Civil Rights Near the Turn of the Century

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What were W.E.B Du Bois' major arguments for advancing civil rights during World War I?

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World War I gave added impetus to Du Bois' ideas. He saw the conflict as having potentially revolutionary consequences for black empowerment. Controversially, he argued that this should be done by African-Americans putting aside their very real grievances and throwing themselves into the war effort as loyal, patriotic Americans.

However, Du Bois became deeply disillusioned by the outcome of the war. On the domestic front, progress by the Wilson Administration on the issue of civil rights was slow to non-existent. In fact, one could argue that the cause of civil rights suffered a serious setback during this time, with the resurgent Ku Klux Klan becoming ever more politically influential and with racial segregation of the Federal government very much the order of the day. Du Bois came to regret his initial enthusiasm for the war, especially after senior white officers in the American army openly questioned the bravery and effectiveness of African-American troops.

Du Bois set out to put the record straight in The Black Man and the Wounded World, a projected vindication of African-American involvement in World War I, but which was never published. Du Bois was becoming more radical in his ideas, yet still found it hard to reconcile his identity as a black man with his status as an American citizen. This dichotomy, which formed the central thread of Du Bois' life and work, was never fully resolved, as Du Bois himself ruefully admitted. Instead, he lamented how his experience of the War—and the similar experiences of countless African-Americans—had made it impossible for his soul, his conflicted soul, to find refuge anywhere.

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The arguments made by Du Bois regarding the furthering of civil rights in the United States during the period of World War I were not substantially different from those provided both before and after the Great War.  Du Bois, however, did accelerate his interest in Pan-Africanism in the decade beginning at the end of World War I.

Du Bois argued that for Africans to be free anywhere, they must be free everywhere.  In saying this, Du Bois suggests that the push for civil rights can only work if the perspective of the leaders of the movement extended beyond American boundaries.  In 1920, Du Bois traveled to Europe at the time of the Peace Conference to call for a new Pan-African Conference.  While it proved not as successful as he was hoping, it does illustrate where a focus of his argument for civil rights lay.

During the First World War, Du Bois also targeted his arguments at the reality of war.  He focused his attention on those who went off to fight.  He pushed for the formation of officer schools to train Black officers, for a stronger stance against lynching, and for the establishment of an employment program for returning Black servicemen.  Since Blacks were going to war and were serving their country in the same way as their White counterpart, they should be afforded greater rights.

Du Bois realized that the pursuit of civil rights was not purely an American concern.  If anything, American experience in World War I clearly illustrated how connected the world truly was at the time.  Du Bois extends this idea to his attitude toward civil rights.

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