Published in Chicago in 1918 by Charles Gustrine, this CPI poster shows African American soldiers
slaughtering the Huns beneath a benevolent portrait of Abraham Lincoln and the quote "Liberty and
Freedom Shall Not Perish. " Yet, at the time of this poster, black soldiers were segregated and faced
discrimination and often violence after completing their service and returning to their homes.
Their President's record on race relations was not very good, either. When Wilson was elected, he
fired most of the African Americans who held federal posts and segregated the Navy, which until
then had been desegregated. During Wilson's first term in office, the House passed a law making
racial intermarriage a felony in the District of Columbia and his Washington offices were segregated,
with the those of the Treasury and Navy soon following suit.
Wilson had to deal with a new generation of African American leaders, men such as William Monroe
Trotter, W.E.B. Du Bois and Marcus Garvey, and the results were not always pleasant, although the
media did a good job of spin control. When Wilson allowed segregated government offices, the
National Independent Political League's William Monroe Trotter led a delegation which protested this
policy. Wilson's explanation that "segregation was caused by friction between the colored and white
clerks, and not done to injure or humiliate the colored clerks" did not satisfy Trotter. Trotter was
thrown out of the White House and he stood on the White House lawn afterward and held a press
conference detailing what had just taken place.
W.E.B. Du Bois had been influenced by pro-war forces and supported America's entry into war.
Yet, when black workers began moving north to work in the big war factories, they were not
welcomed, and race riots broke out in cities. A riot in St. Louis in 1917 left 100 blacks and eight
whites dead or severely beaten. Another incident took place in Houston when members of the 24th
infantry tried to challenge some of the city’s Jim Crow laws. A fight erupted between some of the
black soldiers and white civilians which left several people dead. The government tried sixty of the
soldiers in late 1917 and thirteen received the death penalty and forty-one life imprisonment. The
thirteen were hanged a month later. Subsequent trials brought more convictions and more death
sentences and the media attributed the racial unrest to "German propaganda".
In 1986, the National Archives released previously classified information detailing the surveillance of
African-Americans during World War I by the U.S. Army’s Military Intelligence Division. Many
facts came to light regarding the government's activities under Wilson. African-Americans were
singled out for special attention by the Four Minute Men and organized into a separate division
because the CPI worried that African-Americans lacked loyalty and were particularly "vulnerable to
German propaganda". In fact, the concern about "black radicalism" was strong enough that the
government created a military intelligence unit under the direction of Major Walter Loving who
cooperated with the CPI. Together they produced a strategy of manipulating blacks. Loving tried to
recruit prominent blacks to support the war and threatened and intimidated those who expressed
"radical or anti-war views". The CPI disseminated propaganda geared for the black press and put
intense pressure their leaders. Creel held a three-day conference in Washington for black newspaper
editors and commended them for their important service. Legal action was threatened against editors
and their papers who did not fall in line quickly enough. The war needed bodies, and it did not matter
of they were black or white.
Wilson told black leaders that, "The purpose of these measures was to reduce the friction. It is as far
as possible from being a movement against the Negroes. I sincerely believe it to be in their interest."
But Wilson was a born southerner and held deep views on the superiority of his own race.
D.W. Griffith quoted Wilson in his 1915 epic 'The Birth of a Nation': “The white men were roused
by a mere instinct of self preservation… until at last there had sprung into existence a great Ku Klux
Klan, a veritable empire of the South, to protect the Southern country” (from Wilson's “A History of
the American People”). The Klan soared in popularity soon afterward. Wilson believed white
southerners to be the only legitimate citizens and expressed fears of what might occur in a south
“ruled by an ignorant and inferior race.”