The Fire Last Time
The Chicago riots of 1919 and the civil rights movement before Rosa Parks.
On a blistering July day in 1919, five black teenagers went down to a South Side Chicago beach, tied a few logs together into a raft, and began to drift out into Lake Michigan. Slowly the raft bobbed south, past the invisible border that separated the black waterfront from the white. Even in Chicago, to which so many African Americans had fled to escape Jim Crow, an informal but powerful color line persisted. A white man on the shore caught sight of them and began pelting their raft with rocks. One of his projectiles hit 17-year-old Eugene Williams in the head. He tumbled off the raft and drowned.
By the time Williams’s body was recovered, a thousand blacks had gathered along the shore; when the police arrived, the crowd demanded they arrest the stone-thrower. Racial tensions over who could swim where had already put the city’s white and black populations on edge that summer. Now they boiled over. Someone in the crowd shot a gun at the officers, who returned fire, killing the shooter. Word of the violence spread quickly through white and black Chicago, and by nightfall the city had descended into a full-scale race riot.
At first the unrest consisted mainly of roving white gangs catching solitary blacks outside the protective confines of the South Side African-American neighborhoods. But their targets soon fought back. When Clarence Metz, a white teenager, went after Louis Washington, a black veteran, with an ax handle, Washington killed him with his pocketknife. Black gangs began setting on whites, and black snipers took shots at white apartment buildings. The Illinois state militia was called out; even then, the riots continued through the week. By the time it ended, six days after the incident at the beach, 38 people were dead and 537 seriously injured, with blacks comprising the majority of both categories.
The Chicago riot grabbed national headlines, but it was just one event in an unprecedented year for racial violence. Though we are blissfully ignorant of the fact today, racial violence and race rioting were commonplace for much of the country’s history. From the signing of the Constitution until the early 1970s, it was the rare summer that didn’t see some form of racially motivated mass unrest somewhere in America.
But even by that standard, 1919 stands out. As Cameron McWhirter documents in Red Summer, there were 25 major riots across the country that year, with hundreds killed and thousands wounded. Another 52 blacks were lynched, most but not all of them in the South. In almost every case the violence began with white mobs assaulting innocent blacks, spurred by an imagined or picayune offense. Instigators were rarely arrested or punished.
Yet the awful violence of 1919, McWhirter argues, came with a silver lining: the beginning of the modern civil rights movement. Spurred by the horrors of lynching and anti-black rioting, membership in the NAACP doubled that year, and subscriptions to its magazine, The Crisis, soared. Hundreds of thousands of African Americans, including many who had recently returned from serving in World War I, refused to back down in the face of white intimidation. During one riot in South Carolina, black veterans took up arms to defend their neighborhoods; as a local preacher noted, “The males carried their guns with as much calmness as if they were going to shoot a rabbit in a hunt, or getting ready to shoot the Kaiser’s soldiers.” A new militancy took hold; quiet acceptance of segregation began to give way to a demand for rights and respect. Lobbying by the NAACP led to a congressional hearing on proposed anti-lynching legislation, and though Southern legislators quashed the bill, the hearing was, in McWhirter’s view, “a beginning, albeit a modest one, of a political effort that would one day result in the Civil Rights Act of 1964.”
Though McWhirter may at times overstate the significance of 1919 in fomenting black activism (among other things, the NAACP was already a decade old, and 1964 was still a long way off), Red Summer is a deeply researched, compelling entry in the growing body of literature on the so-called “long civil rights movement.” This approach holds that, rather than seeing the legislative achievements of the 1960s as the discrete result of the work begun by Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1950s Deep South—what the activist Bayard Rustin called the “classical” phase of the movement—scholars need to position those events within a longer, more varied, and more open-ended narrative. The long civil rights approach embraces everything from anti-lynching campaigns to Black Power, from struggles in 1930s Los Angeles for employment equality to contemporary debates over affirmative action and slavery reparations.
Such an approach does not assume the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts were some sort of virtuous climax, after which came a chaotic and violent denouement. Rather, it attempts to understand how blacks have experienced the struggle for equality, in all its many facets, throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first. If all we look at is the fight against the Jim Crow South, it is easy to conclude that the fight for equality has been won. Only by looking back further—to the earliest campaigns against unjust incarceration in the post-Reconstruction era, to the biracial campaign for workplace rights in the 1950s and ’60s, to the century-long fight to improve educational opportunities for African-Americans—can we fully understand where America still has to improve to achieve true racial equality.
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