When war mobilization intensified in early 1918 it was by no means obvious that the nation’s African American citizens would fall in line and support the war effort. Violence against black Americans was ubiquitous. Just the year before, the slaughter of hundreds in East St. Louis by whites who resented competition over jobs had sent shock waves through the country. Race relations worsened the following month over the Camp Logan Mutiny and subsequent court martials and executions of black soldiers. This “rich man’s war, poor man’s fight” seemed especially unattractive to many African Americans who saw no point in fighting for other people's liberty and safety when they had neither at home. Speaking just as much to white Americans as the black community, W.E.B. DuBois, perhaps the most respected African American of his day, made his stance clear in the now famous editorial "Closing Ranks" : commit to the war, and keep “eyes to the hills” for the elusive benefits that must surely follow after.
Text of "Closing Ranks" (W.E.B. DuBois)
This is the crisis of the world. For all the long years to come men will point to the year 1918 as the great Day of Decision, the day when the world decided whether it would submit to military despotism and an endless armed peace—if peace it could be called—or whether they would put down the menace of German militarism and inaugurate the United States of the World.
We of the colored race have no ordinary interest in the outcome. 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 to the hills.
Source: W.E.B. Du Bois, Crisis, July 1918, p. 111
DuBois, W.E.B. (1903) The Souls of Black Folk: Essays and Sketches. Chicago: A.C. McClurg & Co.
Keith, Jeanette (2004) Rich Man's War, Poor Man's Fight: Race, Class, and Power in the Rural South during the First World War. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press.
Lewis, David Levering (1993) W.E.B. Du Bois, 1868-1919: Biography of a Race. New York: Henry Holt and Company, LLC.
Locke, Alain (ed) (1925) The New Negro. New York: Albert and Charles Boni.
Lumpkins, Charles L. (2008) American Pogrom: The East St. Louis Race Riot and Black Politics. Athens: Ohio University Press.
Moore, Jacqueline M. (2003) Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois, and the Struggle for Racial Uplift. African American History Series, Vol. 1. Wilmington: Scholarly Resources, Inc.
Smith, C.C. (1991) “The Houston Riot of 1917, Revisited”. The Houston Review, 13, pp.85-102.