by Ellen Isaacs
Red, as in blood. The summer of 1919 earned this label not only because the murderous nature of American white racism was on full display, but mass armed resistance by its black targets became the frequent reaction. In many instances, law enforcement, federal troops and the judicial system aided or abetted racist violence. Often they raised the specter of the red, as in communist, menace to justify themselves. Occasionally whites and blacks reacted together against racist attacks. When, more often, they did not the struggle was weakened, a struggle for safety and jobs that could benefit all.
Why It Began
By the time World War I, a conflict between the German and British empires, had ended in 1918, ten million young men and 13 million civilians had died, ten million were refugees, and nine million were orphaned. As the US had readied to enter the conflict in 1917, however, President Wilson spoke these words: “The world must be made safe for democracy.” Inspired by the message of fighting for freedom, nearly 370,000 black Americans enlisted, and millions of others took out Liberty Loans and voluntarily followed rationing guidelines. They expected that upon the War’s end, voting rights, segregation and racist mob violence would end, and they were prepared to fight for that too. In October, 1918, Aaron Gaskins, a black resident of Virginia, stood up in his commuter train to Washington, DC and said, “After this war is over we are going to get our rights – we will have a race war if we don’t.”
Not everyone had been won over by the pro-war fervor. The Socialist Party, the International Workers of the World (IWW) and many locals of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) came out against the war. All over the country, government sponsored vigilante groups were formed to suppress dissent and build super-patriotism. But even Wilson admitted in 1919 that “the seed of war in the modern world is industrial and commercial rivalry.”
Within the military, racism continued apace during the war. The Marine Corps admitted no blacks, and the Army and Navy assigned them mostly to menial jobs in segregated battalions, where they were often mistreated by white officers. Eventually, after protests from black academia, two black combat divisions were formed and performed heroically on dangerous missions. In May, 1919, WEB Dubois declared in the Crisis: ” We return from fighting. We return fighting….We saved [democracy] in France, …and we will save it in the United State of America.”
But many white Americans feared the combined upsurge in black consciousness and fighting skill after the war out of fear for their own jobs and status or out of plain racism. In the South, whites were anxious to reinstitute Jim Crow relations. From the end of the war in 1918 and into late 1919, there were ten major race riots in South Carolina, Texas, Arizona, Tennessee, Nebraska and Arkansas, as well as Chicago and Washington, DC. There were nearly 100 lynchings and a death toll of over 150, nearly all black. But something was new this time. Although there had been many uprisings since the onset of slavery, never before was there such widespread and often successful armed black resistance to white mob violence.
Migration and Intellectual Change
In addition to the war, another massive movement affected America’s blacks. Between 1914 and 1920, over half a million migrated from the rural South to northern cities. Jobs were plentiful as the influx of Eastern Europeans was halted by WWI, and sharecroppers were eager to escape their near-slave existence. In some cities, such as East St. Louis, the black population nearly tripled. Business owners, anxious to avoid solidarity among their workers, encouraged racist violence and were supported by law enforcement. White mob violence broke out there and for similar reasons in Chicago and Gary, Indiana.
The New Negro movement was born in the 1890s, part of the “upward suasion” theory of fighting racism (see https://multiracialunity.org/2018/10/04/book-review-stamped-from-the-beginning/) by striving to emulate white middle class values and behavior. By 1917, however, there were calls for armed resistance, a federal law against lynching, multiracial labor organizing, anti-colonialism and armed self-defense. Some movement leaders were socialists, such as A. Philip Randolph, and did not endorse black participation in the war. Post-war, the entire movement applauded armed defense against white violence and saw it as necessary to obtain political rights. Many also recognized that they were part of an international struggle and fought for anti-racism and anti-colonialism (opposed by Wilson) to be included in the League of Nations charter.
The first armed resistance took place in Charleston, South Carolina in December, 1918, beginning when black and white soldiers acted together to defend a black private from police abuse. But the next year white civilians and soldiers combined to attack black city residents, who defended themselves with arms. The next month, white civilians, soldiers and police attacked a black army post in Arizona, where soldiers again defended themselves. A few days later, armed Texas blacks succeeded in aborting a lynching.
In Houston, a black military camp was perceived as a threat, and white police retaliated against black servicemen who broke Jim Crow laws. The white commander seized the black soldiers’ weapons, but the troops reclaimed them and fought back against local whites. Thirteen black soldiers were subsequently sentenced to death. Clashes broke out between segregated white and black troops in other military camps in Virginia and Maryland.
The nation’s capitol saw a surge in population after the war, accompanied by a job and housing shortage. Moreover, the super-patriotic vigilante groups which had been encouraged during the war continued to exist and target labor organizations, socialists and African Americans. As usual, stories of sexual assaults instigated the July turmoil in Washington, DC, which began with attacks on several individual black men and grew as the police failed to intervene. But after three days, a large group of black residents formed to protect their neighborhoods and pitched battles between hundreds of white rioters and black defenders occurred. It took almost two weeks and the use of the military to end the riots, during which about 40 people were killed and mostly blacks were arrested. The white press, including the New York Times, blamed the disturbances on black aggressors, while the black press described their defensive actions as “heroic and noble.”
In Chicago, the massive black migration from the South found the new residents moving beyond formerly all-black neighborhoods and displacing Eastern European workers from low-paying jobs in slaughter houses. When a black boy strayed onto an all-white beach, the stage was set for armed white rioters to attack any black they saw, and a mob burned down 1000 homes. Again, armed African American veterans gathered to protect themselves, and after military intervention and 38 deaths the fighting ended. No white perpetrators were called to account. Elsewhere, resistance to lynch mobs was brought to a new level. In Knoxville, Tennessee and Omaha, Nebraska, where black men had been falsely accused of assaulting white women, large groups of blacks fought back.
Violence was also directed at labor organizing efforts that were multiracial or led by blacks. In Arkansas, black sharecroppers, who were required to return nearly all of the value they produced to the landowner, attempted to organize and were attacked by a coalition of business owners and planters. Vigilante gangs were supported by army troops to attack strikers and over 100 were killed. In 1920, the 500 black residents of Ocoee, Florida campaigned to be able to vote, despite warnings from the Ku Klux Klan. The KKK invaded the town, lynched the leaders, and killed about 50 other blacks.
The Great Southern Lumber Company of Bogalusa, La. employed thousands of workers, who began efforts to unionize after the war. The company tried to divide workers racially by firing whites who joined the union and replacing them with black workers, but in this case it failed and black and white workers defended each other. On August 31, 1919 a white woman claimed to have been sexually assaulted by a black man, who was lynched. Whether this was a set-up or not, it was used as an excuse to try and cancel the Labor Day march. But the unions did not flinch and 2500 marched, one third of them black. The bosses then caused an explosion to close its plants, launched a red-baiting attack on the black and white union leaders, killing four of them, and employed white right-wing vigilantes and ultimately federal troops to take back control of the town and factory.
Gary, Indiana had an 80% black and immigrant population and was the home of the steel industry that the AFL was trying to unionize. The AFL, however, was a racially exclusionary union, and so when the strike began, it involved only white workers. They were incited against blacks not only by the union’s racist policies, but by bosses who imported black scabs and inflamed racial hatred, leading to mob violence against the black community. After two months, the strike was broken by federal troops, whose actions were justified by stories of Bolshevik leadership and strengthened by the racial divide among workers.
The event of the time most mentioned in the history books is the destruction of Greenwood, the black community of Tulsa, Oklahoma in May, 1921. Again set off by the tale of a black boy bumping into a white girl, a mob of 2000 whites threatened a lynching. What we hear less or nothing about is that hundreds of black residents, led by veterans, tried to hold off the mob with armed resistance. In the end, they were overwhelmed and Greenwood was leveled.
Disarm and Red Bait
Another tactic to try and derail militant anti-racist struggle was to disarm blacks. Government and military officials seized weapons from individuals and asked gun dealers not to sell to African Americans. Blacks arrested for defending their communities were charged with carrying concealed weapons. No concern about Second Amendment rights in this case. In any case, blacks made a concerted effort to obtain arms from willing sellers and military depots. They thus not only engendered fear in white supremacists but pressured the authorities to uphold the law.
African Americans were portrayed as prime organizers of a communist uprising, which was widely feared. In truth, the Communist Party USA was just being organized in 1919, and although they provided much leadership to union and anti-racist struggles, they were in no way able to threaten revolution. Nonetheless, the Justice Department, under the leadership of A. Mitchell Palmer, along with Military Intelligence Division and the Bureau of Intelligence (BI), set out to attack militant labor organizers. On January 2, 1920 10,000 workers were arrested and many of foreign birth were deported.
We can look at the armed resistance of this era as the precursor to the armed defense of civil rights workers forty years later by such groups as the Deacons for Defense, later to nationalist groups like the Black Panthers, and to the multiracial groups who have fought white supremacists over recent decades. One lesson we must learn is that the state and its policies of racism, inequality, and exploitation of workers are enabled ultimately by force and we must be ready to fight them violently when strong enough to do so. Even then, the divisions sown between those of different races, genders or national origin weaken everyone who wishes to achieve better wages and services. Only a multiracial struggle by workers will ever have the strength to win major or lasting reforms or even to change the whole system.
1919, The Year of Racial Violence, David Krugler, Cambridge University Press, 2015
Labor’s Untold Story, Richard Boyer and Herbert Morais, United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers of America, 1955
Stamped From the Beginning, Ibram X. Kendi, Nation Books, 2016