Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Cameron McWhirter's "Red Summer"

Cameron McWhirter is a staff reporter for The Wall Street Journal. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa, summa cum laude from Hamilton College, where he majored in history. He earned a masters from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and has worked for several news organizations including The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and The Detroit News. He has been awarded a Thomas J. Watson Fellowship for research in Eritrea and the Sudan, and a Nieman fellowship at Harvard University.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Red Summer: The Summer of 1919 and the Awakening of Black America, and reported the following:
The chapter including page 99 of my book, Red Summer, details the July 1919 riot in Washington, D.C. After two black men jostled a white woman on a sidewalk, rumors spread that the woman was sexually assaulted. Mobs of white sailors and soldiers attacked blacks. Blacks defended their neighborhoods and fighting spread across the city. After days of inaction, President Woodrow Wilson, who could hear gunfire and mayhem from his White House bedroom, finally ordered in troops to restore order. This page captures the violence white mobs wrought. Later pages show a key development of the Red Summer: blacks fought back – politically, legally and in the streets – in numbers never before seen.

Today when most people hear the term “race riot” they think of the riots of the 1960s or of Los Angeles in 1992 – poor blacks in ghettoes battling with National Guard and vandals ransacking stores.

In the breadth of American history, however, the vast majority of race riots were caused by white mobs attacking either individual black people or black communities. In every city where I have worked as a reporter – New York, Chicago, Detroit, Cincinnati and Atlanta – I have found at least one major antiblack riot in its past.

The worst spate of racial violence came in a period from April to November 1919 that NAACP activist James Weldon Johnson called the “Red Summer,” because it was so bloody.

After World War One, black Americans fervently hoped for a new epoch of peace, prosperity, and equality. Black soldiers believed their participation in the fight to make the world safe for democracy finally earned them rights they had been promised since the close of the Civil War.

Instead, an unprecedented wave of riots and lynchings swept the country. From April to November of 1919, the racial unrest rolled across the South into the North and the Midwest, even to the nation’s capital. Millions of lives were disrupted, and hundreds of lives were lost. Blacks responded by fighting back with an intensity and determination never seen before. American race relations would never be the same.

A part of page 99 and the top of 100:
During the night, groups of white servicemen attacked blacks, pulling them from streetcars and assaulting them on sidewalks. Shots were fired. Police and a handful of marines responded to several calls, but every time they did, the mob dispersed, only to re-form. Ten people – eight black civilians and two white soldiers – were arrested that Saturday night, even though all reports stated whites were the ones rioting. News reports sent across the country Sunday assumed the trouble was over.

NAACP officials urged Navy Secretary Josephus Daniels to act against sailors involved in the fighting. They reminded him of what had happened in Charleston – quick action saved lives. Daniels, a North Carolina Democrat and an ardent segregationist, did nothing.

Sunday night, several hundred white sailors and workers marched from the Washington Navy Yard on the Potomac into the nearby neighborhood, beating any blacks they encountered. They threw stones and bricks and pulled people from streetcars. Whites packed into cars, drove into black neighborhoods in northwest Washington, and fired at passersby. These drive-by shootings, known by the slang term ‘terror cars,’ were a key tactic of urban mobs and gangs in 1919.

Late Sunday, rioting also erupted in the city’s retail district at theaters let out. Under the glare of streetlights and in front of open shops and restaurants, hundreds of white soldiers, sailors, and marines attacked black men walking near the White House. A police officer arrested a white soldier on Pennsylvania Avenue near the Mall and was surrounded by an angry crowd of soldiers demanding the
prisoner’s release. The officer fired his revolver in the air to drive the men away. Civilian whites joined the crowds and incited violence by running up to white servicemen, pointing at a passing black person, and shouting, ‘There he goes!’

That night, Carter Godwin Woodson, the dean of Howard University and a pioneer of African American history, ran into a white mob while walking home near the Capitol.

Woodson ducked into a store entranceway and watched servicemen chase a black man who screamed for mercy. As Woodson emerged from the shadows, he witnessed what he called the ‘most harrowing spectacle’ he had ever seen. The mob caught the black man and hoisted him up ‘as one would a beef for slaughter’ then shot him. Woodson sneaked away, trying not to draw attention to himself.
Learn more about the book and author at Cameron McWhirter's website.

--Marshal Zeringue