In 1919, Black WWI veterans returned home to a segregated America. It didn't take long to realize that white Americans weren't going to welcome Black veterans with open arms. Instead, they faced discrimination, Jim Crow laws, and a summer of fury. The unrest that spread across the country led civil rights activist James Weldon Johnson to call it the "Red Summer."
The combination of the First Red Scare, labor strikes, and the demand for civil rights led white Americans to conclude that Black Americans were spreading communism. The military warned that Soviets and Black Americans were working together, and President Woodrow Wilson himself declared that Black veterans were a communist threat.
Rampant prejudice in America only escalated with the effects of the Red Summer of 1919. Fights and protests took place in many major cities, and hundreds of Black citizens suffered. The Red Summer shaped the civil rights movement for decades.
Black Soldiers Hoped Their Service Would Mean Better Treatment At Home
Black soldiers risked their lives abroad in WWI, while Black workers at home poured into factories to support the effort. But when the conflict ended, soldiers returned home to the same conditions as before they left. In late 1918, writer and civil rights activist James Weldon Johnson wondered if the fighting would improve the treatment of Black citizens in America.
Many in the Black community hoped the conflict might be a turning point for civil rights, and Johnson declared that the next few months would be a test of communal status. He said there were "many high hopes" that Black Americans would no longer be looked upon as inferior.
As Veterans Returned Home, They Faced Adversity
WWI racked up a total of 8.5 million casualties before weary veterans returned home. Although Black soldiers hoped to be recognized for their efforts, they faced adversity instead. In many states, Jim Crow laws kept Black veterans from living in white neighborhoods and limited their right to vote.
After risking their lives to protect democracy overseas, many found the situation at home unacceptable.
Veterans weren't the only ones angry. Black families who lost their husbands, sons, and fathers overseas expected better treatment. Instead, white Americans declared the Black community's demand for civil justice was nothing more than "social aspirations" and pride.
Activists Directly Tied Military Service To Civil Rights
In 1919, W.E.B. DuBois targeted prejudice in America with Returning Soldiers. In the essay, DuBois argued that Black soldiers fought for democracy abroad and did not deserve the poor treatment they received at home:
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.
As he described the discrimination leveled against the Black community, DuBois railed that, in America, it was not possible "for a Black man to exist without tacit or open acknowledgment of his inferiority to the dirtiest white dog."
The Military Believed The Soviets Were Helping Black Americans Plan An Uprising
After WWI ended, America's leadership worried that Black Americans were planning an uprising and that the Bolsheviks were funding them. President Woodrow Wilson received intelligence from his Secretary of War, Newton Baker, that warned, "Reports of the Military Intelligence Branch of the Army seem to indicate more unrest among [Black Americans] than in years."
A follow-up report claimed that a Soviet emissary had "been actively financing plans for an uprising."