Red Summer

Think of any period from the past century or so, and a few images or events will probably come to mind—often transmitted by popular culture as much as the history classroom. We remember the Depression through Henry Fonda playing a migrant Okie; the Eisenhower era’s spirit of ruthless normality is preserved in the adventures of Jerry Mathers, as the Beaver. The enormous and rather puzzling exception, at least in the U.S., is World War I and its immediate aftermath. This marked the arrival of American military and political power on the global stage. But the images in our public memory are few and blurry, and on this topic our popular culture tends to be as laconic as one of Hemingway’s wounded characters.

And so Cameron McWhirter faces a double challenge in Red Summer, his sometimes agonizing account of the race riots that swept the U.S. in 1919. On the one hand, we seem to have collective amnesia about the whole era; on the other, survivors of the mayhem often refused to talk about what had happened. (One response to trauma is anxious silence.)

The period that black novelist James Weldon Johnson named the Red Summer actually began in the spring of that year, a few months after the signing of the armistice, just as soldiers were coming home from the campaign to “make the world safe for democracy.” Among them were African Americans who expected to receive a share of what they had just been told they were defending.  “Racial boundaries seemed to undulate,” writes McWhirter, “and the social order expanded, possibly to allow a new place for blacks.”  

Instead, white mobs answered their aspirations with more than two dozen large-scale riots, plus countless smaller incidents that always threatened to escalate. A map of the outbreaks shows the greatest concentration of extreme violence in the old Confederacy, but the violence spread from coast to coast and reached as far north as New London, Connecticut. The most horrific image in Red Summer is a photograph from Omaha, Nebraska, where some 4,000 people lynched a black packing-house worker accused of rape. It shows thirty white men in suits and ties, posed behind his burning corpse.

At least 52 black people were lynched and hundreds more killed in the streets by mobs. The number of injuries and the extent of property damage are beyond reckoning. McWhirter estimates that tens of thousands of people were forced to relocate.  Almost anything could set off the violence. When sharecroppers in Arkansas organized to demand fair contracts from the merchants who bought their cotton, the brutal response left a death toll in the hundreds. But even trivial symbolic issues could fill the air with murderous rage. That’s what happened when the seniors at a black high school chose the same colors for their graduation as those at the town’s white high school.

While spontaneous and often seemingly irrational, the explosion of white rage also had a definite purpose: it was an effort to reestablish the old boundaries as clearly as possible, drawing them in a line of blood.

Drawing on newspaper accounts and government reports of the events—as well as correspondence and other material in the papers of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People—McWhirter offers something more than a chronicle of repeated atrocity. The response of local and national governments to the violence was typically a sort of malign neglect. (The president, Woodrow Wilson, managed to utter one sentence of not terribly strenuous disapproval.) But the NAACP grew rapidly during this period, and so did the Universal Negro Improvement Association of Marcus Garvey, with its more radical program of black nationalism.

The author’s sympathies are clearly with the NAACP’s efforts at “asserting blacks’ rights within American democracy,” and he sees the civil rights movement of four decades as the flowering of seeds planted during this period. Without ever sounding like an editorial, Red Summer has the feel of that moment just after the 2008 election: it is cast as a lesson in the sources of progress, a tale of how far we’ve come.

“I found that if you explore the whole story of those troubled months,” he writes in conclusion, “you are not left thinking of America’s bald and cruel failings, but of its astounding and elastic resilience. The Red Summer is a story of destruction, but it is also a story of the beginning of a freedom movement.”

But the story is more complex than that. A revived Ku Klux Klan also grew rapidly following the Red Summer — and the events of 1919 spawned the addled notion that Bolsheviks were behind African-American activism. (Certain contemporary parallels come to mind.) McWhirter’s book is an absorbing treatment of events all too completely repressed from the public memory. But the author’s optimism isn’t quite enough to dispel the sense that there are  embers left from the fire last time, which might yet blaze forth again.