ENGLISH

 

RED SUMMER

USA

 

This website was created on occasion of the 100th anniversary of the "Red Summer" in America

1919 - 2019

 

Social misery in America is not due to race antagonism, but the

CLASS ANTAGONISM

between capital and labor.

 



From April to August 1919, numerous race riots would occur throughout the United States that resulted in dozens of African-Americans being murdered by white mobs and hundreds more were wounded and driven from their homes.



Although each of the riots had their own factors, many had very similar causes including the bourgeoisie's fear of facing the same fate as the Tsar and Russian bourgeoisie, competition between black and white veterans over jobs and housing since factories in the Northeast and Midwest faced severe labor shortages during the war and employed African-Americans from the South, increased class-consciousness among both white and (especially) black workers, racial chauvinism, and widespread rumors of attacks and conspiracies committed by blacks against whites, whether they were real or imagined.

These riots, which totalled around 25, would bring at least 165 deaths (mostly blacks) and hundreds more were wounded and driven from their homes.

 



Jenkins County, Georgia
April 13th, 1919



The first riot occured on April 13th during a celebration of the anniversary of the Carswell Grove Baptist Church where at least 3,000 black people were present.

During the celebration, two white policemen attempted to arrest Edmund Scott, a black man, for possession of alcohol (Georgia was a dry state back then), but couldn't find any so they arrested him for owning a pistol instead. Scott's friend, Joe Ruffin attempted to pay for his bail, but the police refused. Eventually, one of the officers pulled out his pistol and began beating Ruffin with it, accidentally firing it and caused a fight thst killed the two officers and Scott.

Word of the two dead officers quickly spread and hundreds of white people formed mobs and attacked the black community, killing two of Ruffin's sons. They then broke a black prisoner, Willie Williams, out of jail and lynched him and burned down several black buildings in the following days.

Ruffin was later wrongfully charged with the officers' murders, but had to be moved to different prisons because lynch mobs repeatedly attempted to break him out and kill him. He was eventually acquitted, but had to spend the rest of his life in poverty and live in South Carolina because he was no longer safe in Georgia.

 



Charleston, South Carolina
May 10th-11th, 1919



On May 10th at around 10:00pm, five white sailors attempted to beat a black man whom they accused of cheating them, but instead decided to attack other blacks at random when they couldn't find him.

One black man started firing at the sailors, but was killed and soon, over a thousand sailors as well as white civilians arrived in the black neighborhoods and attacked black people as well as their homes and businesses and some rioters even stole guns from the shooting galleries and would drag blacks out of streetcars so they could beat them.

It wasn't long until martial law was imposed and the marines and naval officers were called in to restore order.

By the time order in the city was restored at 2:30am the next morning, five blacks were killed (as well as another who later died from his injuries), many more people were severely wounded and hospitalized, and numerous homes and buildings were greatly damaged. Three sailors were put on trial and two were sentenced to a year in naval prison and were later dishonorably discharged.

It would be the most violent event in Charleston since the Civil War.

 



Washington D.C.
July 19th-24th, 1919



Washington D.C. had grown to have a large black community, particularly in the formerly "whites-only" neighborhoods near Howard University. In response, several local bourgeois newspapers, especially The Washington Post, sought to incite white chauvinism and racial violence by publishing stories about real (and often embellished) and imagined crimes.

The one event that triggered the riots, however, was a particularly sensationalized incident on July 19th in which two black men were alleged to have sexually assaulted (jostled) a white woman who also happened to be the wife of a naval employee. One of the men that was accused of the attack was arrested and questioned, but was then released shortly afterwards. This, along with a media campaign that labelled the accused man as a "negro fiend" led to anger among navy personnel stationed in Washington. A mob was then formed and began to attack every black person they could find and some people were even beaten in front of the White House.

More mobs quickly formed and the media called on the government to send in the army to smash the African-American community. The blacks responded by purchasing over $14,000 ($202,000 today) worth of weapons to defend themselves and formed garrisons at a number of locations, placed sharpshooters on rooftops, and drove around the city in their cars to shoot at different targets. One group ended up in a gunfight with the police on the third day of the riots, resulting in the deaths of two black men.

Eventually, after four days of rioting that went on without police intervention, President Woodrow Wilson ordered around 2,000 soldiers to intervene and restore order, but heavy raining that day proved to be more effective at bringing down the riots than the soldiers.

In the end, nine people were killed in street fights and another 30+ people died from their wounds and over a hundred and fifty people were wounded, making it one of the bloodiest race riots in American history.

It was also one of the first race riots in American history in which blacks defended themselves. This led newspapers to claim that they were influenced by Bolshevism.



Chicago, Illinois
July 27th-August 3rd, 1919



Chicago would face its own race riot three days after the ones in Washington. As one of the main destinations for African-Americans during the Great Migration, Chicago's black community nearly tripled in size and competition for jobs and decent homes had become fierce, increasing racial tensions.

The Chicago riots began on an unofficially segregated beach in South Chicago when whites were throwing rocks at black beach goers. During that time, a black teenager named Eugene Williams unknowingly sailed into the white side and soon, his homemade raft was pelted with rocks, causing him to drown. Rather than arresting the man responsible for Williams' death, the responding officer arrested a black man and blacks that protested against it were beaten by whites.

It quickly escalated into full-blown street battles between whites and blacks. Several white mobs sought to burn down the entire Black Belt region of the city and drive the city's black population out and to do so, attacked black workers who tried to collect their wages, burned numerous buildings down, and stretched cables across the street to prevent fire trucks from arriving to extinguish the flames. Irish gangs were also particularly active in the riots and attempted to convince Eastern European immigrants to join them. For example, members of one Irish gang donned blackfaces and burned down the homes of several Polish and Lithuanian immigrants. Despite these efforts to drive races apart, some whites helped the black community by supplying them with food.

Just like in other areas during the Red Summer, the Chicago government and its police were very negligent and in many cases, helped the white rioters. However, around 6,000 members of the National Guard were dispatched into the Black Belt to suppress the riots and provide aid to the affected people and allow them to safely pick up their wages.

By the time it was over, 38 people were killed (23 blacks, 15 whites), 537 were wounded (2/3rds of whom were black), and over 1,000 people, mostly African-Americans, lost their homes and many of them returned to the South.

The riots also had significant impact on Chicago's economy as many businesses in the southern part of the city were closed down and many African-Americans still had a hard time going back to work. For example, the Union Stock Yard originally had expected its 15,000 black workers to return to work on August 5th, but later banned them after an arson was committed near the employers' homes. 3,000 black workers were eventually allowed to go back to work under police protection, but it drew anger from local unions since the workers were not only non-union, but many of them were previously employed as strikebreakers.

Several investigations also took place after the riots, but no whites were ever prosecuted or even blamed for the murders and rioting because the Chicago police only focused on black rioters. Instead, the federal Justice Department claimed that they were caused by the IWW and Bolsheviks, whom they claimed were "spreading propaganda to breed race hatred".



Knoxville, Tennessee
August 30th-31st, 1919



Knoxville was considered to be one of the few racially tolerant cities in the South because it was a city where its black citizens could vote, hold political offices, and be police officers (while blacks were disenfranchised throughout most of the rest of the South and were thus banned from any of those things). It was also a city that had no history of race riots or violence.

But that would change under the post-war recession. Migrants poured into Knoxville and quicky swelled up the city slums and the competition for jobs, which there was already a shortage of, became fierce and tensions grew between black and white workers. By 1918, the Ku Klux Klan and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) had set up local chapters in the city.

Early on August 30th, 1919, a man described as a "light-skinned Negro" broke into a house on 8th Street and murdered Bertie Lindsey, a white woman. The police quickly took Maurice Mays, a mixed-race man, in for questioning, found a gun (that was most likely not fired recently), and he was identified as the murderer by Lindsey's cousin. Knowing what would come, they quickly transferred him from the city jail on Market Square to the Knox County Jail for his protection.

News of the murder quickly spread and crowds began to form around both jails. The angrier one at the city jail grew to about 5,000 people and by 5:00pm, they demanded to see Mays. However, a deputy and a jailor denied that he was in their jail and let the mob in to inspect it. One drunken member of the mob later announced that Mays was in the county jail and the mob headed there.

Although the officers closed the riot doors, the mob blew them open with dynamite and searched the building for Mays, ransacking confiscated whisky and firearms and they then freed 16 white prisoners (including accused murderers). Members of the 4th Infantry of the National Guard attempted to halt them, but were unable to as the mob began to send groups of rioters to Chattanooga to find Mays. The local African-American community, who was well aware of the riots going on across the country, began to arm themselves and establish barricades in Central and Vine Street.

Some gunfire was exchanged on Central Street and two soldiers were mistakenly reported to have been killed and the National Guard was dispatched there, followed by the mob. The rioters broke into nearby stores for guns and ammo and there was soon a major shout-out between the blacks, mob, and the National Guard who then set up two machine guns which tore a wounded soldier to pieces when he staggered in front of them.

The fighting lasted for 7 hours and the blacks attempted to seize the machine guns on several occasions, but failed each time. They eventually fled and the National Guard took control of the streets and searched through each of the black homes. A curfew was also imposed and 200 white men were deputized. Two more black men were killed and a deaf woman was shot after she was unable to follow a guardsman's orders to stop.

There has been great debate over how many people were killed in the riots. Local newspapers claimed that only two people died, but many witnesses claimed that much more died, with some estimates ranging anywhere from 20 to hundreds of people and some even claimed that there were so many deaths that bodies were either dumped in the Tennessee river or were buried in mass graves outside the city.

The riots greatly changed race relations and another race riot would occur in 1921 and occasional violence would occur in later years. Several politicians and a local newspaper denied that it was a race riot and 55 white men were given murder charges, but all were acquitted. On the other hand, Mays was found guilty of murder despite there being no motive or evidence, was retried and was found guilty once more, and was executed on March 15th, 1922.



Omaha, Nebraska
September 28th-29th, 1919



Omaha had the third largest black population in the West and was a popular destination during the Great Migration. The majority of the newcomers worked in meatpackaging plants and often competed with white workers for jobs, which led to racial chauvinism. To make matters worse, the meatpackaging bourgeoisie had used blacks as strikebreakers. In additon, chauvinistic sentiments were prevalent among the Irish-American community who had the most power in the city and 10 years earlier in response to the murder of a policeman, an Irish mob burned down the entire Greek section of the city and drove the community out of Omaha.

The local media was also sensationalist and did whatever it could to fan the flames of racial hatred.

On September 25th, 1919, a white woman named Agnes Loebeck was allegedly raped by a black man. The next day, a 41 year old black man named Will Brown was arrested and identified as the rapist and a mob attempted to lynch Brown that day. In response, local papers wrote several sensationalist articles about "black criminality" and "black crimes against white women" and sought to use it as a political weapon against the unpopular reformist Mayor Edward Parsons Smith.

On September 28th, a crowd of white men gathered and arrived at the courthouse where Brown was being held. The spoke with police officers assigned to guard Brown and convinced them that they were no threat and many went home.

However, the 5,000-15,000 strong mob began to clash with police officers. The police attempted to fight them off with fire hoses, but had bricks thrown at them in retaliation. The crowd broke into the courthouse and the police fired a round of shots to frighten them, but it backfired and made them even angrier and they broke through police lines. They completely surrounded the courthouse, beat every African-American who came near them, and attacked whites who tried to help black people. The police completely lost control of the situation and formed a final line of defense around Brown on the fourth floor. Soon, they found out that the rioters had looted gasoline and used it to set the courthouse in fire.

Meanwhile, rioters had seized at least 1,000 guns and shot at both the police and civilians, trampled several people caught in the riots, and dragged black people out of streetcars and beat them.

Mayor Smith, who was in the burning courthouse, tried to speak with the rioters, but a shot was fired and a soldier accused Smith of shooting him. The mob then quickly subdued him and tied a noose around his neck and led him away. Several civilians attempted to rescue him, but were held off by the mob each time and they hung him off a traffic signal tower before he was rescued by the police and spent several days in the hospital clinging on to life.

Meanwhile, the fires had reached the third floor of the courthouse and several chemicals were released and mixed in. Any efforts to reason with the mob resulted in gunfire and the Sheriff resorted to leading the 121 prisoners held at the courthouse, including Brown, to the roof. The fellow prisoners then attempted to throw Brown off the roof, but were stopped. The mob had also poured more gasoline onto the fires and cut nearby fire hoses that were placed.

In a last ditch effort to save themselves, a few notes were thrown down to the crowd, one of which said: "Come to the fourth floor of the building and we will hand the negro over to you."

The mob was overjoyed and placed ladders onto the building and soon captured Brown and soon hung him off a telephone pole. Hundreds of guns fired at his body and soon, the rope was cut and he was dragged across the city by an automobile. Oil was then poured on his body and he was set on fire.

The rioting carried on for several hours afterwards. Police vehicles were burned and the mob attempted to burn down the city jail, but were stopped by soldiers who arrived to restore order. Over 1,600 soldiers arrived to protect civilians and quell the riots, which were put down at 3:00am and martial law was unofficially enacted.

There was national outrage over the riots in Omaha and many people demanded for the mob leaders to be arrested. Over 120 whites were indicted for their participation in the riots, but most would never serve their sentences.

In addition to the arrested rioters, many others were blamed for the riots. Local media, especially the Omaha Bee, was heavily criticized for encouraging the riots, and rightfully so. However, General Wood, who led the soldiers that restored order in the city, accused the Industrial Workers of the World of orchestrating the riots. Even though he had no evidence to support his claims, he was widely believed.

An uncertain number of people were killed in the riot and many more were shot and beaten by the white mobs. The city, which was previously known for being racially mixed, became significantly more segregated and another race riot would occur 10 years later in nearby North Platte.



Elaine, Arkansas
September 30th-October 2nd, 1919



Unlike other race riots that occured during the Red Summer, the race riot in Elaine took place in the rural South rather than in an industrial city. The town and the Philips County it was part of had numerous cotton plantations with slaves before the Civil War. Many of the slaves remained in the area after the war and their descendants were illiterate farm workers and sharecroppers. Although they were a very small minority who was outnumbered 10-1, the whites dominated the local economy and often swindled their workers by selling them supplies for high prices and often held profits from them. For example, many black farmers in Philips County did not receive profits for the cotton they grew in 1918 until the summer of the following year.

To fight against this, a union known as the Progressive Farmers and Household Union of America began to establish a chapter in Elaine and met with farmers and domestic workers there. This received staunch opposition from the white landlords and they often spied on and disrupted meetings.

On September 29th, the union met with farmers at a local church to come up with how to gain fairer settlements and they had guards outside to prevent disruptions. When whites attempted to interrupt the meeting, a shootout occured and one white was killed and another one was wounded.

The next morning, the Sheriff formed a posse to catch the suspects of last night's violence and they were joined by an armed mob of 500-1,000 whites from neighboring counties who sought to put down the "black insurrection" and attacked any blacks they could find, murdering anywhere from 20 to 856 black people.

The mob finally dispersed when the governor sent in hundreds of soldiers on October 2nd to arrest blacks suspect of "taking part of the insurrection". They arrested 122 black men and charged 73 of them with murder and 12 were promptly sentenced to death by all-white juries and the others received prison sentences.

This riot particularly caught the attention of the FBI who blamed it on leftists. A young J. Edgar Hoover (who would become notorious for his contributions into making the US a fascist police state) was one of the men who investigated the riot and said that they were caused by "propaganda of a radical nature" and accused local black newspapers of being provided information by socialists.

Meanwhile, the death sentences for six of the men (the Ware defendants) were overturned based on technicalities, but were tried and sentenced again, before the State Supreme Court overturned them because the trials violated different laws and the six men were released in 1923. The other six men (Moore et al.) were also released when the US Supreme Court found that the trial court violated the 14th Amendment in Moore v. Dempsey.

While the overturned death sentences were a victory, the situation in Arkansas had greatly worsened. Unionization was completely undermined and white chauvinist attacks had become more common, especially after the Ku Klux Klan was refounded in 1921.

 



Aftermath



The Red Summer had a profound effect on the US. African-Americans had become more pressed to end racial and class discrimination and naturally, many looked to Bolshevism. Many black publications praised the Soviet Union, called for blacks to join socialist parties and unions, and expressed solidarity for Eugene Debs who was sitting in prison. In addition, the African Blood Brotherhood was founded in different northern cities to protect black communities (it later merged into the Communist Party of America).

This brought great fear into the bourgeoisie. The government intensified their investigations against the IWW, the leftist sections of the Socialist Party (who later founded the CPUSA), and black presses and organizations, oftentimes with the help of black nationalists such as Marcus Garvey and church leaders.

On November 17th, Attorney General Palmer told Congress of the threat Bolsheviks and anarchists posed on the government and connected them to the race riots and blamed the black leadership of failing to stop the violence and pointed out that the black community was becoming more resistant to violence and intimidation, emphasizing on "the dangerous spirit of defiance and vengeance at work among the Negro leaders". That same month, he and Hoover organized the Palmer Raids and had numerous blacks arrested for "trying to spread Bolshevism".

Even though the riots left deep scars in America, they are either hardly talked about in school textbooks or are cast off as "past mistakes". However, the Red Summer provides many important historical lessons such as the pain and misery bourgeois chauvinism brings and that the true enemies are not fellow workers, whatever race they may be, but rather, the true enemies are the class rulers who determines who gets employed and tries to invoke racial hatred to support their interests.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If we must die

If we must die—let it not be like hogs
Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,
While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs,
Making their mock at our accursed lot.
If we must die—oh, let us nobly die,
So that our precious blood may not be shed
In vain; then even the monsters we defy
Shall be constrained to honor us though dead!
Oh, Kinsmen! We must meet the common foe;
Though far outnumbered, let us show us brave,
And for their thousand blows deal one deathblow!
What though before us lies the open grave?
Like men we'll face the murderous, cowardly pack,
Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!

Claude McKay - 1889-1948