Friday, August 28, 2015

Reflections of late August: 1919’s Red Summer

The Lynching of Will Brown, Omaha, Nebraska. 1919

Woodrow Wilson, five months into his presidency and after having run on an anti-war platform, plunged America into the great catastrophe of World War I. Different historical narratives exist regarding that decision. Wilson eventually mustered 4,800,000 US soldiers into service, 2,800,000 of them by draft, after a nationwide campaign undertaken with a new public propaganda tool, the Committee on Public Information, created by Wilson with the help of journalist George Creel.

One effect of the war was a shortage of labor in the industrial north of the United States. A great migration of southern blacks took place to the large cities of the north to fill jobs on the railroads and in factories. At the end of the war, amidst a mass demobilization of US troops and a reduction in armaments manufacturing, came unemployment. What had been a shortage of labor was now a surplus. Coincident with these events were the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, which had taken place in 1917, and new black civil rights activism in the US in the wake of Marcus Garvey, the 10-year-old NAACP and other organizations and the new prominence of important black intellectuals, artists and writers of the Harlem Renaissance.

Many politicians and newspapers treated activists as enemies of the state by conflating the emergent black civil rights movement with Bolshevism. The New York Times was amongst the worst offenders with a July 28, 1919 headline titled “REDS TRY TO STIR NEGROES TO REVOLT; Widespread Propaganda on Foot Urging Them to Join I.W.W. and 'Left Wing' Socialists.”

At the end of the war, suspicion of an ascendant Germany was being replaced by the “red scare.” While politicians, carnival barkers and reckless newspaper media promoted this hysteria, tensions were breaking out between whites and blacks as black communities were placed in a state of siege by mob attacks on the part of jobless whites, Klan members and their sympathizers. From opened archives we know that Woodrow Wilson in private conversation, stated, “the American Negro returning from abroad would be our greatest medium in conveying bolshevism to America,” a direct reference to men who had just served their country in the deadliest war of the modern era. (See Cameron McWhirter, Red Summer). 

It can also be noted that this was the era of the racist, pro-KKK film "Birth of a Nation" by Wilson's friend and cinematographer, D.W. Griffith. Wilson invited his cabinet and close friends to the White House for a private screening of the film.

In the summer of 1919 riots broke out with white mobs attacking blacks, but unlike past eras, many blacks resisted and fought back. Even in Washington DC, where President Wilson maintained racially segregated federal offices, violence erupted after repeated attacks on black homes, against individuals on streetcars, and in workplaces elsewhere in the city. The DC Police refused to intervene. The NAACP sent a telegram to President Wilson, condemning the attacks and urging intervention. As the attacks went unabated, riots broke out.

Lynching would go on for a number of years. The Red Scare would continue. Newspapers, the mass media of the day, would continue to carry water for those promoting hysteria and attacking the labor and civil rights movements, while brave souls of American history forged new paths.

"She says, You can’t repeat the past. I say, You can’t? What do you mean, you can’t? Of course you can.'” - Bob Dylan, Summer Days.