A comparative analysis of the role of war veterans in the American Civil Rights movement and the French West African independence movements

 

In the areas of the American Civil Rights movement and the West African colonies’ struggles for independence, there has been a vast amount written on the role of war veterans, usually treated as a fraction of the larger movements. African historian Fred Cooper (2002) tends to focus on the role played by labour unions, with veterans unions included to some extent. Other scholarship focuses its attention on the wartime experiences of African soldiers in France. Perhaps the most famous historian of African participation in World War II is Myron Echenberg, who aimed his study at illuminating the previously neglected massive participation of Africans in the French military during World War II (1985). In US scholarship, attention is paid largely to troop segregation as part of a larger trend of scholarship on segregation and southern violence during the Civil Rights era. There is currently little attention paid to a cross-comparative analysis of the Civil Rights movement in the US and the nationalist movements in African colonies, especially with special consideration of war veterans’ roles. My aim is thus to explore the similarities and differences between the struggles of African and African American war veterans to gain their political demands after the wars. Despite a few fundamental differences between African war veterans’ struggles for political rights in French West Africa and African American war veterans’ fight for equal civil rights in the US, I argue that their experiences were more similar than different.

 

Perhaps the most well-documented example, the experience of African Americans in the US military was fundamentally similar to that of African conscripts in the service of the French forces in the racism both groups faced within the military structures, although discrimination in the US and French militaries took on slightly different forms. In his account of the experiences of African soldiers fighting in France during World War II, Echenberg portrays the French army as relatively free from racism, especially in comparison to their German enemies. He later, however, describes De Gaulle’s process of blanchissement, or ‘whitening’ of the French army as the war was ending with France on the side of the victors. African soldiers who had survived the brutal battles and French winters were quickly replaced with newly-graduated French soldiers at the moment of victory, under the pretence that France’s African soldiers were ill-equipped to continue fighting through the winter of 1944; stripped of their weapons and uniforms, many spent the winter suffering in the south of France with little clothing and provisions (Echenberg, 1985, p. 374). Perhaps far from his overt intention, this blanchissement of the military by De Gaulle was racist in two ways. First, De Gaulle’s excuse that Africans were not physically capable of surviving the cold winter reveals his scientific racism, which is especially unfounded considering the winters African soldiers had previously survived in France. Second, the purpose of ‘whitening’ the army at the moment of victory was a political move to downplay France’s dependence on its colonies for military recruits and promote the idea that white Frenchmen had liberated France from German occupation. With this policy, African soldiers who had fought in France for several years were almost instantly robbed of their military pride and their moment of glory, a circumstance that did not go unnoticed by those discarded soldiers.

In a similar vein, although differing slightly in their explicit treatment within the US armed forces, African American soldiers also experienced structural racism. Williams follows the post-World War I careers in political activism of three African American former officers and soldiers. While their education levels and backgrounds differed, they all experienced racist practices within the US military during World War I that shaped their post-war attitudes. Black soldiers in the US army were immediately separated into segregated troops, received sub-par training, and trained and often served under racist white officers from the South. Following training, they overwhelmingly served in labour divisions, digging trenches during World War I (Williams, 2007, p. 350-1). Like their African counterparts, African American soldiers were implicitly slighted by being resigned to that work which the US military judged them the best equipped for: physical labour. In addition, institutionalised segregation mirrored the segregation they experienced in their civilian lives, despite their new positions in the US army as defenders of Woodrow Wilson’s ideals of freedom and equality. Their insufficient training meant that they were largely incapable of proper organisation, resulting in poor, not to mention tragic, combat results. Despite the service they provided their country, they, like the Africans fighting for the French, experienced continued racism once they returned home after periods of war.

 

The racism felt within the militaries reflected larger racial hypocrisies of French colonial and American societies; these hypocrisies between government-issued rhetoric of racial equality and the daily reality of discrimination were a catalyst for political mobilization of veterans. In the propaganda and rhetoric of the Allies, racism, discrimination, and inequality was explicitly linked to German Nazism and fascism. Despite this linkage, the US and France exhibited discriminatory practices against their respective black citizens and African subjects. In French West Africa, the first groups of soldiers returning home from service in France encountered a very slow process of repatriation. Instead of receiving their back-pay and being released from duty, African servicemen were held at Camp Thiaroye in Dakar, Senegal, and denied their benefits. Citing unfair and discriminatory practices on the part of the authoritarian and hypocritical French military officers, a protest ensued during which French guards opened fire and killed thirty-five African soldiers, injuring many more (Echenberg, 1985, p. 376). African American soldiers experienced similar discrepancies in their military benefits after the major 20th century wars. Following the Vietnam War in the 1960s and 1970s, black soldiers, well-known to have represented a disproportionate number of war draftees and an equally disproportionate percentage of those killed in action at the front of the US lines, often did not receive the benefits promised them under the G.I. Bill. By 1973, 25 percent of African American veterans had received their education benefits, compared to the almost 50 percent of white veterans who had received their benefits (Boulton, 2007/2008, p. 57). The uneven treatment of veterans in both the French army and the US forces was perhaps the single biggest impetus towards veterans’ political mobilization after the war.

 

While not explicitly linked to wartime experiences, new concepts of racial identities were introduced and popularized during the interwar period between World War I and World War II; in French West Africa, the idea of negritude was promoted in a similar light as the concept of the “New Negro” in the US. Following World War I, the idea of the “New Negro” in the US was characterized by a radical racial militancy informed by experiences of black migration, an increasingly global consciousness, and disillusionment from the hypocritical rhetoric from the war. The “New Negro” was fundamentally different from the “Old Negro” in that the “New Negro” was far more militant and radical, rejecting the perceived submissiveness of the older generation of black activist leaders (Williams, 2007, p. 348). While fundamentally different, negritude developed at roughly the same time as the “New Negro” and also drew on the idea of a diasporic consciousness that sought to connect blacks globally. Developed by Senegalese-born, Paris-educated Léopold Sédar Senghor in collaboration with Aimé Césare, negritude rejected the dualism inherent in the colonial system in favour of a cultural homogenization that valued African cultures without denouncing the colonial power (Cooper, 2002, p. 18-9). While both sought to empower blacks following increased exposure to international conditions throughout World War I and during the interwar period, the “New Negro” movement differed from negritude in that it sought rejection of white racist culture, as well as the more accommodating African American groups. People within this movement may have viewed Senghor’s negritude as too accommodating and lenient towards the colonial system, as the “New Negro” took a much more militant stance. Both negritude and the “New Negro” were promoted in their respective locales as part of the rhetoric and attitude of the political struggles of African reformists and African American civil rights proponents.

In pressing for increased equality and political rights, the plights of war veterans in France’s West African colonies and the US were often incorporated by other groups and institutions also demanding political rights; in this way, war veterans often became a sub-group of larger civil rights and independence movements. In outlining Guinea’s different and accelerated path towards independence compared to other former French colonies in West Africa, Schmidt argues that the main political party of Guinea, the local branch of the RDA, owed its successful demand for independence by mobilizing and incorporating groups that were already active in politics. War veterans as a generalized group were among those already demanding equality with metropolitan France, as they benefited from their position as a French colony (Schmidt, 2005, p. 1002). War veterans were one of the groups that were able to use the French idea of universalism to demand equality; in the case of veterans, they demanded equal pay as French veterans and benefited from remaining a colony as long as France was paying their wages, an idea we will return to shortly. The RDA mobilized groups already involved in politics, like war veterans demanding equality, towards the RDA’s political aims of demanding independence when individual groups’ demands for equality went unsatisfied. Moreover, to varying extents, groups such as the RDA were able to use the plights of ex-servicemen as part of their political mobilization efforts. In the former British colony of Ghana, politician Kwame Nkrumah successfully presented himself as a promoter of veterans’ claims and appealed to ex-servicemen to join the Convention People’s Party and fight for independence (Israel, 1992, p. 367).  Political parties and other labour unions thus attracted war veterans to their causes by highlighting and proliferating their unique wartime experiences and emphasizing their continued lack of equality under French rule to spur them to demand independence rather than equality.           

A similar thing occurred in the US, in which larger, pre-existing organizations attracted veterans to their cause, often with African American veterans in leadership roles. In his argument that military service was the biggest indicator of protest and activism for equal civil rights, Parker addresses the importance of “group-based resources” in black mobilization in the South, notably the church and fraternal groups such as the NAACP and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. These groups provided social support for war veterans, as well as feelings of group identification (Parker, 2009, p. 116). While still arguing that military service was more likely than not to dictate veterans’ level of risk in political activism, group identity within larger organizations played some role in mobilization and provided a wider platform for civil rights demands.

The key difference in this regard between the situation experienced in West Africa and that experienced in the US was that, in the US, there was less dissension over what the war veterans’ political aims were. In general, they joined with larger groups to demand an end to southern violence against blacks and full equality under the law. Except in the case of a few radical groups, such as the Black Panthers, most African American political groups demanded equality, not for a radical alternative to the existing government. In colonized West Africa, however, there was less uniformity in the demands of war veterans and the political institutions they became a part of. As we have seen, along with labour groups dependent on French companies and French government for their pay and benefits, war veterans generally demanded equality as French citizens rather than independence because of their French military pensions, working relationships forged with people in France, and their military discipline. There were groups, however, that did not demand equality under French universalism; one such group of war veterans formed the Mouvement Nationaliste Africain, which was the first group after the war to denounce imperialism and demand outright independence, although very unsuccessfully and without a large following (Chafer, 2002, p. 46). This is the most marked difference between the independence movements in West Africa and the Civil Rights movement in the US: the fundamental issue that African Americans were American citizens and therefore were more uniform in their demands, while Africans experienced a greater range of opinions, from those who benefited from French colonialism and sought reforms to those more radical elements who fought for immediate independence.

 

While pertaining to the broader struggles for civil rights, equality and independence, which included war veterans and other diverse participants, both African Americans and African colonial subjects utilized similar strategies to fight for their causes. Forms of activism on both sides of the Atlantic took on varying forms, including public protests, such as marches, and more low-risk forms, such as the publication of newspapers. Returning to the example of the former British colony that became independent Ghana, veterans in the Ex-serviceman’s Union organized a march to Christiansborg Castle in Accra in order to present a petition for reform to the Governor (Israel, 1992, p. 363). Coupled with a boycott of British businesses and swelled support from the public in Accra and surrounding cities, the ex-servicemen in Ghana utilized high-risk activism (a public march that risked a violent reaction, and resulted in such) to their advantage. Similarly, American war veterans, such as World War II ex-serviceman Hosea Williams was an organizer and leader in the famed march from Selma to Montgomery, a march believed to have had a massive effect on black voting rights under President Lyndon Johnson (Parker, 2009, p. 113).

Considered less of a high-risk form of activism, but equally as important, the publication of newspapers for a specific audience was a strategy used by war veterans in both the US and West Africa. The Mouvement Nationaliste Africain, while not successful in realizing their demands for independence immediately after World War II, did continue to publish their monthly journal, La Communauté, for several years before ending publication (Chafer, 2002, p. 77). In the US, World War I saw an explosion of black press outlets, with newspapers such as The Messenger joining older publications such as The Crisis, which additionally turned to more radical and militant overtones. Through these newspapers, black veterans were able to publicize and gain wider support for their experiences of racism during the war (Williams, 2007, p. 351). The use of newspapers as a way to proliferate the racial experiences of former servicemen and to emphasize their political demands for equality and/or independence was vital in both former West African colonies and the US.

 

One final consideration in the comparison between the civil rights struggle in the US and the equality and independence movements in colonized West Africa is the consistent role of international institutions and the global audience in aiding the struggles of war veterans and their broader activist groups against discrimination and inequality. Aiding the African American fight for equal civil rights in the US was aided largely by the propaganda circulated internationally in the Cold War ideological struggle between the US and the Soviet Union. In order to combat Soviet propaganda highlighting American hypocrisy of racism and inequality following two world wars fought on the basis of anti-imperialism and anti-discrimination, US politicians, including conservative presidents like Eisenhower, were obliged to concede to elements of the Civil Rights movement and publicized these concessions world-wide, such as the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education to end segregation in state education systems (Skrentny, 1998, p. 252). In the French West African colonies, the negative global attention attracted by incidents like the massacre at Camp Thiaroye prompted the French colonial administration to concede to some of the reformist political demands of veteran groups and other political activists in order to avoid similar incidents and more negative international attention. Following the protest and massacre at Thiaroye, returning African soldiers were quickly paid and returned to their points of origin, and other union groups took notice and were able to achieve more of their demanded reforms based on the colonial administration’s fear of more violence and bad press (Chafer, 2002, p. 46). While not specific to war veterans’ cause, the influence of international opinion can be considered one of the lasting effects of the world wars, and, as in the case of Camp Thiaroye, it was African veterans who set the precedent of being able to utilize imperialists’ fear of global opinion to achieve their aims.

 

In a comparison of the role of war veterans in the US Civil Rights movement and the independence and reformist movements in French West African colonies, there are far more ideological similarities than differences. Though fundamentally different in that Africans were colonial subjects whereas African Americans had already gained citizenship, the issues of racism, inequality, and discrimination were alike in both regions of the world at roughly the same time. The principles promoted during World War I and reinforced during World War II against racism and imperialism marked a similar development in blacks’ fight for equal rights and self-determination in both the US and Africa. A larger study might even reveal a similar trajectory in other places touched by imperialism. Far from isolated events in the US and Africa, the study of the use of wartime experiences, especially ideologies like racism, requires far more attention and will continue to demand cross-comparative analyses.

 

 

 

 

Boulton, M. (2007/2008). How the G.I. Bill Failed African-American Vietnam War Veterans. The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education 58, pp. 57-60.

 

Chafer, T. (2002). The End of Empire in French West Africa: France’s Successful Decolonization? Oxford: Berg.

 

Cooper, F. (2002). Africa Since 1940: The Past of the Present. New York: Cambridge University Press.

 

Echenberg, M. (1985). ‘Morts Pour la France’ : The African Soldier in France during the Second World War. The Journal of African History 26 (4), pp. 363-380.

 

Israel, A. (1992). Ex-servicemen at the Crossroads : Protest and Politics in Post-War Ghana. The Journal of Modern African Studies 30 (2), pp. 359-368.

 

Parker, C. (2009). When Politics Becomes Protest: Black Veterans and Political Activism in the Postwar South. The Journal of Politics 71 (1), pp. 113-131.

 

Schmidt, E. (2005). Top Down or Bottom Up? Nationalist Mobilization Reconsidered, with Special Reference to Guinea (French West Africa). The American Historical Review 110 (4), pp. 975-1014.

 

Skrentny, J.D. (1998). The Effect of the Cold War on African-American Civil Rights : America and the World Audience, 1945-1968. Theory and Society 27 (2), pp. 237-285.

 

Williams, C. (2007). Vanguards of the New Negro : African American Veterans and Post-World War I Racial Militancy. The Journal of African American History 92 (3), pp. 347-370.

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