Historians Need to Take the Long View when it Comes to Civil Rights
Clay Risen is an op-ed staff editor at The New York Times and the author of A Nation on Fire: America in the Wake of the King Assassination. Reprinted with the kind permission of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas.
On a blistering July day in 1919, five black teenagers went down to a South Side Chicago beach, tied a few logs together into a raft, and began to drift out into Lake Michigan. Slowly the raft bobbed south, past the invisible border that separated the black waterfront from the white. Even in Chicago, to which so many African Americans had fled to escape Jim Crow, an informal but powerful color line persisted. A white man on the shore caught sight of them and began pelting their raft with rocks. One of his projectiles hit 17-year-old Eugene Williams in the head. He tumbled off the raft and drowned.
By the time Williams’s body was recovered, a thousand blacks had gathered along the shore; when the police arrived, the crowd demanded they arrest the stone-thrower. Racial tensions over who could swim where had already put the city’s white and black populations on edge that summer. Now they boiled over. Someone in the crowd shot a gun at the officers, who returned fire, killing the shooter. Word of the violence spread quickly through white and black Chicago, and by nightfall the city had descended into a full-scale race riot.
At first the unrest consisted mainly of roving white gangs catching solitary blacks outside the protective confines of the South Side African-American neighborhoods. But their targets soon fought back. When Clarence Metz, a white teenager, went after Louis Washington, a black veteran, with an ax handle, Washington killed him with his pocketknife. Black gangs began setting on whites, and black snipers took shots at white apartment buildings. The Illinois state militia was called out; even then, the riots continued through the week. By the time it ended, six days after the incident at the beach, 38 people were dead and 537 seriously injured, with blacks comprising the majority of both categories.
The Chicago riot grabbed national headlines, but it was just one event in an unprecedented year for racial violence. Though we are blissfully ignorant of the fact today, racial violence and race rioting were commonplace for much of the country’s history. From the signing of the Constitution until the early 1970s, it was the rare summer that didn’t see some form of racially motivated mass unrest somewhere in America.
But even by that standard, 1919 stands out. As Cameron McWhirter documents in Red Summer, there were 25 major riots across the country that year, with hundreds killed and thousands wounded. Another 52 blacks were lynched, most but not all of them in the South. In almost every case the violence began with white mobs assaulting innocent blacks, spurred by an imagined or picayune offense. Instigators were rarely arrested or punished.
Yet the awful violence of 1919, McWhirter argues, came with a silver lining: the beginning of the modern civil rights movement. Spurred by the horrors of lynching and anti-black rioting, membership in the NAACP doubled that year, and subscriptions to its magazine, The Crisis, soared. Hundreds of thousands of African Americans, including many who had recently returned from serving in World War I, refused to back down in the face of white intimidation. During one riot in South Carolina, black veterans took up arms to defend their neighborhoods; as a local preacher noted, “The males carried their guns with as much calmness as if they were going to shoot a rabbit in a hunt, or getting ready to shoot the Kaiser’s soldiers.” A new militancy took hold; quiet acceptance of segregation began to give way to a demand for rights and respect. Lobbying by the NAACP led to a congressional hearing on proposed anti-lynching legislation, and though Southern legislators quashed the bill, the hearing was, in McWhirter’s view, “a beginning, albeit a modest one, of a political effort that would one day result in the Civil Rights Act of 1964.”
Though McWhirter may at times overstate the significance of 1919 in fomenting black activism (among other things, the NAACP was already a decade old, and 1964 was still a long way off), Red Summer is a deeply researched, compelling entry in the growing body of literature on the so-called “long civil rights movement.” This approach holds that, rather than seeing the legislative achievements of the 1960s as the discrete result of the work begun by Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1950s Deep South—what the activist Bayard Rustin called the “classical” phase of the movement—scholars need to position those events within a longer, more varied, and more open-ended narrative. The long civil rights approach embraces everything from anti-lynching campaigns to Black Power, from struggles in 1930s Los Angeles for employment equality to contemporary debates over affirmative action and slavery reparations.
Such an approach does not assume the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts were some sort of virtuous climax, after which came a chaotic and violent denouement. Rather, it attempts to understand how blacks have experienced the struggle for equality, in all its many facets, throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first. If all we look at is the fight against the Jim Crow South, it is easy to conclude that the fight for equality has been won. Only by looking back further—to the earliest campaigns against unjust incarceration in the post-Reconstruction era, to the biracial campaign for workplace rights in the 1950s and ’60s, to the century-long fight to improve educational opportunities for African-Americans—can we fully understand where America still has to improve to achieve true racial equality.
Until very recently, the study of the civil rights movement has limited itself to the roughly ten-year span between the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955 and 1956 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The dominant figure is Martin Luther King Jr.; the dominant ethos is Christian nonviolent resistance. The terrain of battle is the South, primarily Alabama and Mississippi, but reaches as far as Topeka, St. Augustine, and Washington, D.C. The enemy is Jim Crow, that tight patchwork of state and local laws that segregated and disenfranchised blacks from white society. To either chronological side of this short era lies racism: white racism before, black racism after. The Ku Klux Klan before, the Black Panthers after.
The narrative proved remarkably compelling, and the first wave of civil rights historians were all too willing to play along. Writers like Taylor Branch and Douglas Brinkley compiled valuable histories of King and Rosa Parks, the March on Washington and the Montgomery Bus Boycott. But they ignored the allegedly new and militant black consciousness of the late 1960s, sidelining Stokely Carmichael and Malcolm X, not to mention Marcus Garvey and other earlier, more militant civil rights leaders—these were the fallen angels, cautionary tales. Such historians also ignored the issues that mattered—and still matter—to blacks inside and out of the Jim Crow South, and which were largely ignored during the movement’s classical era: equality in housing, health care, education, and jobs.
These were always important issues to black protesters, and yet until recently civil rights historiography has almost completely overlooked them. This has begun to change, however. Scholars like Jacquelyn Dowd Hall, Peniel Joseph, Thomas Sugrue, and the late Manning Marable have all, in different ways, begun to place the “heroic” era within a much broader context, geographically, politically, and temporally. Unlike their work, Red Summer is not an explicitly academic book—McWhirter is an Atlanta-based correspondent for The Wall Street Journal—but it fits neatly within this new strand of research.
It is a sad fact that many readers will need reminding how awful conditions were for American blacks at the turn of the twentieth century. Southern blacks were systematically excluded from white society, and those who ventured even the slightest step over the line were met with a brutality unimaginable today. In the century’s first decade some 900 blacks were lynched, often in the most gruesome fashion—torture, burning at the stake, strangulation, and quite often castration—at times in the presence of hundreds of onlookers, children and adults alike. Vendors sold snacks among the crowds, and, in a macabre twist on the Catholic relic, locals would cut up parts of the victims’ bodies and display them in shop windows.
But life outside the South wasn’t great, either. Discrimination was a fact of life in almost every state and within the federal government. Indeed, during the 1910s things seemed to be getting worse: Woodrow Wilson allowed the segregation of federal employment, while anti-black housing covenants across the country barred blacks from living in white neighborhoods. A growing number of school districts adopted segregated facilities (sometimes couched in bureaucrat-ese like “tracking,” sometimes not). Organizations from the American Bar Association to the Professional Golf Association declared blacks personae non gratae.
At the same time, thanks to modern media, migration, popular culture, and rising education levels, black America was beginning to define itself as a collective whole, and to recognize the possibility, however distant, of achieving equal rights. In 1905, on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls, W.E.B. Du Bois called a meeting of black professionals to demand “every single right that belongs to a freeborn American—political, civil, and social.” By 1909, the movement had solidified into a new organization: the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
During its first decade, the NAACP divided its efforts among legal work, research, membership-building, and fundraising. McWhirter claims that before 1919 it was relatively small and purposeless, a description that would have surprised the thousands of blacks it gathered outside Washington, D.C.’s Metropolitan AME Church in 1913 to protest widening segregation. And yet he is right that something changed in the final years of the decade. Hundreds of thousands of black men went to Europe to fight in World War I; hundreds of thousands more, men and women, contributed to the war effort at home. In uniform, they met other blacks from around the country and shared the camaraderie of battle (though few of them were actually allowed to fight). In 1918 and 1919, those black soldiers returned with a new purpose: “We return/we return from fighting/we return fighting,” Du Bois wrote at the end of an essay in The Crisis, which he edited. Having participated in a fight for someone else’s freedom, they saw no reason why they shouldn’t do the same for their own.
We think of the civil rights movement as a peaceful one, built on King’s version of Gandhian nonviolence. And for a certain time and in a certain place—namely, the Deep South of the 1950s and 1960s—it mostly was. But as McWhirter makes clear, in the long view of the movement, nonviolence was the exception; when it came to the question of self-defense, many blacks of the 1920s sounded more like Stokely Carmichael than Martin Luther King Jr. Even James Weldon Johnson, field secretary for the NAACP, said in 1919, “I know we can’t settle this race trouble by taking a shotgun and going out and shooting up people, but I will say it will go a long way toward settling this thing if we shoot back when we are shot at.” Johnson, a novelist, lawyer, and diplomat, couldn’t have been more different from the street toughs who set on Chicago whites during the 1919 riot, but they all felt the same fighting spirit that summer.
The title Red Summer is a bit of a misnomer, if only because the first riots took place in the spring. Charleston, South Carolina, was one of the first cities to experience civil disorder: On May 10 a group of white sailors on furlough from a nearby naval yard got into a fight with a group of black locals in the city’s seedy Tenderloin district. As word spread of the fighting, more men, black and white, piled into the melee, and soon carloads of sailors were flooding the nearby streets. By the time a contingent of Marines restored order the next morning, four black men were dead, one was mortally wounded, and 17 more were seriously injured (as were seven whites).
Other cities suffered greatly in the following months as rampaging whites overwhelmed local law enforcement, which wasn’t keen on defending black lives or property to begin with. There’s probably no sufficient answer to the question of why so many riots took place in 1919, but McWhirter hazards a few theories. Hundreds of thousands of white soldiers were still crisscrossing the country, on the way to demobilization or the constellation of domestic military facilities. As they did, they passed through unfamiliar towns where they perhaps felt less compunction about causing a scene. At the same time, race relations were fraying: What had been a cold peace at the turn of the century was corroding as demagogic politicians harped on blacks as a threat to white safety, community, and racial purity.
Returning black soldiers were also a source of heightened fear among whites, who believed they brought with them a radical fighting spirit. And when blacks did fight back against white violence, their actions only further “justified” white oppression: As a committee investigating racial disorder in a rural Arkansas county that summer reported, “The present trouble with the Negroes in Phillips County is not a race riot…It is a deliberately planned insurrection of the Negroes against the whites.”
Other whites declared that black resistance was part of a foreign, even “Bolshevik” conspiracy. The nation’s first Red Scare was in full swing, making it all the easier for racist whites to assume that blacks, who had never before been so assertive on so wide a scale, must be under the influence of some outside force. As Woodrow Wilson reportedly told his doctor, “The American Negro returning from abroad would be our greatest medium in conveying Bolshevism to America.”
McWhirter is right that the events of 1919 did contribute to the spread of civil rights activism as a nationwide grassroots phenomenon, and that one of the eventual consequences was the landmark legislation of the 1960s. And yet to make the conflagrations of that year the sine qua non of the early twentieth century black struggle is to ignore everything else that mattered to black America. Millions of blacks lived outside the Jim Crow South, where lunch-counter integration and voting rights were less important than workplace equality and housing discrimination. Nor did these blacks wait for activism elsewhere to crest before making their voices heard. Recent scholarship on grassroots protest movements in Los Angeles, Seattle, Philadelphia, and New York makes clear that blacks were not content to work menial jobs for subsistence wages, live in ghettoized neighborhoods, and send their children to underfunded schools. A wide variety of groups was involved, from the establishment NAACP to the Communist Party to multiethnic activist organizations, all of which confound the assumption that the civil rights revolution was the work of a distinct group in a distinct place at a distinct time. Marches, sit-ins, strikes, and other forms of protest drew national attention beginning in the 1930s, and led to significant changes at the local and state levels (outside the South, at least). Even the federal government took notice, and barred racial discrimination in World War II factories and offices.
Many of these achievements were temporary and often disappeared once the exigencies of war or national press attention passed. But they are significant nonetheless. For one thing, they belie the comforting assumption, too often implied by dominant civil rights narratives, that institutional racism was more or less exclusive to the South. They also highlight how civil rights activism intersected with other moments in American history—protests against employment discrimination in 1940s Seattle and Oakland lead us to examine the fissures that existed below the supposedly unified domestic front during World War II.
Most important, their varied goals remind us that the black struggle was about more than just access to public accommodations and voting booths. It was, and is, a struggle for equal access to all the things that white America often takes for granted: safe neighborhoods, decent education, and a fair justice system, to name a few. That’s not to say that things remain the same. The classical era of civil rights not only brought real progress for African Americans, but also spurred a revolution in the status of other minority groups, from Hispanics to women to gays and lesbians. But dismal facts abound: Real income among blacks in Washington has not changed in thirty years, more black men are in prison than in college, and blacks have suffered significantly more by any metric during the Great Recession.
There are no easy solutions to these problems. The first step, though, is to begin to recognize the scope of the challenge. To do so, we have to get rid of the historical view that sees the classical civil rights struggle as the struggle, and replace it with one that looks much further back, and with a much broader lens. In the words of Jacquelyn Dowd Hall and others, we must “make civil rights history harder.” Doing so forces us to recognize the central role that violence has played in American history, even, paradoxically, as a catalyst for positive change. It also forces us to recognize that great social achievements don’t come overnight, but are the result of decades of frustration, false starts, and oppression—inconvenient facts that are as much a part of the story as the ultimate achievement. By taking the long view on civil rights we’ll be reminded that things are far from complete, that the radical vision of true equality that drove the movement’s forebears is still a dream. Only then can we begin to conceive of ways to move forward.
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