Human memory being both short and unreliable, most Americans today who know anything about the history of race riots in this country probably assume that “the greatest period of interracial strife the nation has ever witnessed” took place in the 1960s and ’70s: riots set off by the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., by police violence against blacks in Los Angeles and elsewhere, by agents and opponents of the Black Power movement. Those were indeed bad times. But the comment above was made by the prominent historian John Hope Franklin about the summer of 1919, known, according to Cameron McWhirter, as “the Red Summer because it was so bloody.” He writes:
“The violence enveloped towns, counties, and large cities from Texas to Nebraska, Connecticut to California. Though no complete and accurate records on the months of violence were compiled, analysis of newspaper accounts, government documents, court records, and NAACP files, show at least 25 major riots erupted and at least 52 black people were lynched. Many victims were burned to death. Riots were often over in hours, but some immobilized cities like Chicago, Washington, Knoxville, and Elaine, Arkansas, for days. Millions of Americans had their lives disrupted. Hundreds of people — most of them black — were killed and thousands more were injured. Tens of thousands were forced to flee their homes or places of work. Businesses lost millions of dollars to destruction and looting. In almost every case, white mobs — whether sailors on leave, immigrant slaughterhouse workers, or southern farmers — initiated the violence.”
McWhirter, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal who has also worked at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the Detroit News, has done a capable job of rescuing the story of the summer of 1919 from oblivion. His prose doesn’t exactly sing, but he writes competent journalese, and he clearly is a dogged researcher. He has added to our understanding not merely of the long and appalling history of interracial violence in the United States but of one of our more difficult times: the period, measured more in months than in years, between the end of World War I and the beginning of the brief euphoria known as the Jazz Age.
It was an unhappy and confusing time. What Woodrow Wilson and many others had foolishly and naively called “the war to end war” had left the world in turmoil and this country bitterly divided along many lines: between isolationists and internationalists, between wets and drys, between whites and blacks, between patriots and anarchists, between liberals and communists. As was to be the case a quarter-century later, at the end of World War II, black Americans who had fought for their country came home to find that the rights for which they had risked their lives on the battlefields of Europe were still denied them in their native land, not merely in the South but in the North.
Black veterans’ anger did not set off the violence that tore the country apart between April and November of 1919, but it did contribute to a slowly growing sense of militancy among blacks, especially in cities. There had been a number of organizations working on behalf of black rights, but mostly they were toothless, and too often they were mere cat’s paws for paternalistic whites. That certainly was true of the NAACP until three exceptionally determined and able African Americans — W.E.B. Du Bois, James Weldon Johnson and Walter White — asserted themselves and began to steer the organization in a more active, assertive direction. As McWhirter points out, even as African Americans were suffering devastating discrimination and violence, “an unprecedented political awakening” was taking place: