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THE US in the summer and autumn of 1919 was a place of violence and racial anger and yet today, exactly a century later, those events have almost been written out of the country’s official history.
There are no national events marking Red Summer, history textbooks ignore it and most museums don’t mention it.
It was branded “Red Summer” because of the bloodshed that was some of the worst white-on-black violence in the whole of US history, yet it is only now that some, more progressive, historians are beginning to analyse these events.
The violence happened all across the US in small towns like Elaine, Arkansas, in medium-size places such as Annapolis, Maryland, and Syracuse, New York, and in big cities like Washington and Chicago.
Hundreds of African-American men, women and children were burned alive, shot or beaten to death by white mobs.
Thousands saw their homes and businesses burned to the ground and were driven out, many never to return.
Most horrific were the lynchings, mob hangings of blacks. From 1889 to 1919 3,000 black people were lynched and 50 were women. The murderers were seldom prosecuted.
The origins of the Red Summer events came when thousands of African-American soldiers who had served in World War I returned home.
They thought they would be treated as heroes. In fact as they walked down the streets of the southern towns they had left just a year or two earlier, they found themselves subject to racist abuse and even being spat on. Spitting would not be the worst of it.
Harry Haywood in his autobiography, A Black Communist in the Freedom Struggle, said: “The Germans weren’t the enemy — the enemy was right here at home.”
The Russian Revolution in 1917 had terrified right-wing America. The government and its many agencies like the FBI saw communists, Bolsheviks and anarchists on every street corner and many of them had black faces.
In March 1919, president Woodrow Wilson said that “the American negro returning from abroad would be our greatest medium in conveying Bolshevism to America.”
WEB Du Bois, then editor of the monthly magazine of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP), saw it differently: “By the God of Heaven, we are cowards and jackasses if now that the war is over, we do not marshal every ounce of our brain and brawn to fight a sterner, longer, more unbending battle against the forces of hell in our own land.”
In May 1919, following the first serious racial incidents, he published his essay, Returning Soldiers.
“We return from the slavery of uniform which the world’s madness demanded us to don to the freedom of civil garb.
“We stand again to look America squarely in the face and call a spade a spade. We sing: This country of ours, despite all its better souls have done and dreamed, is yet a shameful land … We return. We return from fighting. We return fighting.”
Some African-Americans had moved north to the cities during the great migration movement of six million African-Americans out of the rural southern United States to the urban north-east, Midwest, and west that started in 1916.
They ended up in cities like New York, Chicago, Detroit and Cleveland where life was a little freer and wages were a little higher.
In Chicago some blacks had even achieved a certain amount of political power. This new freedom caused a lot of anxiety among ethnic groups that were competing for the same kind of jobs. Even some unions adopted shameful racist policies against recruiting black people.
Another factor was sharecroppers. These were African-American cotton growers who were actually making money in 1919 because there was a huge worldwide demand for cotton for textiles. Everyone needed clothing after the war and cotton prices rocketed.
For the first time black sharecroppers found themselves able to buy houses, land and even automobiles. In small southern towns the white population suddenly felt threatened.
One silver lining to the dark clouds of Red Summer was the way it encouraged — some might even say created — the modern civil rights movement. It galvanised black activists to defend themselves and their neighbourhoods.
It hugely reinvigorated civil rights organisations like the NAACP.
This, the oldest civil rights organisation in the United States, had been formed in 1909 to advance justice for African-Americans by a group including Du Bois, who would later join the US Communist Party, Mary White Ovington and Moorfield Storey.
During the year of Red Summer, the NAACP gained over 100,000 new members. The dramatically expanded organisation started to fight in the courts and even started building coalitions in Congress.
Perhaps here we need to explain that a century ago most of the sympathy for US blacks came, not as you might expect from the Democrats, but from the Republicans.
Many Democrats represented Southern states where white supremacy was rife. Republicans from the North sometimes had slightly more liberal views.
Some, mostly Republican, senators and congressmen were even prepared to support federal laws to protect black people from extrajudicial action by mobs. However a proposed anti-lynching law never got a majority.
The simple message of 1919 by the NAACP was: “We’re American citizens. You don’t have to like us, but you have to give us the same rights as everyone else.” That was considered by many to be a radical message.
The fightback against racist violence in the Red Summer led to a new era of activism. It influenced the generation of leaders who would take up the fight for racial equality decades later and are still fighting for equal rights today.
Racist violence didn’t start or end in 1919, of course. Some count the era of Red Summer as beginning with the deaths of more than two dozen African-Americans in East St Louis, Illinois, in 1917 and extending through the Rosewood Massacre of 1923, when a black town in Florida was destroyed.
All told, at least 1,122 Americans were killed in racial violence over those six years.
In 1919 alone, violence erupted in such places as New York; Memphis, Tennessee; Philadelphia; Charleston, South Carolina; Baltimore; New Orleans; Wilmington, Delaware; Omaha, Nebraska; New London, Connecticut; Bisbee, Arizona; Longview, Texas; Knoxville, Tennessee; Norfolk, Virginia; and Putnam County, Georgia.
In Washington white mobs, many members of the military, rampaged over the weekend of July 19-22, beating any black they could find after false rumours of a white woman being assaulted by black men spread. Two blacks were attacked and beaten directly in front of the White House.
In Elaine, Arkansas, poor black sharecroppers who had dared to join a union were attacked, and at least 200 African-Americans were killed.
Ida B Wells, a pioneering black journalist, saw a woman named Lula Black dragged from her farm by a white mob after saying she would join the union.
“They knocked her down, beat her over the head with their pistols, kicked her all over the body, almost killed her, then took her to jail.”
One or two blacks were successful in the fightback. In Washington, in tune with the focus on black women in Black History Month, I will tell the story of Carrie Johnson who, aged just 17, became a hero for shooting at white invaders in her neighbourhood.
She shot a white policeman who broke into her second-storey bedroom. She claimed self-defence, and her manslaughter conviction was overturned.
This summer a few events and some newspaper articles are reminding racist Trump’s America of this almost forgotten aspect of its history.
Here in Britain especially during Black History Month it is important that we should remember too.
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