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Remembering the Red Summer of 1919

Charles Henry, professor emeritus, African American studies | March 2, 2019

One hundred years ago this July, the Chicago riot began when Eugene Williams was murdered for “swimming while Black”. Williams had gone swimming in Lake Michigan when he inadvertently crossed the invisible line that separated the black and white beaches and bathing areas. He was stoned by Whites and drowned but the police arrested a Black man who had complained about police inaction rather than the assailants.

In the ensuing week of violence twenty-three Blacks and fifteen Whites died in Chicago. The year saw major racial violence in Charleston, South Carolina; Longview, Texas; Washington, D.C.; Knoxville, Tennessee; Omaha, Nebraska and Elaine, Arkansas.

The “Red Summer of 1919” was an escalation but not the end of racial violence that had begun in East St. Louis and Houston in 1917. The federal government was concerned enough that the newly appointed Director General of the General Investigating Division of the Justice Department, J. Edgar Hoover, began compiling a report on Black radicals. It seems the government, despite the pleas of the NAACP, was more concerned about possible Black links to organized labor than White violence against Black citizens.

The violence in places like Chicago was different for two major reasons that concerned the government. First, it reflected the impact of the massive migration of Blacks North during the decade. The Black population of Chicago doubled between 1916 and 1919 leading to overcrowded slums, competition between Black and White workers and school segregation.

These conditions were being felt across urban areas in the North. Second, unlike numerous “race riots” of the past, Blacks were fighting back. The new more militant Black attitude was reflected in organizations like Marcus Garvey’s UNIA and in culture by poems such as Claude McKay’s “If We Must Die”. While Black soldiers had performed admirably in segregated units in World War I, they were not welcomed back as conquering heroes by all Americans. Ten were lynched while in uniform in 1919 alone.

The talk of a post-racial society that greeted Barack Obama’s election seems a distant dream in today’s racially polarized environment. Racial resentment fanned by President Trump portrays Whites as the new victims.

A few of the new voices in Congress have raised the long suppressed issue of reparations. Perhaps that would be a good place to begin a discussion of real victimhood. In my book Long Overdue: The Politics of Racial Reparations, I examine some places to start. For example, the new National Museum of African American Life and Culture is a form of reparations as are attempts to memorialize lynching victims rather than Confederate heroes. It moves the discussion beyond “silent Black friends”.

Comments to “Remembering the Red Summer of 1919

  1. Seperation will always continue throughout time. We, as people of colors, money, and loathsome states of comparison demand for a fingerpionted lackie fall guy to entrust the overwhelming hate breathing and thriving in our souls.

  2. Reparations. Yes, the Democrats should pay because the Democratic Party was:
    – The party of slavery
    – The party of the confederacy
    – The party of the KKK
    – The party of General Nathan Bedford Forrest
    – The party George Wallace and Bull Connor
    – The party of Lyndon Johnson who voted the straight segregationist line until 1957

    The Republican Party:
    – Was founded primarily to oppose slavery and abolish slavery
    – Passed the 14th Amendment, giving full citizenship to freed slaves
    – Passed the 15th Amendment, giving freed slaves the right to vote
    – Integrated the US military and promoted civil rights for minorities. Most of the actual enforcement of the order was accomplished by President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s administration (1953–1961), including the desegregation of military schools, hospitals, and bases. The last of the all-black units in the United States military was abolished in September 1954.
    – Pushed through the Civil Rights Act of 1957
    – Pushed through the Civil Rights Act of 1964

  3. The “Red Summer of 1919” was an escalation but not the end of racial violence that had begun in East St. Louis and Houston in 1917. The federal government was concerned enough that the newly appointed Director General of the General Investigating Division of the Justice Department, J. Edgar Hoover, began compiling a report on Black radicals. It seems the government, despite the pleas of the NAACP, was more concerned about possible Black links to organized labor than White violence against Black citizens

  4. Thank you for your thoughtful posting. I think a new discussion of reparations is long overdue, as you say. My father’s ancestors were slaveholders and Confederates. As a result I was raised, thinking about responsibility and what to do… Several groups are pursuing the matter right now. The Fellowship of Reconciliation, the peace and social justice group just had a major interfaith/inter race meeting on the subject.

  5. Dear Emmassaries,

    For Black History Month 2019, the Emma Goldman Papers project pays homage to the men, women, and children who, more than one hundred years ago, marched silently to protest violence against Black Americans. The NAACP Silent Protest Parade was organized in 1917 as a response to recent lynchings, as well as the deadly East St. Louis riots earlier that year, in which at least 40 Black Americans were killed by white mobs.

    The final volume of our acclaimed series — Democracy Disarmed, 1917‒1919 — focuses on the many ways in which dissent was suppressed during this era. In December 1919, Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman were deported, along with 247 other “alien radicals” aboard the Buford, a ship the newspapers jeeringly nicknamed the “Red Ark.” Government raids, arrests, and mass trials followed, casting an impossibly wide net. Leftists and sympathizers both foreign and domestic were swept up, splitting couples and families. Strikers and labor organizers were targeted by hired thugs.

    Then came the race riots that would come to be known as America’s “Red Summer of 1919,” a period of bloody racial violence in over three dozen cities. There were major riots in Chicago and Washington, D.C., but also in rural Elaine, Arkansas, where several hundred people were killed. The two meanings of “red” flowed into one; in August 1919, media outlets such as The Wall Street Journal instilled fear by linking the “genesis” of race riots to both Bolsheviks and Black Americans.

    In Specters of 1919: Class and Nation in the Making of the New Negro, Barbara Foley argues that “the so-called Red Summer of 1919 — signifying at once the political repression of leftists and the bloody suppression of black rebellion — marked a moment in the struggle for human liberation in the United States when the issues of class and race were so closely linked that they could — and can — be separated only by a perverse act of will.”

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