearts as well as the minds of the
Besides Scott and Creel, speakers included Secretary of War Baker; Assistant
Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt; Edward N. Hurley, chairman of the
United States Shipping Board, the agency in charge of dispatching troops and
supplies to Europe; Major Joel Spingarn; his brother, Captain Arthur S. Spingarn
of the Army's Medical Reserve Corps, whose civilian law firm had served the
NAACP; and three French military officers: General Paul Vignal, military attache
to the French Embassy, and Majors Edouard Requin and L.P. DeMontal of the French
Baker was considered the most progressive of Roosevelt's cabinet members on
civil rights. He had gained a reputation while mayor of Cleveland of being able
to work with blacks. As secretary of the War Department, he had instituted
a number of programs to improve blacks' status in the military, including a
black Army officer training camp, the placement of blacks in such specialized
Army units as the artillery corps and signal corps, even the integration of some
Army units. DuBois had saluted Baker in a Crisis editorial in December 1917,
saying that the secretary had not done "everything we could wish, but he has
accomplished so much more than President Wilson or any other member of this
administration that he deserves all praise."
One reason Roosevelt was at the conference was to soothe ruffled feathers over
segregation that the Navy Department had imposed at its Washington headquarters.
In the early days of the Wilson administration, Roosevelt's boss, Navy Secretary
Josephus Daniels of North Carolina, had ordered separate working, dining and
toilet facilities for blacks. Until Daniels' move, and similar ones by Treasury
Secretary William G. McAdoo of Georgia and Postmaster General Albert S. Burleson
of Texas, there had been no segregation in federal offices. Blacks saw it
as a major step backward and deeply resented it. While the black editors would
have been hostile to Daniels, the conference organizers figured correctly that
they would be receptive to Roosevelt, a New Yorker with a reputation as a
Most black editors liked George Creel, for at least two reasons. First, he was
a professional comrade -- a former crusading newspaperman. He also had been
feeding them interesting stories about the war effort, helping them fill their
papers' columns. Many black papers were carrying a page or more of such
mobilization news every week. Topics ranged from war bond drives to wealthy
socialites volunteering to become military nurses to German atrocities. When he
could, Creel served up race-specific stories: Yarns about a black man who had
13 sons in uniform, about black soldiers' bayoneting skills, and about a black
soldier who captured hounds the Germans had been using to track the enemy by
dragging a dead fox ahead of the dogs.
The appearance of the French officers also was designed to appeal to the black
editors' hearts. Of course it was appropriate that the black editors receive a
briefing on the state of the war and the challenges that lay ahead. But
American military experts could have given them that. One reason the French
officers were invited to speak was that African-Americans had a good feeling
toward the French, knowing they treated blacks well. Stories about French
equanimity toward black soldiers -- both France's own Senegalese units and
African-American troops -- had appeared in America's black press since the war
began. The French, according to the stories, were colorblind, judging a
man on his merits.
Creel had asked Wilson to attend the gathering, but on June 18, the day before
the event began, the president declined. Admitting that he had never come
through on his 1912 campaign pledge to help blacks, he said in a note to Creel:
"My own judgment is that it probably would do no good for me to see them. I
have received several delegations of Negroes, and I am under the impression that
they have gone away dissatisfied. I have never had an opportunity actually to
do what I promised them I would seek an opportunity to do." 
A reason that Wilson failed to mention but that was probably closer to the
truth for his turning down Creel's request was the president's desire to avoid a
confrontation with the black editors. He had had a nasty meeting four years
earlier with one of the editors who had been invited to the conference --
William Monroe Trotter of the Boston Guardian. The fiery Trotter, who had
campaigned for Wilson in the 1912 election, began haranguing the president
during a meeting in the Oval Office in November of 1914 for breaking his promise
to help blacks achieve their rights. The exchange became so heated that Wilson
threw Trotter out of his office.
As it turned out, Trotter did not attend the black editors conference. He said
he could smell a sellout. Most of the nation's star black editors showed
up, however. DuBois of the Crisis was there, as was Abbott of the Chicago
Defender, Vann of the Pittsburgh Courier, Moore of the New York Age, Murphy of
the Baltimore Afro-American and Warren of the Amsterdam News . Randolph of
the Messenger, a Socialist, was considered too radical to invite and probably
would have refused to come if he had been.
The conference itself
Scott opened the conference by reminding the participants, who included 14
black educators, clergymen and office holders in addition to the 31 editors,
that they had been invited to help the government get blacks behind the war
effort. "This is not the time to discuss race problems," he said. "Our first
duty is to fight, and to continue to fight until the war is won. Then we can
adjust the problems that remain in the life of the colored man."
His admonition may have been for the benefit of the administration officials at
the conference, for after these officials spoke he proceeded to do what he had
said he wouldn't -- let the editors air their racial grievances. The Washington
Bee, represented by Editor W. Calvin Chase, reported that "the discussion
covered a wide range, and the conferees were given an opportunity to present
their views, reflecting the state of mind of the colored people of the country,
with the utmost freedom and frankness."
The coverage of the Washington Bee, the Chicago Defender and the Crisis
omitted the specifics of the give-and-take with the administration officials. A
possible explanation as to why is that the government asked the editors not to
report specifics in order to facilitate the most candid exchange possible, and
the editors complied. Some of the issues the editors raised were explosive.
One was a rumor that the U.S. command in France was using black troops as shock
troops -- sending them into the first waves of battles where they would take the
heaviest casualties. Although the officials at the War Department
conference told the editors correctly that the rumor was untrue, George Creel
was savvy enough to realize that reporting the rumor -- even with a government
denial attached to it-- would disturb many in the black community. Not
reporting any frank exchanges that occurred along the way to a cooperative
wrapup would have the effect of making coverage of the conference unremittingly
positive -- which is the way it turned out to be.
At the end of the conference the editors passed a resolution about black
participation in the war effort that amounted to their overarching philosophy on
the issue. They also put together a list of 14 race-related grievances they
said the government should address quickly if it wanted to ensure blacks'
enthusiastic support. DuBois, the self-appointed leader of the editors at
the conference, crafted the resolution, which the others accepted with minor
changes. All 31 editors signed it.
The resolution, entitled the "Address to the Committee on Public Information,"
began with a declaration of blacks' loyalty toward their country and their
belief that it was vital that the Germans be defeated. "We American Negroes
wish to affirm, first of all, our unalterable belief that the defeat of the
German government and what it today represents is of paramount importance to the
welfare of the world in general and to our people in particular," it said. "We
deem it hardly necessary, in view of the untarnished record of Negro Americans
(in previous wars), to reaffirm our loyalty to Our Country and our readiness to
win this war. We wish to use our every endeavor to keep all of these 12 million
people at the highest pitch, not simply of passive loyalty, but of active,
enthusiastic and self-sacrificing participation in the war."
The resolution maintained, however, that loyalty was a two-way street, that the
government needed to take immediate steps to remedy injustices if it wanted
their unmitigated support. Today, it said, "justifiable grievances of the
colored people are producing not disloyalty, but an amount of unrest and
bitterness which even the best efforts of their leaders may not be always able
to guide, unless they can have the active and sympathetic cooperation of the
National and State governments." And it concluded:
The American Negro does not expect to have the whole Negro problem
settled immediately; he is not seeking to hold up a striving country and a
distracted world by pushing irrelevant personal grievances as a price of
loyalty; he is not disposed to catalogue, in this tremendous crisis, all his
complaints and disabilities; he is more than willing to do his full share in
helping to win the war for democracy and he expects his full share of the
fruits thereof -- but he is today compelled to ask for that minimum of
consideration which will enable him to be an efficient fighter for
victory . . .
The "minimum of consideration" was spelled out in the 14-point "Bill of
Particulars" that the editors crafted. Heading the list of demands was a
federal law against lynching. Another demand dealing with the hanging of blacks
was presidential pardons for the 61 African-American troops convicted in the
Houston riot of 1917. Sixteen of them faced the death penalty.
Eight of the 14 demands dealt with better treatment of or increased
opportunities for blacks in the military. The first was allowing blacks who
wanted to serve to enlist rather than be at the mercy of the draft. The second
was allowing African-Americans to become sailors instead of just cooks in the
Navy. The third was ensuring that blacks in the Army could be in combat units
rather than being limited to stevedore or other labor units. The fourth was
hiring African-American nurses to care for wounded or sick black troops. The
fifth was increasing the number of black physicians beyond the few dozen already
in the service.
The sixth was expanding the ranks of the approximately 700 black Army officers.
The seventh was the lifting of an unspoken prohibition on promotion of all but a
token number of black officers into the field grades -- the ranks of major,
lieutenant colonel and colonel. The eighth was the recalling to active duty of
Colonel Charles Young, who had been the highest-ranking black in the Army. He
had been forcibly retired for supposed health problems in the spring of 1918
after Southern white officers had threatened to refuse to take orders from
Two of the editors' demands dealt with press coverage of blacks in the
military. One was that black reporters be allowed to cover African-American
soldiers at home and abroad. The other -- a two-pronged demand -- was ironic in
that it flew in the face of press freedom. The first prong was that the
government take steps to prevent white newspapers from running derogatory
stories about black troops -- stories suggesting, for example, that blacks
should not be allowed in certain roles, such as artillery officer, because they
were not smart enough. The second prong was that the government persuade white
newspapers to mention blacks' contributions in previous wars.
The editors' final two demands were for an end to Jim Crow practices in public
transportation and for a loan to Liberia, the financially strapped African
nation founded by freed American slaves, which had recently joined the war on
the Allies' side.
Conference organizers were pleased with the editors' pledge to try to persuade
African-Americans to become enthusiastic supporters of the war effort, even
though the editors had tied the pledge to the administration's addressing their
14 demands. "This was the kind of commitment that the organizers had hoped
for, and the fact that it came from the pen of DuBois, the most influential of
the radical black editors, was all the more gratifying," Mark Ellis noted.
Creel told Wilson that the conference was "all that we could have wished for in
the way of support and understanding," and Baker assured the president that the
gathering meant that the "influence of the Negro press is going to be
sounder." Spingarn reported to his superiors in the Military Intelligence
Bureau that the "moderate" demands the editors had raised could be addressed
"without fundamental social readjustments."
The black editors also appeared satisfied with the conference. Spingarn told
his superiors they were "pleased at having been taken into the confidence of the
Government and asked for advice and cooperation." The Washington Bee
editorialized: "That much good will eventuate from that conference there is not
a particle of doubt in the minds of those who were parties to it and who know
and understand the signs of the times." Military Intelligence officials
noted that some editors who before the conference had beat the drum of racial
injustice but had been reluctant to support the war effort took a more balanced
approach afterward. The conference had a "salutary effect" in particular on
J.E. Mitchell of the St. Louis Argus, one intelligence official said. Mitchell
returned home convinced that he had a responsibility not just to continue
pointing out injustices but also to try to keep black morale high during the
Government steps to address editors' demands
The editors became even more euphoric than at the wrapup of the conference when
the government moved swiftly to address some of their 14 demands. Although he
declined to seek a federal law against lynching, as the editors had wanted,
Wilson did the next best thing: He brought the moral force of the presidency to
bear on the issue by publicly condemning vigilante hangings. He responded to
the editors' demand for presidential clemency for 61 of the black soldiers
convicted in the Houston riot by reducing the sentences of 10 soldiers from
death to life imprisonment. Although it fell far short of clemency for all, the
black community considered Wilson's move of commutation for some an important
Wilson's administration addressed the editors' demand that black journalists be
allowed access to African-American military units at home and abroad by issuing
war-correspondent credentials to Ralph Tyler, a newspaper man from Columbus,
Ohio, who had once been a Navy Department auditor. Although he arrived at
the battlefront in France only six weeks before the armistice, Tyler was able to
write several stories about the fighting that black troops saw. The
administration also agreed to the demand that it hire black nurses to care for
injured or sick black soldiers, although by the end of the war it had deployed
only a handful of them. In addition, it returned Colonel Young to active
duty, although this happened less than two weeks before the war was over.
Of the demands that the government acted on, lynching was the most important to
African-Americans. A lynching law would have been a real civil rights
advancement for blacks because federal enforcement would have brought to justice
many lynchers whom state prosecutors in the South would have refused to bring
charges against. Introducing or supporting federal legislation would have
alienated so many Southern politicians that it would have been political suicide
for Wilson, however. And it would have been impossible to get such a bill
through Congress anyway. Southerners would have filibustered it until it died
-- as they did twice when such legislation was introduced after Wilson left
Even a presidential condemnation of lynching carried with it the risk of
eroding Wilson's Southern power base. That is why he had hesitated when two of
his cabinet members -- Newton Baker and Attorney General Thomas W. Gregory --
pressed him shortly before the black editors conference to issue such a
denunciation. But Baker, Creel, Scott and others in his administration
convinced him after the gathering that he needed to do something dramatic to
reach out to the black community so the editors at the conference would not feel
they had been double-crossed. The dilemma was how to reach out without
alienating Southern politicians.
Wilson came up with an ingenious -- although duplicitous -- solution. It
revolved around the fact that on April 4 a mob in Collinsville, Illinois, had
lynched a naturalized German-American named Robert P. Prager whom the mob had
believed was a German sympathizer. The circumstances of the lynching -- a
white victim in a Northern state for the alleged offense of treason -- were so
unusual that it had received wide coverage in the mainstream press. Knowing
that the Prager lynching would be on Americans' minds even three months after it
had occurred, Wilson decided to issue an anti-lynching declaration that omitted
race. Whites would interpret the declaration as a response to a white lynching,
blacks as a response to black lynching, he figured. He was so sure that the
denunciation would please both whites and blacks, without offending either, that
he asked for maximum advance publicity about it. He issued the
declaration on July 26. It was eloquent:
I say plainly that every American who takes part in the action of a mob or
gives it any sort of countenance is no true son of this great democracy,
but its betrayer, and does more to discredit her by that single disloyalty
to her standards of right than the words of her statesmen or the sacrifices
of her heroic boys in the trenches can do to make suffering peoples
believe her to be their savior. How shall we commend democracy to the
acceptance of other peoples if we disgrace our own by proving that it is,
after all, no protection to the weak? . . . I therefore very earnestly and
solemnly beg that the governors of all the states, the law officers of every
community, and, above all, the men and women of every community in the
United States, all who revere America and wish to keep her name without stain
or reproach, will cooperate -- not passively merely, but
actively and watchfully -- to make an end of this disgraceful evil."
The initial reaction of the editors who had attended the conference was
unqualified praise. Not only did their newspapers hail the declaration, but
they identified it as a tangible result of the conference. "President Wilson's
firm stand for law and order ranks with the finest of the great state papers
that have emanated from the White House and it has electrified the entire
country as it has seldom been thrilled before," the Chicago Defender said in a
Page 1 story. The declaration, which grew "directly out of the recent
conference of editors," promised to raise blacks' enthusiasm for the war effort
to new heights, the news story added. In an editorial the Defender
praised Wilson as the first president since Abraham Lincoln "who not only
realized that no country can long survive that makes of one citizen a man, of
the other a vassal, but has had the backbone to publicly denounce this
After it sunk in that Wilson had purposely equivocated on the issue of race in
the anti-lynching declaration, some black papers reined in their initial
exuberance. In an editorial entitled "The president's glancing blow," the
Washington Bee noted that the address's failure to mention race was likely to
prompt "the Negrophobes of Dixie" to contend that "the president had in mind the
lynchers of Germans and other alien enemies." Still, the Bee said, half a
loaf was better than none. "That President Wilson had the courage to hit mob
law in general as he did in his proclamation of last Friday is indeed a source
of much gratification to the loyal, persecuted black millions in the United
States," it said.
The black community's response to the anti-lynching declaration was so
favorable that Wilson followed it up the next month with the reduction of the
10 soldiers' death sentences -- the first time a president had commuted the
death sentences of such a sizable group at one time. Altogether, 29 of the
Houston soldiers had been sentenced to death in two courts-martial in which 45
of their comrades had been convicted of non-capital offenses. The 74
convictions in December of 1917 had angered the black community because the
soldiers went on the rampage only after weeks of harassment from Houston whites,
including police. Blacks' anger turned to fury when the Army hung 13 of the men
in February of 1918 without giving them a chance to appeal. Critics maintained
that the no-appeal provision was supposed to apply only to capital offenses
committed during military action.
The white philanthropist George Foster Peabody told Baker that blacks
considered the hangings nothing but legal lynchings. Since many in the
black community believed that the Houston civilians' harassment had justified
the soldiers' actions, Wilson's commutations in August of the sentences of 10 of
the 16 men who still faced execution were especially welcome. The gesture made
the hangings of the last six men in September a little easier to accept.
The president milked the commutations for all they were worth politically with
African-Americans by including in his commutation message a salute to black
fighting men. "I desire the clemency here ordered to be a recognition of the
splendid loyalty of the race to which these soldiers belong, and an inspiration
to the people of that race to further zeal and service to the country of which
they are citizens and for the liberty of which so many of them are now bravely
bearing arms at the very front of great fields of battle," he said.
Blacks had long resented the fact that whites had never acknowledged the
contributions of black soldiers. A tribute to African-American troops from a
president was momentous, and it was clear from their printed reactions that
Wilson's gesture touched black editors. The president's "acknowledgement of the
fact that 'so many' of our men are 'bravely bearing arms at the very front of
great fields of battle' causes us to think and feel that, after all, that 'world
democracy' for which the Allies are fighting includes the 'black phalanx' over
there in France who are grimly fighting, and heroically dying, and their kinsmen
over here, who are just as patriotically doing their bit at home," the
Washington Bee editorialized.
The commutation of the death sentences, with its praise of black fighting men,
would be the last overture Wilson would make toward blacks, however. He would
have no reason to make another. The war would be over in three months -- on
November 11, 1918 -- and he would no longer need the race's support. It
would be back to business as usual for him: Ignoring the black community,
wishing it would go away. Blacks who had hoped that Wilson was changing
his stripes when he denounced lynching and commuted the soldiers' death
sentences would find themselves disappointed in the waning months of 1918. But
for the 4 1/2 months between the editors' conference and the end of the war, the
president's star was on the rise with the black community.
W.E.B. DuBois's loss of credibility
While Wilson's star was rising, W.E.B. DuBois's was falling. The chain of
events that led to DuBois's credibility being shattered began when Major Joel
Spingarn persuaded DuBois in early June of 1918 to apply for a military
commission so the two could work together again -- this time in the Army's
Military Intelligence Bureau. The intelligence section that Spingarn headed
was tasked with scrutinizing the black community for signs of subversion. It
was one of a number of such sections during the war that watched every major
American ethnic group. A key focus of these sections' efforts was scrutiny of
the ethnic press. An enthusiastic supporter of the U.S. war effort, Spingarn
had lobbied upon entering the Army for a job in intelligence because he felt
that, from that base, he could help blacks make civil rights gains during the
war. He wanted DuBois to help him. So, on June 4, two weeks before the editors
conference, he asked DuBois to apply for a commission.
DuBois went into the editors' conference with an eye toward securing the
commission, which he applied for three days after the gathering, on June
24. The fact that DuBois steered the other editors toward a pledge to
rally readers round the war effort was a factor in the Army's decision to offer
him the commission. Another was the famous "Close Ranks" editorial, which
appeared in the last few days of June in the July-dated edition of the
Crisis. In contrast to the resolution at the editors conference, which
had said that blacks would participate wholeheartedly in the war if specific
grievances were addressed immediately, "Close Ranks" said blacks should hold
their grievances until the war was over:
That which the German power represents today spells death to the
aspirations of Negroes and all darker races for equality, freedom and
democracy. Let us not hesitate. Let us, while this war lasts, forget our
special grievances and close our ranks shoulder to shoulder with our own
white fellow citizens and the allied nations that are fighting for democracy.
We make no ordinary sacrifice, but we make it gladly and willingly with our
eyes lifted to the hills.
The accommodationist editorial from the race's most respected radical stunned
the black community. African-Americans were unable to understand why he would
change his long-held position that there be equality now. Then the news
surfaced in early July that the Army was ready to offer DuBois the commission --
and many blacks' confusion over "Close Ranks" turned to rage. DuBois,
they charged, had written the editorial to curry favor with the Wilson
administration so he could obtain the commission. The fury was so great that in
late July the War Department withdrew the offer of the commission.
DuBois denied selling out, but many blacks never believed him. The loss of
credibility from "Close Ranks" dogged him the rest of his life. It also led to
a splintering of the militant wing of the civil rights movement, with younger
men such as Marcus Garvey and A. Philip Randolph attracting followers DuBois had
had. The splintering prevented the movement from being focused enough in
the 1920s and 1930s to achieve gains for the race, some of DuBois's detractors
said. Viewed from this perspective, the "Close Ranks" affair was not only
a setback for DuBois personally but for the civil rights movement as a whole.
It would not be until after World War II that the movement would galvanize again
around one leader -- Martin Luther King Jr. -- in a way that would lead to
significant progress for the race.
Not only did the July 1918 editors conference play a role in splintering the
civil rights movement, in terms of concrete gains for blacks, it yielded
nothing. The editors had demanded in their Bill of Particulars the passage of a
federal law against lynching, which would have been a formidable weapon in
combating the problem. Instead they got Wilson's denunciation of lynching.
Although this was a moral victory, the president never again denounced lynching,
and the toll from vigilante hangings soared to 70 in 1919. Nor did the black
editors succeed in realizing the other significant civil rights demand in the
Bill of Particulars that applied to blacks in civilian life as opposed to
military life: an end to Jim Crow practices in public transportation.
Although the conference failed to produce concrete civil rights results, it had
an important psychological impact on the editors. The fact that the government
had convened an extraordinary three-day gathering to woo them made them realize
how much clout they had with the black community and how important they were in
shaping black public opinion. That power was so potent that it had forced a
president -- from the South yet -- to reach out to them. Realization that they
had this kind of power made them more determined than ever to be forceful in
leading the charge toward civil rights.
Most of the press not only returned to denouncing injustices with ardor, but
also began exhorting blacks to defend themselves when whites attacked.
Reflecting African-Americans' delight with the new press militancy, circulation
of black publications grew even faster after the war than during the conflict.
"Assessing the new militancy that prevailed in the press, the Justice Department
found a 'dangerous spirit of defiance and vengeance at work among the Negro
leaders, and, to an ever-increasing extent, among their followers . . .'"
That militancy would continue during World War II. Black editors had learned
that cooperating with the government by moderating their denunciations of
injustices during wartime had yielded the race nothing. They would not repeat
that mistake in the next war.
Daniel R. Beaver, Newton D. Baker and the American War Effort 1917-1919
(Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1966), 224.
 Charles Flint Kellogg, NAACP: A History of the National Association for
the Advancement of Colored People (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press ,1967),
 Ibid, 221-27, 260-62.
 Robert L. Jack, History of the National Association for the Advancement of
Colored People (Boston: Meador Press,1943), 54.
William Jordan, "'The Damnable Dilemma': African-American Accommodation and
Protest during World War I," Journal of American History (March 1995), 1580.
Mark Ellis, "'Closing Ranks' and 'Seeking Honors': W.E.B. DuBois in World War
I," Journal of American History (June 1992), 108-9, 119-22.
 Ibid, 99.
 Jordan, "Damnable Dilemma,"1562.
 Ellis, "Closing Ranks," 98.
 Jane Lang Scheiber and Harry N. Scheiber, "The Wilson Administration and
the Wartime Mobilization of Black Americans, 1917-18,"Labor History (Summer
 Ibid, 458.
 Mark Ellis, "America's Black Press, 1914-1918," History Today (September
Theodore Kornweibel Jr., Federal surveillance of Afro-Americans (1917-1925):
The First World War, the Red scare, and the Garvey movement (Frederick, Md.:
University Publications of America, 1985).
 Scheiber and Scheiber, "Wartime Mobilization of Black Americans," 433-58.
 David Levering Lewis, W.E.B. DuBois: Biography of a Race, 1868-1919 (New
York: Henry Holt and Company, Inc., 1993).
 Ellis, "America's Black Press," 26.
Jean Lange Folkerts, "Robert S. Abbott," Dictionary of Literary Biography:
American Newspaper Journalists, 1926-1950 (Detroit: Gale Research, 1990), 15;
Theodore Kornweibel Jr., "'The most dangerous of all Negro journals': Federal
Efforts to Suppress the Chicago Defender During World War I," American
Journalism (Spring 1994), 163.
 The Justice Department issued a report on October, 1919, on the threat to
public order from what it considered radical publications. The section on the
black press, "Radicalism and Sedition Among the Negroes as Reflected in Their
Publications," mentioned how articulate many black editors were. The citation
on the report's reference to the black press: "Investigation Activities of the
Department of Justice," 66th Congress, 1st Session, Senate Document XII (May
19-November 19, 1919), 161-187.
 "Secretary Baker's Letter," Washington Bee (22 December 1917), 4.
Ellis, "America's Black Press," 24.
 Ibid, 20.
 Ibid, 22.
 Beaver, Newton D. Baker, 224.
 Scheiber and Scheiber, "Wartime Mobilization of Black Americans," 434.
 Ibid, 434-5.
 Jack, History of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored
People, 47-50; Kellogg, NAACP: A History, 199-205.
"Hobson is right," Washington Bee (11 August 1917), 4.
 Scheiber and Scheiber, "Wartime Mobilization of Black Americans," 441.
Emmett J. Scott, The American Negro in the World War (Chicago: Emmett J.
Scott,1919), 101-2, 429-30.
 Scheiber and Scheiber, "Wartime Mobilization of Black Americans," 450.
 Ibid, 439-40.
 The race question was blacks' demand for equality.
 "Secretary Baker's Letter," 4.
 Ellis, "America's Black Press," 25.
Kornweibel, "The most dangerous", 155-58.
 Ellis, "America's Black Press, 26.
 Beaver, Newton D. Baker, 229.
Ellis, "Closing Ranks,"102.
 Lewis, W.E.B. DuBois: Biography, 552.
 Ellis, "Closing Ranks," 108.
 Ellis, "America's Black Press," 24.
 Scott's task in his War Department job was to make the enlistment,
training and deployment of black troops as smooth as possible. The former
secretary of Booker T. Washington visited U.S. bases where blacks were
stationed, investigated charges of mistreatment of black troops, and took action
under Baker's auspices against draft boards in the South that discriminated
against black registrants. The overarching goal of his efforts was to ensure
black soldiers' support of the war. It was an important task, given that
367,000 African-Americans would be in uniform before the war was over, 13
percent of the strength of U.S. forces.
 Ellis, "America's Black Press," 24.
"Colored Editors,"Washington Bee (6 July 1918), 1.
 Beaver, Newton D. Baker, 224.
 Scheiber and Scheiber, "Wartime Mobilization of Black Americans," 451.
 Henry Blumenthal, "Woodrow Wilson and the Race Question," Journal of
Negro History (January 1963), 1-22.
Ellis, "America's Black Press," 23.
 The examples are a few of the hundreds that appeared in The Washington Bee
in the 18 months after the United States declared war on Germany in April of
 Jordan, "'Damnable Dilemma," 1576.
 The Washington Bee , for example, ran several such stories between 1916
Ray Stannard Baker,Woodrow Wilson: Life & Letters. Armistice. March
1-November 11, 1918. (New York: Doubleday, Doran & Company, Inc., 1939),
 Lewis,W.E.B. DuBois: Biography, 511-12.
 Ibid, 554.
 "Colored Editors,"1.
 Harry Amana, "A. Philip Randolph,"Dictionary of Literary Biography:
American Magazine Journalists, 1900-1960 (Detroit: Gale Research, 1990), 272,
Ellis, "America's Black Press," 24.
 "Colored Editors," 1.
 Scheiber and Scheiber, "Wartime Mobilization of Black Americans," 450.
 Elliott M. Rudwick,W.E.B. DuBois: A Study in Minority Group Leadership
(Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1960), 203.
 "Address to the Committee on Public Information," Records of the Military
Intelligence Division, National Archives, Records Group 165, File 10218-154, 21
 "Bill of Particulars to Be Submitted Privately to Bureau Heads in
Washington," Records of the Military Intelligence Division, National Archives,
Records Group 165, File 10218-154, 21 June 1918.
 Kellogg, NAACP: A History , 260-62.
"Bill of Particulars, 21 June 1918.
Ellis, "America's Black Press," 25.
 Jordan, "Damnable Dilemma,"1576.
 Ellis, "America's Black Press," 25.
 "The Conference of Colored Men,"Washington Bee (13 July 1918), 4.
 Ellis, "America's Black Press," 26.
Scott,The American Negro in the War, 284-99.
 The Washington Dee was among the black newspapers that published all of
Tyler's stories from France.
 Scott,The American Negro in the War, 448-51.
 Kellogg, NAACP: A History,258.
Jack, History of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored
 Ibid, 456-57.
 Baker,Woodrow Wilson: Life & Letters, 72.
 Ibid, 289.
"Mob action,"Washington Bee, 3 August 1918, 1.
 "Editors Conference Yields Big Results," Chicago Defender, 3 August 1918,
 "Our President Has Spoken," Chicago Defender, 3 August 1918, 6.
"The President's Glancing Blow,"Washington Bee, 3 August 1918, 4.
 Kellogg, NAACP: A History , 260-2.
 Beaver, Newton D. Baker, 228-9.
 Kellogg, NAACP: A History, 260-2.
"Inchin' Along," Washington Bee (14 September 1918), 4.
 Scheiber and Scheiber, "Wartime Mobilization of Black Americans," 450.
 Kellogg, NAACP: A History , 155-82.
Lewis, W.E.B. DuBois: Biography, 552.
 DuBois secretly took a military physical on June 15, four days before the
editors conference started, according to David Levering Lewis on Page 555 of
W.E.B. DuBois: Biography of a Race, 1868-1919.
 Ellis, "Closing Ranks,"108.
 Ibid, 108-9.
W.E.B. DuBois, "Close Ranks," Crisis, July 1918, 111.
 Rudwick,W.E.B. DuBois: A Study, 203-4.
 Lewis,W.E.B. DuBois: Biography, 560.
 Jordan, "'Damnable Dilemma," 1583.
 Ellis, "Closing Ranks,"120-22.
Scheiber and Scheiber, "Wartime Mobilization of Black Americans," 458.
 Ellis, "Closing Ranks," 123.