the body politic

What History Teaches Us About Today’s Political and Racial Turmoil

Racial justice protests in 1919 and 2016.
Racial justice protests in 1919 and 2016.

As the intensity of this very unusual election year continues to build, many of us have been moved to try to make sense of what we’re living through by drawing historical comparisons. For months, observers have been highlighting the similarities between the success of Donald Trump and his base of white-nationalist support to the rise of the Third Reich in Europe; last week, after the shootings of police officers in Dallas, plenty of people — including New York Times headline writers — recalled the assassination of John F. Kennedy in that same city 53 years earlier; the Dallas shooting, along with the string of police killings of African-Americans that preceded it, also prompted several writers looking ahead to this summer’s political conventions to draw parallels to the hot, horror-laced summer of 1968.

But some scholars and historians — particularly those who have studied the history of racial conflict in the United States — have been casting their minds back further, to another summer in which the racial and gendered fights around equality of opportunity and representation unfolded against a backdrop of global anxiety and violence. In the summer of 1919, race riots occurred in at least 25 cities and towns across America, leading the author and activist James Weldon Johnson, then field secretary for the NAACP, to dub the season “Red Summer,” evoking both the epic bloodshed — hundreds of African-Americans and dozens of whites lost their lives — but also the period’s obsession with the spread of socialist and communist influence.

In 1919, African-Americans were returning home from service in World War I. According to Cameron McWhirter’s book Red Summer, nearly 370,000 African-Americans, many from the South, had been enlisted; many had experienced racist abuse and subjugation within the ranks even as they served their country. Upon their return, they were met not with gratitude or dignity, but with Jim Crow laws in the South, and in the North, pushback against their increased presence in the cities to which they were moving as part of the Great Migration. African-Americans had difficulty finding jobs and housing, and those who did, especially those who entered jobs or neighborhoods previously dominated by white Americans, were often the targets of mobs. One black journalist, William Allison Sweeney, wrote in early 1919 of the backlash against black movement into white spaces as “the graveyard yawp of a dying monster.”

Attacks against African-Americans often went unprosecuted; conversely, African-Americans too often found themselves the subject of scurrilous prosecutions, convictions, and executions. In April 1919, the Chicago Defender published a piece that read in part, “We have found from bitter experience … that we cannot depend upon the police, the posse of the sheriff, or the militia.”

But one of the things that made the summer of 1919 unusual was the ways in which white mob violence was met with black resistance. The ten-year-old NAACP organized in response and grew at a rapid pace, its membership increasing from 9,000 in 1917 to 90,000 in 1919. Just as striking was the fact that some African-Americans responded to white attacks with reciprocal violence, though far fewer whites lost their lives. All told, from April to November, McWhirter writes, “Hundreds of people — most of them black — were killed and thousands more were injured. Tens of thousands were forced to flee their homes or places of work. Businesses lost millions of dollars to destruction and looting. In almost every case, white mobs — whether sailors on leave, immigrant slaughterhouse workers, or southern farmers — initiated the violence.” McWhirter quotes John Hope Franklin, the black historian, as calling 1919 “the greatest period of interracial strife the nation has ever witnessed.”

This violent American summer took place in the midst of political and international agitation that eerily mirrors what’s happening around us today. In the wake of the war, European empires were in collapse and borders were being redrawn. The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 had sparked Marxist uprisings in several countries, while in the U.S., anarchist terrorists that summer sent a spate of letter bombs to prominent businessmen and politicians. And 1919 marked the beginning of the first Red Scare in the United States, where anxieties about socialist, communist, and anarchist influence merged with fears of racial disruption, anti-Semitism, and resistance to the growing labor movement (there were more than 3,600 strikes, involving 4 million workers that year). The United States government, anxious about uprisings of immigrant workers, had imposed a series of anti-immigration laws, making it easier to deport and imprison immigrants. In Europe and the United States, white-nationalist political factions were gaining strength. Mussolini founded the Fascist Party in Italy; Hitler joined and began giving well-received speeches for the German Workers’ Party, the forerunner of the Nazi Party. In the United States, 1919 coincided with the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan, which fed on the labor and racial unrest of the period. And did I mention that 1919 was also the year that Congress passed the 19th Amendment, guaranteeing women — though not black women in the South, who remained disenfranchised — the right to vote?

It’s not hard to see in 1919 a mirror of today’s politics, not just in terms of the ever-growing awareness of the racist violence of a majority white state against its black citizens, but also in terms of domestic and international politics and attitudes. Recent years have seen labor campaigns for higher minimum wages, paid leave, and sick-day benefits; the racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, and xenophobia of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign; fights over immigration restriction and reform; the embrace of socialist rhetoric from a new generation of Bernie Sanders supporters; and the historic campaign of Hillary Clinton to become the first female president, almost a century after passage of the 19th Amendment. Internationally, Brexit — a move spurred in part by white-nationalist attitudes — means a reimagining of Europe, where we are seeing the rise of a new left and the terrifying influence of a new right. And everywhere there is the so-called “war on terror,” the fear (and reality) of bombs and violent intrusion. The stew of instability, fear, and hate is chillingly familiar.

Susana Morris, an English professor at Auburn University and the co-founder of the Crunk Feminist Collective, posted on Facebook in the week of the Dallas shootings that this summer was beginning to remind her of Red Summer. By phone, she elaborated, “I’m thinking about the global instability of that period, and Brexit and all the demographic shifts happening in Europe. A lot of what we’re seeing is formerly white spaces becoming more black and more brown. Then the institutional pushback to that, which in the United States means the rise of Trump.”

Morris also noted the expanding, explosive power of social media to document atrocities, and how that mirrors the effect of the rise in black newspapers in the period after WWI. Morris was on Facebook the night that Philando Castile’s girlfriend posted video of his death online; she clicked, not realizing that she was about to “literally watch someone die.” It’s not dissimilar to the way that newspapers functioned in the early 20th century, she said, “publishing these horrible pictures, pictures of popular violence, lynching photos.” One of the most famous was a September 1919 photograph of the murder of Will Brown — a black worker questionably accused of raping a white woman, who was hung, his body dragged through the street behind a car, and then burned in front of an audience of more than 20,000 who had gathered to watch at the Omaha courthouse. That brutal lynching was part of an Omaha riot in which two white men were also killed and the mayor was almost hanged.

But it was not only violence that emerged from Red Summer. Morris recalls the poet Claude McKay’s famous sonnet, “If We Must Die,” which he wrote in 1919 and is considered one of the earliest works of what would come to be known as the Harlem Renaissance: “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 … ” Today, too, “people are producing art in response to these terrible things,” she said, noting Ross Gay’s poem “A Small Needful Fact,” about the death of Eric Garner. Last weekend, the artist Dread Scott mounted an installation at Jack Shainman Gallery in New York, hanging a flag outside that reads, “A Man Was Lynched By Police Yesterday,” a reference to the flag that hung outside the NAACP headquarters in the 1930s.

Brittney Cooper, a writer and professor of gender and Africana studies at Rutgers, recently made the comparison between 2016 and 1919 with regard to the candidacy of Hillary Clinton. Cooper said that it hadn’t been until Clinton’s speech on the night she unofficially clinched the Democratic nomination and spoke of her mother’s birth, on June 4, 1919, the day that Congress passed the 19th Amendment, that she’d really absorbed the fact that this massive step for (some) American women came against the backdrop of racial strife. But it made perfect sense.

“The history of white women’s activism has always been tied to moments of deep racial upheaval,” Cooper said. It was true in the 19th century, when the abolition and suffrage movements were born and grew together, very much entwined before splitting over the passage of the 14th and 15th Amendments, which granted black men, but not women of any color, the right to vote. It was true in the 1960s, when, as Cooper said, many “white women cut their teeth in civil-rights organizing” before organizing as part of the feminist movement. And, she continued, it is true now, “when we have a viable chance of a first woman president and there is mobilization happening in black communities.” Cooper feels this pattern is “remarkably consistent … I can’t look at a moment of history in which racial upheaval was not a harbinger of gender upheaval; any time the racial order is being jostled with, the gendered power structure is too.”

Cooper continued, “When I think of Red Summer of 1919, it’s one more marker of how black women are negotiating politics; they’re in the midst of encountering significant atrocities in black communities, but also reaching toward white women, pursuing new levels of symbolic progress and wanting to be part of both movements. It’s a pull on us because our folks are being slaughtered in the street and white women are taking off to this historic level of progress, and there is never a really clear space in which black women’s politics of liberation can be articulated and obtained.”

But while we look to distinct periods in the past to try to understand the moment we are in, it’s important to remember that history is a story in which we are still immersed. Treva Lindsey, an Ohio State historian who specializes in black feminist theory and women’s history, tweeted last week, “#BeingBlackHere means knowing every summer is Red Summer. Last summer 6 Blk women died in police custody in month of July alone.” Lindsey explained, “It’s hard not to make these comparisons. … The rhetoric makes it feel so similar to this moment nearly 100 years ago. But for me it was also important to point out that this is something incessant, something that is happening every year. When we think about it as just one moment or just one movement, we miss the fact that anti-black racial violence is deeply embedded into our story.”

And, sadly, the violence often seems to grow more intense with the success of a movement. “Of course, when solidarity starts to happen, that is when movements become threatening,” she said. People in the U.S. understand that soon people of color will outnumber whites in America. “There’s a radicalization happening among young people, and people are organizing at the local level, voting prosecutors out of office who are not prosecuting cases of police brutality and killings,” Lindsey said. “The fact that there are movements afoot make the powerful wonder, ‘How can we maintain power in these structures we’re so deeply invested in?’ The violence is one manifestation of that anxiety.”

What History Teaches Us About Today’s Turmoil