The politics of the Red Summer, 1919

Practical Politics

David L. Horne, Ph.D oped contribuor | 7/25/2019, midnight

From July 19-22, 1919, as part of the Red Summer of 1919 (red for bloody), mobs of White men ran wild through the streets of Washington, D.C. and other cities, attacking and fatally wounding any Black Americans they chanced upon. It was part of a 10-month spree of White vigilante terrorist activity against Black Americans virtually all over the USA.

The primary reason? In the aftermath of WWI, with thousands of Black combat vets returning from the oversees fight to preserve freedom and democracy, many African-Americans expected a higher quality of life in the U.S., and many demanded it outright. One of the three major Black migrations from the share cropping and peonage-based South to the more industrialized North and West was underway, and many whites felt threatened by looming Black economic competition for jobs, property, political authority, and overall, for the good life.

So, in places like New York, Philadelphia, Omaha, Baltimore, Charleston, Wilmington, Memphis, Chicago, East St. Louis, Norfolk, Longview, New London (Conn.), Bisee (Arizona) and even a small town like Elaine, Ark., Black Americans were attacked, hacked, shot, lynched, burned alive, beaten to death, and otherwise set upon.

The general purpose was to achieve a distinctive “ethnic cleansing” if possible, according to several professional historians of the period. It was open season on killing and intimidating Black folk. They had to be re-taught where their rightful place was in American society, in spite of their experiences in WW I. It was, ‘Kill or maim every Black person in sight, aided by the police, and terrorize the rest of them.” It was as if white folks had been infected with a “racial madness” for a time.

But Black folks fought back, in the courts, in churches, at the ballot box, and in the streets. The NAACP grew out of the tumult, gaining over 100,000 new members during the period. Marcus Garvey’s UNIA-ACL (Universal Negro Improvement Association-and African Communities League) was another product of the period. In fact, it became the largest African- American organization ever, with over 2 million members during the 1920s The African Blood Brotherhood also became quite influential, as did the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the first professional African American labor union.

And there were major Black artists during the period who used their creativity not only to gain personal fame and notoriety, but to attack the notion that Black folks did not belong here, and that Blacks were ‘less than’. Certainly to be remembered in the first tier of those are Claude McKay, Langston Hughes, W.E.B. Dubois, Nella Larsen and Zora Neale Hurston.

Looking at things a century later, we see that there is still a bastion of racial fear and paranoia in a number of our American brothers and sisters. There are still some who want to strike down Black American progress, even though such progress benefits the entire country.

The real issue over a century ago, as it still is now, is how much do we fight back. How much do we allow ourselves to be disrespected, pushed around, manhandled and killed just for whites to feel safer and more secure with us as permanent subservients?

In 1919, as in 2019, we may be “pushed to the wall, dying, but always fighting back.” We’ve earned the right to belong here. We will not be chased out.

A United African States is certainly in our future, but we will choose when and where we will exit, if at all. We’ve earned the choice.

Professor David L. Horne is founder and executive director of PAPPEI, the Pan African Public Policy and Ethical Institute, which is a new 501(c)(3) pending community-based organization or non-governmental organization (NGO). It is the stepparent organization for the California Black Think Tank which still operates and meets every fourth Friday.

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