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Alabama and World War I

Supporting President Woodrow Wilson's pledge to "make the world safe for democracy," the U.S. Congress declared war on Germany in April of 1917. Thus, America entered World War I nearly three years after the conflict had begun in Europe. Alabama unequivocally joined in the war effort. The state's young men entered service in the thousands. War-related community projects became important parts of the economic and social life on the home front for Alabamians, black and white.

Even before America entered the war, the President embarked on a "preparedness program" to marshal the resources of the nation for war should it come. Efforts to stimulate industrial production and augment the numbers of merchant and naval ships had a strong impact on the state: Birmingham was a leading iron and steel producer, Mobile was an important shipbuilding center, and as the war progressed nitrate factories were built in the Muscle Shoals area, followed by plans for Wilson Dam—in order to support the nitrate factories.

Alabama contributed 74,000 draftees to the American forces in World War I, in addition to providing whole units of the state's National Guard which were "federalized" soon after war was declared. Among those units was the Fourth Alabama Infantry Regiment which became part of the famed 42nd "Rainbow Division." Losses in France included 643 Alabamians killed in action; another 1,758 of the state's soldiers and sailors died from wounds or disease suffered in service.

Maintaining support on the home front in the face of such losses prompted extensive propaganda efforts on the part of governmental agencies. Posters lauding the virtues of those who supported the war at home and damning the atrocities of the German "Huns" abroad were everywhere apparent. The Alabama Council of Defense sponsored public programs to entertain and enlighten, and to sell the audiences on Liberty Bonds, Red Cross volunteerism, Victory Gardens, and a host of other war effort-related programs.

America's justification for entering the war on the side of the Allies to "make the world safe for democracy" had a special resonance to black Americans who had been for so long denied an effective political voice in the United States. The need for the country to enlist the entire American citizenry into the war effort met special problems in the southern states where the races were historically segregated. Special efforts to organize blacks in the home front in Alabama to contribute to the cause were undertaken. Like their white counterparts, black women's groups sewed clothing, canned food, and sold stamps to support the war effort. Black men not only served in the military, but filled industrial positions in the mines and mills, responding to new economic opportunities and, perhaps, to the unceasing patriotic appeals to defeat the Kaiser and his Huns.