July 25, 2011 1:26:00 PM
We have had the occasional flare-up of mass racial violence in the past few decades. We have had nothing like the summer of 1919, when there were riots and lynchings in many large American cities, and countless episodes of violence in smaller ones. They changed race relations and changed America forever, but perhaps because 1919 is now so far away, few recognize it as a time monumental in the history of American civil rights. Thus there are plenty of eye-opening revelations in "Red Summer: The Summer of 1919 and the Awakening of Black America" (Henry Holt) by Cameron McWhirter, the first narrative history of that epochal year. McWhirter is a reporter for The Wall Street Journal, and much of the obviously extensive research he has done involves the way the newspapers covered the violence at the time. Not only does he give narratives of the causes and details of the riots in Chicago, Washington, Omaha and other cities, he gives a broader picture of the reasons 1919 should have been a particular year for racial violence, and the changes the violence wrought.
Many Americans, and much of the world, were looking for 1919 to be a year of spreading peace and good will. The world had, for instance, been made safe for democracy by The Great War, and troops were coming home. Among the returning soldiers were thousands of black Americans. The Army had been ambivalent about them. There had been no indication that they had done their duty less than any other soldiers, but for instance when there was to be a triumphant Allied parade in Paris for Bastille Day that year, General Pershing did not allow black troops to participate, although black troops from the colonies of Britain and France were welcomed. Black soldiers returning home rightly expected to be welcomed for their accomplishments, and sometimes this happened. In February, 3000 of the Harlem Hellfighters marched in a parade from Manhattan to Harlem, and a newspaper reported that the color of the soldiers'' skin "made no difference in the shouts and flagwaving and handshakes" that they received. The returning soldiers not only had pride in the job they had done, but had a wider view of the world and their place in it. They returned, however, to an America where if they could manage to vote, the votes were disregarded, where Jim Crow laws continued, where they were trying to find jobs in an economic downturn, and where power brokers were unnerved by radicalism and Bolsheviks.
The black soldiers were returning with higher expectations, and their families and communities shared the optimism that there would be change. White society was, to put it lightly, not ready for change, and was fearful that change might come. There was an upsurge in lynching, with NAACP files showing 52 black people being lynched during the year, and not just in the South. A frequent pattern would be that rumors would fly about a white woman being raped by a black man, though such incidents in fact happened much less often than the lynching sparked by the stories. Sometimes the lynchings or riots were ignited because of serious accusations that a black man had murdered a white, and sometimes because of a report that a black man had spoken inappropriately to a white woman.
Sen. John Sharp Williams of Mississippi endorsed lynching, saying, "Race is greater than law now and then and protection of women transcends all law, human and divine." The newspapers played a role in these fears; during the riots in Chicago, a white paper reported, "Reports of attacks by Negroes on white women, especially in the stockyards district, could not be confirmed." They could not be confirmed, and should not even have been mentioned, as they did not happen.
Much of McWhirter''s book is distressing reading, describing the specific actions within the riots, and the torturing and lynching, and the government officials who were incapable or unwilling to put a stop to the rioting by whites. In all cases, the racial riots were started by whites massing against blacks (although there may have been some action by individual blacks that triggered the response). Typical of the reporting on the riots in Elaine, Arkansas, were leads delivered by whites in charge; a headline about the riots in The Washington Post read in part, "Big Uprising Was Plotted," and in the Los Angeles Times, "Negroes Plot White Massacre." McWhirter says, "The narrative meshed with nationwide white fears of racial violence and radicalism: stored ammunition, passwords, ''Paul Reveres'' riding into the night, and a white socialist lawyer as a mastermind." The picture was completely false; there had been no black insurrection, only some black farmers organizing to make sure they were not bilked when selling their crops. The riot in Elaine, like many others described here, was simply a massacre of blacks; there was no forensic accounting afterwards, and probably a few hundred were killed, but no one knows even an approximate number.
The "Red Summer" coincided with the "Red Scare," the worries that socialists were going to be attempting to take over unions, states, and the nation. It was easy for fearmongers to conflate the two. J. Edgar Hoover, for instance, was convinced that communists and anarchists were infiltrating black organizations and inciting violence. He authorized hiring black agents to spy on such organizations. Bolsheviks and the International Workers of the World were "spreading propaganda to breed race hatred," went the scare, but while there may have been some black workers who sympathized with such organizations, no black movement was guided by any "Red Scare" operative.
Hoover''s actions may have been detrimental, but worse was the lack of action by President Woodrow Wilson. It is true that he was far more interested in working for his plan (eventually a failure) to have America enter a League of Nations, but he did nothing toward eliminating racial violence or even in prosecuting those who took part in lynch mobs. When asked for statements from black leaders, he had nothing to say. Congress followed Wilson''s lead, saying little; legislation that was simply against lynching was introduced and could not get passed.
What did change was that blacks began to realize they did not have to take the abuse of rioters silently any more. As the summer of 1919 progressed, blacks were arming themselves; the resulting violence may have disgusted whites and blacks, but large-scale white violence was being met by large-scale black violence. This is one of the reasons that there were fewer such riots in subsequent years. Also blacks felt more reason to attempt to take control; there was more political action and registering to vote.
Tens of thousands joined the NAACP, which because of the year''s events, became the most powerful civil rights group for its time. Many of the whites who rioted during that year never came to justice, but also some of the blacks who had been arrested and even put on death row had their trials reviewed and the obvious unfairness reversed. Of course there was going to be more violence in the upcoming decades, but the brutality of 1919 was never repeated, and it inspired black Americans to strive for true equality. McWhirter writes, "Even a skeptic must conclude that American history, with all its violence and contingency, has progressed in extraordinary ways regarding race relations." That the Red Summer was a fundamental starter of that progress is the book''s surprising and inescapable conclusion.
Rob Hardy is a local psychiatrist who reviews books for a hobby. His e-mail address is [email protected]