The Association for the Study of African American History is commemorating two of the most defining moments in African American and United States histories.
The first and most significant is the 400th anniversary of the forcible importation, not immigration, of the first 20 Africans into what became the United States.
The second is less known. Yet it, too, marks a transformative moment.
This year is also the centennial of the Red Summer of 1919. That outpouring of racial terrorism constituted the worse series of domestic disturbances in U.S. history. Its centenary should force a more sober look at U.S. society. We can learn much from an analysis of the Red Summer. That bloodstained era offers a biopsy of the white American body politic.
Indeed, given the character of contemporary politics and President Donald Trump’s commitment to fomenting racial hatred, it is essential that we revisit that bloody episode in U.S. history.
NAACP Field Secretary James Weldon Johnson coined the term “the Red Summer” to highlight the goriness of that moment’s indiscriminate terrorist assaults. The Red Summer extended beyond the summer time frame. It began on Feb. 8 and ended Oct 2. It was truly national in scope. The orgies of racially motivated violence stretched from Connecticut to Texas. Scholars count 43 African-Americans lynched and three dozen racial pogroms during the Red Summer.
The racial pogroms were caused by multiple factors. Some were due to longstanding structural elements, while others were spontaneous and resulted from individual whites’ determination to humiliate black individuals.
The era’s racial violence was sparked by racial oppression, rapid World War I demobilization, economic competition over jobs, housing and access to municipal services, labor struggles, discriminatory policing, perpetuation of anti-black lies and stereotypes, fear of socialism, and racist manipulation by politicians.
The assailants were predominately young white men, but assaulters crossed class, generation and gender lines. Mobs consisted of military personnel, police officers, businessmen, laborers and politicians.
President Woodrow Wilson exasperated racial antagonisms. He labeled returning black soldiers “un-American.” In March 1919, at the beginning of the epidemic of racial terrorism, Wilson alleged, “the American Negro returning from abroad would be our greatest medium for conveying Bolshevism to America.”
The Wilson regime considered blacks’ struggles for justice a communist plot. As rampaging white mobs assaulted black communities, the federal government waged war on African-American racial justice organizations and media.
In Charleston, S.C., on May 10-11, the terrorist outburst was initiated by a confrontation between a black civilian and a white sailor. Instead of giving way as “southern etiquette” demanded, he shoved the white sailor off the sidewalk. That confrontation culminated in white sailors shooting up the black community, burning African-American-owned businesses, injuring 18 people and murdering one person.
Forty white men initiated the Port Arthur, Texas, pogrom (July 15) when they attacked an African American man on a streetcar for allegedly smoking in the presence of a white woman. Twenty black men rebuffed the white mob.
The two worst pogroms occurred in Chicago and Elaine, Ark. The underlying causes in Chicago included housing issues, labor struggles, political manipulation and apartheid. Adult white men stoned Eugene Williams, a black teenager, after his raft drifted across the invisible color line at the beach. He drowned trying to reach the shore.
Chicago was a conflagration as African Americans battled invading whites throughout the city. Inaugurating the “drive by,” white gangsters indiscriminately shot into black-occupied homes from speeding vehicles. They systematically burned black neighborhoods, leaving 1,000 African Americans homeless. Overall, 38 people were killed, 23 African Americans and 15 whites, and 537 people were injured, two-thirds of them black.
If Chicago was a battle, Elaine, Ark., was a massacre. Veteran Robert L. Hill organized black tenant farmers, sharecroppers and domestic workers into the Progressive Farmers and Household Union of America. The PFHUA posed a simple question, “The union wants to know why it is that the laborers cannot control their just earnings, which they work for.” PFHUA members injured a deputy sheriff and killed a security guard after they fired on a union meeting on Sept. 30. In response, the sheriff unleashed a posse of about 1,000 white men on black residents.
Claiming the PFHUA was “heavily armed” and was “spreading communism,” on Oct. 2, Gov. Charles Brough sent 500 troops. Gov. Brough charged them “to shoot to kill any negro who refused to surrender immediately.” The troops joined the mob in indiscriminately massacring African Americans. Nearly 240 blacks were slaughtered, 285 arrested, 12 executed and 65 incarcerated for 21 years.
All of the racial pogroms resulted from anti-black racial animosity. All were initiated by whites and involved white terrorist mobs invading, plundering, raping, murdering and massacring black people in an orgy of white supremacist violence.
Nonetheless, the Red Summer was transformative; it was a turning point for African Americans. It signaled the end to the era of accommodation. Claude McKay’s poem “If We Must Die” urged armed resistance and launched the Harlem Renaissance. Blacks’ staunch resistance prevented racial terrorism from discouraging the Great Migration to the urban North.
The Red Summer reminds us that political leadership played a crucial role in instigating mass racial terrorism. Trump’s rhetoric not only echoes Wilson’s but is even more provocative. Are we on the precipice of mass white supremacist violence?