This was a liberal, journalistic account of one of the most horrifying years in U.S. history. It didn’t feel wholly situated in a much longer history of racism, white mobs, black struggle, anti-lynching struggle, neither in the history that came before or what has come since. But it gives a solidly documented introduction to a year too much forgotten.
Because look at what a year it was, even as whites were celebrating the end of the ‘war to end all wars’:
“By the God of Heaven, we are cowards and jackasses if now that the war is over, we do not marshal every ounce of our brain and brawn to fight a sterner, longer, more unbending battle against the forces of hell in our own land.” “Returning Soldiers, Crisis May 1919
Another from black war veteran, Paul Filton, to a Brooklyn newspaper, exposing the intricacies of race and racial hierarchies:
‘We are not ‘wards’ of this nation, as are the Indians. We are component parts of this body politic. We have helped to gain the Victory for Democracy and we must share the fruits. (50)
But the year didn’t work out the way people hoped, neither for the African American freedom struggle nor any other radical struggle for meaningful change. Why did I not know (or not remember?) that attorney general A. Mitchell Palmer’s house was actually bombed in June of 1919? FDR was living across the street. Carlo Valdinoci, the Italian anarchist bomber, was blown to pieces with it.
I suppose this helps explain, then, why Palmer should get together with the ‘ambitious young bureaucrat J. Edgar Hoover’ to stamp out radicalism.
Palmer and his agents came to believe blacks were susceptible to Communists and anarchists because of their subservient status, so they set out to prove that revolutionaries were recruiting blacks. Palmer defined radicalism broadly, and would include the legitimate political efforts of black activists. (56)
There’s President Woodrow Wilson — I had forgotten what a racist bastard that man was. A good quote from him: “Black American soldiers were being treated as equals by the French, and it has gone to their heads.” (56)
An interesting aside from the book — that this was not just happening in the US, and that there were also riots in London, Liverpool, Cardiff in 1919:
As many as 2,000 ex-soldiers and ex-sailors armed with guns, razors, sticks, and stones paraded in the streets, smashing windows and attacking blacks and Arabs. Two blacks died. By month’s end, Cardiff officials ‘raptariated’ more than 150 blacks to colonies. (74)
But on to the long list of U.S.-grown horror. Starting with the lynching of John Hartfield in Ellisville, Mississippi.
Lynchers cut off Hartfield’s fingers. They let him dangle from a branch, then they shot him. They burned the corpse. The extrajudicial killing took place promptly at 5 p.m., as was publicized in advance in publications from New Orleans to New York. (68)
This shit was publicized.
In Bisbee, so close to home — Black Buffalo soldiers arrived to march in the 4th of July parade, they were there to guard border from Pancho Villa — and inroads from the Mexican revolution. Yet the night of 3rd of July ended in battle through Brewery Gulch, 4 black soldiers killed, 2 beaten, dozens in custody.
Above all, however, given the numbers of returning soldiers from WWI, more and more blacks were set to fight back. In Washington D.C., white mobs inspired the gathering of many armed black men. From a letter from Neval Thomas to Archibald Grimké:
There were at least 2000 Negroes, many with pistols showing, declaring their purpose to die for their race, and defy the white move, which was announced as coming to colored sections. (105)
Blacks set up a rough perimeter at the entrance to their area, just northwest of downtown. They shot out streetlights and overturned a gravel truck to strengthen their defensive position. (177)
The violence–complete with drunken whites destroying a county jail, ransacking the sheriff’s home, and looting downtown businesses–exploded southerners’ smug view that they only lynched guilty individuals, whereas northerners attacked blacks solely because of their skin color. (181)
Did they really hold that smug view? They must have held some kind of view justifying such violence.
In Elaine in Phillips County, turns out no one knows how many killed. White authorities claimed 24, James Weldon Johnson, head of NAACP between 200 and 400. White Arkansas journalist L. Sharpe Dunaway claimed 856.
It all started with Blacks organizing themselves to get better prices for their cotton. A quasi-secret dues joint stock society started up called the Progressive Farmers and Household Union of America. Robert Hill, returned vet from WWI helped start one up in Phillips County. One of their meetings was shot up by whites. Yet as whites rampaged and murdered Black people, this is the telegram sent by governor Charles Hillman Brough:
RACE RIOT AT ELAINE PHILLIPS COUNTY THIS STATE FOUR WHITE SAID TO BE KILLED NEGROES SAID TO BE MASSING FOR ATTACK REQUEST COMMANDING GENERAL CAMP PIKE BE AUTHORIZED TO SEND SUCH UNITED STATES TROOPS AS MAY BE NECESSARY. (219)
Another map, showing the best guesses for lynchings in this area from the New York Times:
A whole lot of lynchings. Hundreds of them in 1919.
This is a quote from a circular ‘to the Negroes of Phillips County’ from the white ‘Committee of Seven’ set up to control the situation:
STAY AT HOME
GO TO WORK
DON’T WORRY (224)
At the end of all this? A grand jury indicted 122 blacks ‘on charges relating to the ‘insurrection’, 73 of them with murder.’ (226)
Something else I didn’t know about the report Palmer and Hoover cooked up to justify the raids, more money for the department, and Palmer’s potential run for president on the democratic ticket. It was 186 pages long, the first 101 on foreign radicals (this is when Emma Goldman and everyone else was deported after all), but the remaining pages were all devoted to a ‘collection of quotations from black publications about resisting white violence.’ (240)
I am going to have to read that.
This perhaps helps explain why the NAACP played along with red baiting to such a large extent. At their convention against lynching they tried to use ‘spectres of subversives’ to their advantage, warning that without justice blacks would turn to the IWW or communists. (79)
Interesting also that even then, Southern delegates were the ones most determined to fight for the right to the ballot — foreshadowing the SCLC and SNCC’s citizenship work, and emphasising to me at least, that this was never a top-down or purely strategic kind of campaign.
In Bogalusa a bit of good — unionizing the lumber yards, whites still had blacks set up their own separate union when they were brought in to break the white union. But they did manage to work together, and white union members defended black union members against a mob, giving up their lives. I can see why McWhirter ended on this, as a bit of a high note after such a catalogue of death. Most of the stories aren’t even in this blog, it is battering.
But in the end, what this really doesn’t manage to deal with, is why, how. Liberals always fall short on that. I stared at the pictures found together in a familiar insert in the middle of the book and was reminded of Hilton Als being asked to write a piece on lynching. Thinking about the fear in the eyes of whites when he came near, but really, it is whites who should engender fear. So much reading, research, and this violence seeps in. I am afraid of white people, though I am one. At least these men would have killed me for my beliefs, not just for the colour of my skin. I stare at them and do not understand…but surely this is where the fear in their own eyes comes from.
To me there is no good came out of 1919 but for a new kind of pride that survived it, though it came along with wariness, and was often silent. Reading books like Charles Cobb’s about the conversations and debates between nonviolence and violence, you still get a strong sense of this pride that continued on between WWI and WWII, and the way it revived. The way this became a foundation for renewed struggle.
Yet the ability of people to stand up for themselves with this memory not even a generation back… my admiration is ever stronger.