In 1919, white Americans visited awful violence on black Americans. So black Americans decided to fight back.

tags: racism, civil rights, Black History Month

Rebecca Onion, Slate’s history writer, also runs the site's history blog, The Vault. Follow her on Twitter.

... In his new book, 1919, The Year of Racial Violence: How African Americans Fought Back, David F. Krugler, professor of history at the University of Wisconsin–Platteville, looks at the actions of people like [S.L.] Jones and [C.P.] Davis, who resisted white incursions against the black community through the press, the courts, and armed defensive action. The year 1919 was a notable one for racial violence, with major episodes of unrest in Chicago; Washington; and Elaine, Arkansas, and many smaller clashes in both the North and the South. (James Weldon Johnson, then the field secretary of the NAACP, called this time of violence the “Red Summer.”) White mobs killed 77 black Americans, including 11 demobilized servicemen (according to the NAACP’s magazine, the Crisis). The property damage to black businesses and homes—attacks on which betrayed white anxiety over new levels of black prosperity and social power—was immense.

The history of black responses to the violence of 1919—which ranged from the use of a single weapon against a home invader, to the organization of defensive posses like Davis’ that were meant to protect potential victims of lynching, to the deployment of groups of men who patrolled city streets during unrest—makes it clear that armed self-defense, far from being an invention of Malcolm X and the Black Power movement, is a strategy with deep roots. As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the civil rights movement, the story of nonviolence—a beautiful strategy with uncontestable moral force—has taken center stage. However the story of active self-defense against violence—a tradition that developed before, and then alongside, nonviolent resistance—is too often dismissed or simply ignored. Even before slavery had been outlawed, black Americans took up arms when their lives and livelihoods were threatened. Their experiences make the familiar history of marches and peaceful protest more complex. But the story of the civil rights struggle is incomplete without them.

Why was there a spike in violence in 1919? Krugler argues that black service members’ experience in World War I was one of the catalysts. In many places, demobilized black veterans, having fought for their country, had a diminished tolerance for racial discrimination—and their families, having sacrificed on the homefront, felt the same way. Meanwhile, white civilians resented what they perceived as an excess of pride (what an Army captain, registering his concern with the Military Intelligence Division, called “social aspirations”) in those who had served. Servicemen were allowed to wear their uniforms for three months after being “demobbed.” Georgian Wilbur Little was lynched in April 1919, reportedly for the sin of wearing his after the cutoff date—a crime that suggests how much the vision of black men in uniform threatened the racial regime....

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