When the United States entered World War I nearly a century ago in April 1917, African-Americans, like Euro-Americans, either volunteered or were drafted en masse into the military in order to make the world safe for democracy. This task was especially ironic for African-Americans who had suffered from a host of de jure and de facto restrictions on their liberty (with only a brief and very partial respite during the Reconstruction Era of 1865-1877) since their emancipation from slavery at the end of the Civil War. Though most African-Americans were agricultural laborers without substantive civil rights as America entered the war, most of the young black men who went to war hoped to prove their equality on the green fields of France.
Given that the "progressive" President, southern-born Woodrow Wilson, had done much to segregate Federal institutions during his two terms and given that he believed D.W. Griffith's racist polemic, the film BIRTH OF A NATION was "history written with lightning," and given that of the hundreds of thousands of men of color who were drafted only about 50,000 actually served in combat units, it was a sisyphean task. America, though, changed greatly during the war. A wartime labor shortage in the industrialized north led to the relocation of a million or more blacks from the rural old Confederacy to the urbanized Union states. Management's demands were met with increasing demands (and increasing collective organization) by Labor. Strikes broke out. These wartime strikes took on an ugly cast when the Russian proletariat overthrew the Russian aristocracy in late 1917 during the violent Russian Revolution. The American ruling class (though it would have denied its own existence by that name) chose to see any Labor unrest --- indeed any social unrest at all --- as part of the machinations of a perceived worldwide Bolshevik movement that had already caused chaos in Russia, Hungary, and Germany. The "Red Scare" was not synonymous with the "Red Summer" but the former informed the latter. Lastly, there was the devastating Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918-1919 which killed off then percent of the total human population on the planet in just six months.
When black soldiers came home at war's end in 1918, they either chafed under the southern restrictions of Jim Crow (none of which had been impacted by the war at all) or they chafed at the difficulty of finding gainful employment in a north whose postwar industries were suddenly scaling back and suddenly cutting wages in the face of a flood of returning (black and white) veterans seeking peacetime work. They said at the time that, "You can't keep them down on the farm after they've seen Gay Paree," and Americans' exposure to European culture threw the staid United States into an uproar. New clothing styles, new roles for women, new modes of transportation, new media, and new music were all to alter America forever in a very brief period of time.
Given all this social foment, it is of little wonder that race became a flashpoint in America in 1919. Starting just as the winter thawed, a series of race riots, unprecedented in scope, in size, and in violence, swept across the United States, striking locales as diverse as Elaine, Arkansas, Chicago, Illinois, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, California, and Corbin, Kentucky. The Red Summer lasted into November of the year. Virtually every race riot that occurred was instigated by whites first attacking blacks. The number of killings is still unknown. The number of documented lynchings was 83, though the true number was much higher. Individual knifings and shootings were rampant.
Author Cameron McWhirter tells us that the Red Summer began in mid-April in a little town called Carswell Grove, Georgia, when a well-off black farmer by the name of Joe Ruffin, who owned his own land, a tractor, his own home, and two cars, was involved in an altercation that left two white policemen and another black man dead. Exactly what happened is still unknown. Ruffin, known as a law-abiding sort, had to be hidden by the authorities lest he be lynched, and at the end of a protracted legal process during which he was condemned to hang, Ruffin was exonerated. However, all of Ruffin's property was destroyed and his family was either killed or fled the area.
And so it went all year. Riots large and small exploded over name-calling incidents, over unproveable rumors, over front-porch gossip, over even the choice of school colors between a black high school and a white high school. The riot in Washington, D.C. took place along Pennsylvania Avenue. President Wilson refused to say anything at all on the subject. The worst of the Red Summer violence erupted in the Mississippi Delta in the fall of 1919 where organized hunting parties of whites tracked blacks through the countryside like animals for weeks. The number of deaths in tiny Phillips County, Arkansas was estimated to be at least several hundred.
White America refused to look at the riots. Officialdom, reinforced by journalists from otherwise responsible newspapers, blamed the unrest on labor agitators (primarily the despised I.W.W.) who had hoodwinked blacks into becoming Bolsheviks. In reality, few blacks were involved in Organized Labor which was strictly segregated. More often than not, white management caused labor unrest by using non-union black labor as scabs and strikebreakers. Still, the idea that "Negroes" were Communists gained currency among white critics. Attempts at passing anti-lynching bills inm Congress and in statehouses were stymied by racists and the self-absorbed.
Instead of organizing among class lines, African-Americans chose to organize among color lines in 1919. The National Association For The Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), a small organization founded primarily by white "do-gooders" in 1909 became a major locus of black expression during the Red Summer, watching its membership rise from some tens of thousands in the spring to hundreds of thousands by the fall. The NAACP quickly organized to protect the rights of accused blacks in the courts, and it became the primary platform for black self-expression in those bloody months of 1919.
Other African-American organizations existed as well, though McWhirter mentions most of them only in passing. He does, however, show a particular animus toward Marcus Garvey and his "Back To Africa" UNIA movement, which (like the white-run "Colonization Societies of the 19th Century) advocated that American blacks establish a sovereign nation in Africa. Given the tortured history of Liberia and Sierra Leone, two such "colonized" nation-states, it's likely that Garvey's socialist-inspired plan would have been doomed to failure anyway, but McWhirter treats it as a total fraud from the outset. Garvey was eventually jailed on tax-evasion charges, but McWhirter doesn't tell us whether Garvey's conviction was legitimate.
African-Americans also turned to self-help during the riots. Choosing notr to cower, many shot back and fought in the streets as white mobs tried to kill them. Sadly, official organs like the police, the military, and the nascent FBI almost always sided with whites during these battles. Still, the sense that blacks were not submitting passively to cruel fate acted as something of a brake on street violence during the latter half of the Red Summer. The Red Summer also saw the birth of jazz and of the Harlem Renaissance. The young men who came of age during the Red Summer were to influence the thinking of Martin Luther King Jr. and other leaders of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. It is one of the shortcomings of RED SUMMER that McWhirter skimps on tracing this evolution of ideas.
Though it was born in blood, the child of the Red Summer was a new form of activism and self-expression among African-Americans who would never again passively submit to abuse nor rely entirely on white allies to promote African-American Civil Rights. It is perhaps no coincidence that Jackie Robinson, destined to break the color barrier in Major League Baseball, was born in 1919 and that his family emigrated from rural Georgia to suburban Los Angeles within only a few months. The Robinsons' "hegira" (as the white papers labelled black relocation in that era) was part of the trends born out of the Red Summer.