In 1919, hundreds of people were murdered in race riots across the US and UK. Men, women and children were butchered. So why is it a footnote in history? Because the media and governments don’t want you to know how they reacted.
- Andrew Dickens
Remember when we thought that 2020 was going to be the Year of Coronavirus? Then along came the murder of George Floyd and the subsequent protests, violent unrest and clashes between police, the far right and anti-fascists. Covid-19 is going to have to share top billing.
Remember, too, how everyone compared the virus to the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918–19? And yet few people compared the protests and violence to another event from that time: “Red Summer”. That’s because these bloody and shameful few months in 1919 aren’t the kind of history that countries want to teach their kids.
Red Summer saw hundreds of people killed in a series of race riots across the US. Most deaths were white-on-black – including people being lynched, stoned to death and burned at the stake – but it was also the first time the black population had resisted the violence, both peacefully and with force. And, while the words and images of such medieval savagery chill the blood, and the levels of cruelty astound a 21st-century sensibility, there are parallels with 2020.
So, what fuelled it and why has it been brushed under the carpet of history?
The US at the time was a deeply racially divided country led by President Woodrow Wilson – a supporter of the Ku Klux Klan who was against black suffrage and actually resegregated elements of American society. White-led race riots and lynchings were commonplace – from 1889 to 1918, more than 3,000 were lynched, 2,472 of whom were black men and 50 black women. Black people, despite emancipation 57 years earlier, had far fewer rights than white people. But what lit the touchpaper for the bloodshed of 1919, and what made it so significant, was the return of soldiers from World War One.
Armed, angry and ready to fight
These soldiers, both white and black, were demobilised at a time of already-rising racial tension and economic difficulty. They were trained to fight and, in many cases, were suffering from “shell shock” (nowadays known as PTSD). Violence flared easily. …