UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Selective service and local society: Montgomery, Alabama, 1917-1918 Thornbury, Donald Raymond


The Selective Service system of the First World War was based on an attempt to reconcile the military necessity of conscription with American civic values. General Enoch Crowder and others in the War Department, with the disastrous Civil War experience in mind, were determined to produce a system of conscription that would incorporate such values. Because of this concern, a chief feature of Selective Service was a framework of decentralized administration: the local boards. The complete success of the local boards, though, was predicated on their operation in the sort of society that General Crowder and his associates had known, and indeed idealized. This was the homogeneous, inclusive, and participatory group characterized by the strong social bonds of "community." Selective Service was consciously intended to fit into and take advantage of the dynamics of closely-knit local society, of which the small country town was the American model. Beyond that, some viewed it as a means to strengthen the bonds of community and help unify society on both local and national levels. The major part of this study is concerned with Selective Service in a potentially difficult social context: that of racial segregation in one Southern city, Montgomery, Alabama. Society in Montgomery exhibited general Southern characteristics of segregation, but in Montgomery the social distance between black and white was perhaps greater than elsewhere. Relations between the two groups were governed by the basic conservatism of both, a not entirely vicious arrangement. Though officials had worried about full black participation, Selective Service got a strong start in Montgomery at the first registration in 1917. In such a setting, the question arises as to how Selective Service was affected in operation by segregation. In Montgomery the members of the local board were city officials, intelligent, competent, but unremarkable representatives of the white community. In dealing with white registrants, the board, not surprisingly, fulfilled all the expectations of the War Department. Above all the local board was absolutely fair in its judgments. The situation of the blacks was naturally somewhat different. The local board did not know or represent them in any real sense. Local customs (and a segregated army) dictated the maintenance of segregation in most, though not all, aspects of official proceedings. Yet in substantive terms the board was just as fair to the blacks as to the whites. The main disparities between the treatment of black and white was the unavoidable etiquette of segregation symbolized by the use of the word "Boy." The board's actions, though, left little room for complaint. If habits of segregation did not substantially influence the operation of Selective Service, did Selective Service in turn have any effect on segregation? In the case of Montgomery it is clear that conservatism was too strong and the forces of change too weak to produce much change in local society. Segregation was always maintained at public events. The races went their separate ways, the whites largely ignoring black activities. By the end of the war no change had taken place in racial attitudes. The war effort, while unsettling, simply was not a sufficiently pressing situation to compel an alteration in the views of conservative people. Also, things got done quite well under segregation, with the help of black leaders, so that there was no operational need to re-examine local lociety. And finally, there was no pressure from blacks, although in wartime circumstances they were beginning to develop some community organization. Selective Service came, did its work, and departed, leaving segregation in Montgomery as well established as before the war. Selective Service in Montgomery was thus both a success and a failure. It-succeeded in that there was a just administration of conscription, supported by public participation. It failed in that, although both the white and black people of the city participated in a common institution, the barriers of segregation remained untouched by the war experience. Despite the high social goals which some had had for it, Selective Service in Montgomery was only segregation at its best—and nothing more.

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