Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Remembering the Red Summer of 1919

By Charles Henry

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”.