[Marxism] Red Summer

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Fri Aug 26 12:05:12 MDT 2011


Red Summer
Reviewed by Scott McLemee

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 

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 

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