After El Paso and Dayton, We Need to Talk About Red Summer 1919

Jonita Davis
Aug 5 · 7 min read

The mass murders over the first weekend of August 2019 echo a history that’s been long forgotten. It was 100 years ago, that hundreds of Americans lost their lives in riots that escalated in what became the Red Summer of 1919. Riots in over 25 major cities around the U.S. consumed the country in violence. These riots were initiated by white mobs activated by “racially charged” rhetoric surrounding the Great Migration.

Map of the Great Migration of Black people from the south to northern cities and California after WWI. Source “The Atlas of African-American History and Politics”.

What I mean is, white people got pissed off and started killing black people, because the black folks had the nerve to move away from the South. This is the same South that had enacted Jim Crow laws and re-initiated slavery under the guise of sharecropping. The place where Black people were oppressed, lynched and otherwise killed for any offense. Where they till had no rights or agency after the promises made during the Civil War 50 years prior.

The Same Song, But 100 Years Older and Targeting Black Migrants

At the time, Black people were fleeing a land where they were oppressed to seek opportunity in the North, where the heard life was better. (Sound familiar?) In the North, however, they found that racism was inescapable. It was also accompanied by some of the same propaganda and stereotypes spread by the southern media and politicians.

Here’s an excerpt from a The Negro in Illinois manuscripts courtesy the Newberry Library: [Insert photo]

Taken from the John Conroy Papers at the Newberry Library. This excerpt is from the author's research for the ‘Negro in Illinois’ project. It is quoted from a Chicago Tribune article on the Black population in the city. Image courtesy the Newberry Library.

Notice the coded language “shady gentry”, “sons of Ham,” “head of Medusa.”

A headline in The Gazette (Arkansas), October 3, 1919. The Elaine, AR riots was one of the most deadly with more than 200 Black people murdered. Afterward, the white perpetrators leaned on propaganda and stereotype to justify their actions. Similar headlines ran across the South in the years before Red Summer as the Great Migration ramped up.

They were not the aggressors. The migrants looking North for relief did not start these acts of violence. In each riot over the course of the Red Summer, White men were the aggressors. In fact, the city of Chicago’s riots included a dangerous mob of upper-class White men led by Richard J. Daley when he was a younger man. Daley would later become mayor the of Chicago in 1955.

So, Black migrants were being preyed upon by whites, who were amped up by the propaganda and racism in the newspapers and spewed by politicians. One woman wrote about the attacks on migrants in a letter:

This excerpt is from the John Conroy Papers in the Newberry Library. They are a part of his research for the “Negro in Illinois” project.

The newspapers were relentless in rousting the White people about the dangers coming their way. The migrating Black families were referred to as “swarms” “descending” on the unsuspecting White suburbs. Talk of the violence planned against Whites was sensationalized to the point of incitement.

“Negroes Plan to Kill all the Whites”

Clipped from the Nebraska State Journal 1908. Notice how the voting rights of Black people quickly became a part of the propaganda as well.

“Slaughter was to Begin with 21 Prominent Men as the First Victims”

“Black Men Armed Themselves and Planned to Kill Every White Person in Sight When Plot First Exposed”

“South Unable to Put Stop to Negro Exodus”

Clipped from unknown Arkansas newspaper before the Elaine, AR riots. Riots that were started by Whites where more than 200 Blacks were murdered. Only 5 White men lost their lives.

All of this led “good white people” to take up arms and “defend themselves” against what they thought were forces invading their neighborhoods and homes. Police jailed migrants to stop their movement. Lynch mobs went after men, maiming and killing them to prevent the women and boys from heading North.

Sound familiar?

100 Years After the Red Summer, It’s Happening Again

The President’s tweets that are full of similar rhetoric spreading fear and falsehoods, dangerous lies, the same way that it was done 100 years ago. However, Twitter has allowed the information to spread faster and further today. His tweets make it sound as if the US is being invaded, yet, he takes no responsibility for the shootings once they incite a mass shooting, which is what happened in El Paso.

Now, 100 years later, we have “good people” becoming “frustrated” the news of immigration through Mexico and taking up arms. We have White supremacists being called “good people” and their agenda to wipe out POCs a “side”. This led to the deadly weekend shootings in El Paso and Dayton. Two white gunmen murdered 31 people, aiming at Latinos and Blacks. The El Paso shooter’s social media was full of rhetoric about the “invasion” of Latino immigrants from the Southern Border. The Dayton shooter was similarly incited and suspected to have targeted Black Ohioans.

Images like this one from Fox News channel’s propaganda machine make matters worse, fueling White fears of an invasion.

However, this means talking about how the President’s rallies of white people chanting to lock up Black Congresswomen. This means unpacking the racism in screaming to send the Congresswomen back to their perceived birthplaces outside this country (despite the fact that two were born here and the other is a citizen as well). Politicians are on the tv decrying video games and mental health issues (also despite the fact that Trump repealed Obama’s regulations on gun sales to the mentally ill). Anything but a discussion of the hate speech, proliferation of guns, and white supremacy that leads to activating these people.

Excuses Become Propaganda, that Makes Them Deadly

Like they did back then, the people advocating the targeting of Latinos today cite violence, housing shortages, and the need to keep our country free from the overcrowding and violence. However, the Black families doing the migrating back then were restricted to a small space in the northern cities. Immigrants are relegated to similar living conditions due to racist zoning laws and redlining that has prevent their communities from growing with the population. This caused fighting and violence. Similarly, the argument about the stolen jobs is moot. Back then and now, those jobs are the ones that Whites didn’t want in the first place. Also, let’s not forget that the riots were started by whites when the Black families threatened to spread out into their “space”.

Today, when someone says there is no room, I simply gesture to the Dakotas or Wyoming. Many states still have billions of acres of space that go unoccupied by farming and uninhabited. We could not afford such luxuries if we were overcrowded. I also find it hilarious that some of the people shouting the loudest own multiple properties themselves. The head of the GOP in Congress Mitch McConnell owns $2.5 million dollars in real estate alone. If there was a shortage of space, this would not be possible.

And about those job rumors? Well, in the years leading up to the 1919 riots, northern factors were sending for workers in the South. The steel industry alone had ramped up and needed to hire extra bodies. In 1919, an industry-wide strike raised the need for Black workers who would unknowingly cross picket lines to keep the mills running. Today, the ICE raids have decimated Latino immigrant worker populations and the industries are reporting the hurt. If they really did take jobs from “hardworking Americans” then why are those jobs going largely unfilled now that the immigrants aren’t a factor?

Educate Yourselves

An Army Veteran Charles Duke is quoted here, echoing the same sentiments about education and empathy that are needed today. The GOP is trying to make into a political problem, which only ensures that nothing changes.

This has to end with us, now or there could be another Red Summer. The conditions are ripe and the similarities to the political climate too close for comfort. Keep in mind that Black people were not the only ones killed in the riots of Red Summer, and they weren’t the only ones murdered over this past weekend. White families will suffer casualties if history repeats itself.

Read about the conditions leading up to the Red Summer of 1919 in The Negro in Chicago. This document was compiled by a bipartisan multiethnic group commissioned to figure out what led to the riots in Illinois. Chicago, (and St. Louis in 1917) are the major riots in the state. They wanted to prevent more. We know, however, that this report was used to lay further oppressive measures onto Black communities. These systemic white supremacy survives today and is still damaging Black people.

We can’t hide from this or reason it away. It is not “liberal propaganda” or the media “exaggerating again”. Read the report and then come back. Tell me again how nonsensical this whole thing is.

I’ll wait.

Meanwhile, many more people will lose their lives in a game that we could have ended by standing up and speaking out against hatred. We could nip this right now just by muzzling those inciting the violence — starting at the White House.

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News, reviews, and breakdowns of the film and tv shows that we all love (and that I geek out so hard on). This publication will feature interviews, coverage from behind the scenes and so much more.

Jonita Davis

Written by

A writer, critic, instructor, and academic who sits and waits — pen in hand — at the place where popular culture intersects with life.

Bylines by Jo-Entertainment Beat

News, reviews, and breakdowns of the film and tv shows that we all love (and that I geek out so hard on). This publication will feature interviews, coverage from behind the scenes and so much more.

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