Was World War One a key turning point in the changing geography of Civil Rights issues in the USA?

Throughout the civil rights movements several events caused black people to migrate around America, and civil rights issues moved with them.

This change began after the end of the Civil War in 1865, following the passing of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. This allowed black people to move freely across the USA. They began to move throughout the 1900s, and this movement continued to move the issues of civil rights throughout America.

The migration of black people during, and before, World War One can be deemed an important turning point in the changing geography of civil rights issues in the USA.  The increase of black Americans in the North led to competition for jobs, highlighting civil rights issues as white people and black people found themselves in close proximity to one another, breeding racial tension. Originally, black people moved to the North from the South to escape the lack of jobs. Although black people also sought to escape de jure segregation in the South, they faced de facto segregation in the North. In the South, the cotton industry had declined due to the presence of the Bull Weevil in Texas in 1914. It originated from Mexico, first appearing there in 1982. From 1920 to 1932, the price of cotton dropped from 42 to 5 cents due to lack of demand. Many sharecroppers were impacted and moved north, highlighting civil rights issues in the North, as black people were willing to work for less money than white people, creating racial tension.

World War One can still be deemed an important turning point in the changing geography of civil rights issues. The tensions caused by this particular migration during World War One can be seen in several examples of riots. The KKK were revived in 1915. In July 1917, a major race riot occurred in Illinois, which preceded the Red Summer. 48 black people were killed during this time and 300 buildings were destroyed. This highlights how civil rights issues were recognised during the migration of World War One, as competition for jobs led to increased racial tension and the outbreak of a riot. 

Black people began moving to the town of Harlem in New York City in 1905, and this proved to be the most significant turning point for the changing geography of civil rights issues. As black people were concentrated into one specific town, and aided each other by setting up workers unions for black people, this community explored issues of civil rights to a greater extent. This however, led to an increase in racial tension. This migration led to the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, which caused a growth and exploration in black culture. From 1920 to 1930, 87,000 black Americans moved to Harlem. Claude McKay declared it to be the ‘black capital of the world.’

People such as Marcus Garvey fought for black rights, establishing the United Negro Improvement Association in 1914, and he moved to Harlem from Jamaica to promote it. He established the idea that black was beautiful, and advocated the idea of self-help. A. Philip Randolph too demonstrates the significance of the move to, and concentration, of black people in Harlem. In order to combat black unemployment, Randolph set up the National Brotherhood of Workers of America. Due to de facto segregation, black people were barred from joining workers unions. By setting up his own union, Randolph ensured that black people had the opportunity to gain work, thus highlighting civil rights issues in the North.

Racial tension increased in Harlem, leading to a riot in 1943, in which 700 people were injured. The dispute was triggered due to poor resources that black people were afforded. Black schools were of poor quality and in terms of housing, 1979 out of 2191 houses had no windows.

Black people also demonstrated political power in Harlem, as their presence allowed for a black candidate to enter politics within the North, highlighting the changing geography of civil rights issues. Oscar De Priest was elected as a Representative of Illinois in 1929.

Another significant turning point in the changing geography of civil rights issues could be the slow drift back to the South beginning in the 1950s. In 1970, 53% of black people lived in the South. Black people began to flee the North due to high crime and a lack of jobs. Areas such as Florida and Texas, located in the ‘Sun Belt,’ offered jobs and employment which proved attractive to black Americans. The North east became known as the Rust Belt, an area of the USA associated with declining industry, after the oil crisis of 1973. Car manufacturing in Detroit also decreased, with the number of firms and employers halving from 1947 to 1977. Initially, black people fled the South due to racism and violence, which was now fast occurring in the North. This changing geography of black people highlights the changing movement of civil rights issues. The move back to the South implies that the civil rights movement was effective to an extent in the South.

In conclusion, the most significant turning point in the changing geography of civil rights issues was the move to Harlem in 1905, which laid the foundations for the Harlem Renaissance, and establishment of a distinct, black culture. As black people formed a united, concentrated group, they were able to find work and even enter into politics.[1]

Thanks for reading!


[1] All information taken from:

D. Murphy, Civil Rights and Race Relations in the USA, 1850-2009 (London, Pearson Education, 2016).

And my own knowledge.

Published by harpalkhambay

I'm a third year English Literature and History student, and wanted a space to explore topics within those fields that interest me.

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