The world’s no fun anymore,
Only machinegunfire and arson
Starvation lice bedbugs cholera typhus.
That’s John Dos Passos in the novel 1919, part of his USA trilogy. A hundred years later, typhus might have given way to coronavirus, but the sentiment remains instantly recognisable. As the uprising against police brutality spreads across the United States, many have recalled events from a hundred and one years ago – in particular, the “Red Summer” of racial clashes and killings in an America reeling from mass unemployment and a deadly pandemic.
The Red Summer began in spring, when two policemen died arresting an African American man during an April celebration at a Black church in Jenkins County, Georgia. In retaliation, a white lynch mob formed, murdering six African American men and burning the community’s property. The following month, white sailors rioted against the Black community in Charleston, South Carolina, killing three. In July, white mobs rampaged in Indianapolis, Chicago, Washington, DC, and Norfolk, Virginia. The pogroms continued with a riot taking seven lives in Knoxville, Tennessee, in August; a lynching in Omaha, Nebraska; the massacre of more than a hundred African American sharecroppers in Elaine, Arkansas, in late September; and mob violence in Wilmington, Delaware, in November.
Then, as now, brutality inflicted on people of colour was not new. Historian David F. Krugler estimates that, in the first months of 1919 (that is, before the Red Summer began), two dozen died at the hands of lynch mobs. What happened next was notable not because African Americans suffered, but because they fought back with a determination that shocked the racists.
That resistance grew as the riots spread. During the Charleston attacks, Blacks hurled bricks at the rampaging sailors. When conflict flared in Chicago, young African Americans responded by amassing a huge arsenal of weapons for self-defence. In places, community organisation successfully quelled white violence. In Omaha, for instance, one racist warned fellow bigots not to press ahead with attacks – he’d heard that the Blacks had guns and were willing to use them. Such was the inspiration for Claude McKay’s iconic Red Summer poem “If we must die”, with its conclusion:
Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack,
Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!
The similar sentiment in today’s rallies led Robert Green II to argue, in a piece for Jacobin, that 2020 might be understood as a Red Spring, a movement arising to reject a hitherto normalised oppression. The parallel between the two uprisings also deserves examination from a different angle, given the relentless red baiting by authorities today and in the past.
Donald Trump responded to the insurgency by threatening to declare “Antifa” – a name given to a loose association of anti-fascists – a terrorist organisation. He blames violence on those he calls “Antifa-led anarchists” or “Antifa and the radical left”. US attorney general William Barr insists that “outside agitators and radicals are exploiting the situation”, with violence “planned, organised and driven by anarchic and left extremist groups ... using Antifa-like tactics”. The New York Times, the organ of establishment liberalism, allows Republican senator Tom Cotton to fulminate against “cadres of left-wing radicals like Antifa infiltrating protest marches” and to call for military force to crush them.
All of this, up to and including the role of the New York Times, would have been familiar to African Americans in 1919. Throughout that year, attorney general A. Mitchell Palmer attributed African American resistance to the nefarious influence of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and the newly formed Communist Party, a theory he shared with his newly recruited Bureau of Investigation section chief, J. Edgar Hoover. The press followed suit. As historian Mark Ellis documents, the New York Tribune condemned “the insidious IWW and Left Wing Socialist propaganda being disseminated among the negroes”, while the Boston Herald linked “the unprecedented boldness and aggression” of Blacks in Washington and Chicago to the “sinister influence” of the IWW and Bolshevism.
Then, as now, the New York Times played a key role, channelling the thoughts of an unnamed public official (probably Hoover). A Times headline in July announced: “REDS TRY TO STIR NEGROES TO REVOLT ... [through] publications circulated among uneducated classes in Southern states”. The paper’s editorial declared that “Bolshevist agitation” was “bearing its natural and inevitable fruit”. An article the following month reported that “facts thus far developed lead officials to believe that IWW and Soviet influence were at the bottom of the recent race riots”.
After the massacre of sharecroppers in Elaine (one of the deadliest lynchings in American history), the Times declared that “natural conclusions” lent “a high degree of plausibility” to charges that the IWW was behind the incident, and argued that its agitators were persuading northern papers “to exaggerate real grievances and to create unreal ones”. Hoover spent the rest of his life denouncing the supposed puppet masters behind African American activism and ran a concerted campaign to expose Dr Martin Luther King as a Communist.
The passage of a century makes the bigotry of red baiting more glaring. When, for instance, attorney general Palmer delivered a lengthy report to the Senate Judiciary Committee about subversion, most of his document consisted of extracts from Black newspapers in which writers called for self-defence against racism. He and his audience assumed African Americans to be unwilling and incapable of standing up for themselves.
Representative James F. Byrnes of South Carolina, a political ally of Palmer, spelled this out explicitly. The Southern Black man was, he said, “happy and contented and will remain so if the propagandist of the IWW, the Bolsheviki of Russia, and the misguided theorist of other sections of this country will let him alone”. Trump’s patronising references to himself as a “friend of peaceful protesters” relies on the same paternalistic trope: rioters as the dupes of outsiders invariably depicted as white, middle class and well educated.
Yet an understandable revulsion at such rhetoric can lead progressives to embrace paternalism of a different kind, one that simply reverses the red baiter’s logic. Where Trump and Co. attribute the current rebellion exclusively to the machinations of those they call “Antifa”, some would-be supporters embrace an “allyship” that treats the movement as entirely self-contained and distinct from developments elsewhere. That’s why it’s worth considering how, in 1919, when African American communities organised themselves to fight back, they did so in the context of a world in turmoil.
During the First World War, African American soldiers experienced extraordinary racism throughout their service. In France, the US high command even released a pamphlet warning civilians about the supposed predilection for rape of its own Black soldiers. Nevertheless, military service gave African American men renewed confidence to insist on their rights back home. “The five hundred thousand Negroes who were sent overseas to serve their country”, explained the veteran Stanley B. Norvell in a letter to a white newspaper in 1919, “were brought into contacts that widened both their perceptions and their perspectives, broadened them, gave them new angles, on life, on governments, and on what both mean”.
When the 369th Infantry Regiment – better known as the Harlem Hellfighters – returned to New York, the unit’s band marched the men through white streets in disciplined military formation – and, then, when they crossed into Harlem, struck up the jaunty jazz number, “How ya gonna keep ‘em down on the farm (after they’ve seen Paree)?” It was a sentiment that W.E.B. du Bois expressed in a famous essay. “We return”, he wrote. “We return from fighting. We return fighting.” In many cases, the fight was literal. When, in 1919, racists tried to put African Americans “back in their place”, they now confronted men with weapons training and combat experience – men not inclined to back down.
But the Great War provided veterans with more than mere military skills. The widening of perspectives described by Norvell occurred in a period of massive social struggles all over the world: the Easter Uprising in Ireland, two revolutions in Russia, the Spartacist uprising in Germany and mass strikes throughout Europe. Global instability manifested back home as industrialisation forced African Americans into the modern cities of the north and a post-war slump brought mass unemployment.
If 1919 was the year of race riots, it was also the year of anarchist terrorism, May Day riots and the Seattle general strike. The red baiting directed at African American communities foreshadowed the “Palmer Raids”, the Bureau of Investigation being unleashed on anyone deemed disloyal. On 2 January 1920, the attorney general’s men coordinated the arrests of more than 4,000 people in raids conducted across 33 cities.
During the Red Summer, the New York Times deduced the influence of Bolshevists behind the clashes on the basis that “the situation presupposes intelligent direction and management” – with the implication that “direction” could come only from outside the African American community. That was quite wrong. But precisely because the African American militants were intelligent, they took stock of the ideas influencing rebels all over the world. In his memoir, Black Bolshevik, Harry Haywood wrote about organising with fellow African American veterans – one of whom had somehow obtained a submachine gun – to repel white pogromists in Chicago:
“The Chicago rebellion of 1919 was a pivotal point in my life ... My experiences abroad in the Army and at home with the police left me totally disillusioned about being able to find any solution to the racial problem through the help of the government; for I had seen that official agencies of the country were among the most racist and most dangerous to me and my people. I began to see that I had to fight; I had to commit myself to struggle against whatever it was that made racism possible.”
For Haywood, that meant joining the Communist Party. That was a choice made by only a minority, but many others who lived through that period were forced to consider radical ideas, as they tried to make sense of their experience.
The situation today possesses a similar dynamic. Scholar and activist Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor attributes the current rebellion to the extreme state violence directed against African Americans. But she also argues that the uprising needs to be understood in the broader context of a failing society and a steady accretion of injustice. “If you’ve graduated from college, your life has been bracketed by war at the turn of the 21st century, by recession and now by a deadly pandemic”, she said in a 1 June Democracy Now interview. “And so I think we’re seeing the convergence of a class rebellion with racism and racial terrorism at the centre of it.”
The convergence explains the global resonance of a struggle initiated in the United States. The solidarity rallies on every continent represent the universality of both racism and police violence. The protests in Australia, for instance, drew attention to the horrendous rates of Indigenous deaths in custody and the persistent refusal of authorities to prevent them.
Yet the extraordinary attendance at the global rallies surely confirms Taylor’s argument about the context in which the response to George Floyd’s death has emerged. Lives across the world have been blighted by the War on Terror, the Global Financial Crisis and the new recession spurred by the coronavirus. Should we really be surprised that so many people identify with the resistance in America?
Hence the importance of a relationship based on that commonality. Where “allyship” emphasises external support for a struggle waged by others, solidarity means recognising mutual interest, acknowledging that the issues raised in one setting have a relevance elsewhere for others. What function do the police play in society? What strategies deliver genuine social change? What attitudes should activists take to the media and to elections? These are questions with which progressives everywhere need to grapple.
Trump’s rhetoric about “outside agitators” is, of course, despicable – an old-fashioned racist smear. But, from a different perspective, history shows that there’s no real “outside” to struggles that inevitably spread. If indeed we are facing a Red Spring, the implications will be global – and we need to act accordingly.
Jeff Sparrow is the author of No way but this: in search of Paul Robeson and Fascists among us: online hate and the Christchurch massacre.