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‘Red Summer’: Lessons for today

Columnists

Julianne Malveaux | 8/2/2019, 6 a.m.
On July 27, 1919, and for 13 days after, Chicago was engulfed in violence. White mobs wantonly attacked black people ...
Julianne Malveaux

On July 27, 1919, and for 13 days after, Chicago was engulfed in violence. White mobs wantonly attacked black people and black people fought back.

It started when a black teenager, swimming in segregated Lake Michigan, drift- ed to the “wrong” side of the lake. White people stoned him and he drowned. The Chicago Police refused to take action even though the white man who threw the fatal rock, George Stauber, was identified. Police Officer Daniel Callahan declined to arrest the murderous Mr. Stauber.

Word of the drowning and police indifference spread quickly, and it was “on,” with white supremacy and unequal justice on full display. For example, Officer Callahan, the racist cop who would not arrest George Stauber, arrested a black man in the crowd based on one white man’s complaint.

Cameron McWhirter recounts the jarring events of the Chicago manifestation of white supremacy and the black response in his absorbing book, “Red Summer: The Summer of 1919 and the Awakening of Black America.” Chicago was the site of the deadliest violence in the Red Summer. It claimed 23 black lives and 15 white ones, with white people being aggressors who beat, killed and burned out black people because of their segregationist rage and economic envy.

The deadly violence in Chicago was but one of at least 38 deadly attacks by white people on black people. NAACP Secretary James Weldon Johnson — the author, with his brother J. Rosamond Johnson, of the Negro National Anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing”—dubbed the Summer of 1919 the “Red Summer” because so much blood flowed. And while white people were accustomed to attacking black folk without consequence, during the summer of 1919, black people weren’t having it, particularly with recent World War I veterans on the scene. We fought back!

Most of the attacks took place in the South. Chicago, with its teeming ethnic clashes and large black population, might be con- sidered “up South.” But the so-called liberal North was no stranger to the racism that gripped our nation. Black people also were attacked in New London, Conn., led by white Navy members. We were attacked in the cradle of democracy, Philadelphia, when a black family moved into a white neighborhood. We were attacked in Omaha, Neb., where a black man was accused of raping a white woman. Warped white people burned the court- house, causing more than $1 million in damage. In Chicago, mobs of depraved white outlaws destroyed black businesses and homes, leaving hundreds of black families homeless.

The white thugs who attacked black people rarely were arrested and didn’t ex- perience any consequences for their lawlessness. But the black folk who fought back were sometimes arrested, beaten or killed. In Washington, the rumor that a young white woman was “attacked” — she admitted she was merely jostled — started white servicemen on a rampage attacking random black people, pulling them from streetcars and attacking them on the street. The white men were primarily members of the military, and the military too often turned a blind eye to their criminal members.