Causes of the 1919 race riots

May 25, 2012

The nightmare of violence directed at Blacks during race riots after the First World War shows why fighting racism is central to any working-class movement.

THE PERIOD between 1915 and 1920 saw the greatest changes for Blacks since the Civil War and Reconstruction.

In those five years, 750,000 southern Blacks moved northward, lured by the promise of industrial jobs in cities like Chicago, Detroit and Cleveland.

As the U.S. economy geared up for the First World War, Blacks filled the labor shortages created in the North. And once the U.S. entered the war in 1917, thousands of Black soldiers enlisted, believing President Woodrow Wilson's assurances that "out of this conflict you must expect nothing less than the enjoyment of full citizenship rights--the same that are enjoyed by every other citizen."

For the first time in U.S. history, Blacks had the potential to exercise workers' power at the center of U.S. industry, a power they didn't possess as isolated, impoverished and disenfranchised sharecroppers in the south.

But several obstacles stood in their way. The narrow-minded and racist leadership of the American Federation of Labor craft unions refused to organize Blacks and whites together in the same unions. Many of the AFL's unions had "exclusion clauses" or "color bans" built into their charters--clauses which the 1919 AFL national convention refused to lift.

The History of Black America

In addition, the American ruling class--its imperialist designs in Europe and elsewhere satisfied by the victorious intervention in the First World War I--found no need to grant Black soldiers the promises of citizenship upon their return home. Soon, American industrialists and the government, shaken by the Russian Revolution of 1917, the Seattle General Strike of 1919 and the steel strike of 1919, turned on all advocates of social change, wielding repression in the 1919-20 Red Scare.

Blacks felt some of the most vicious aspects of the postwar backlash. Race riots erupted in Charleston, S.C.; Longview, Texas; Washington, D.C.; Omaha, Neb.; Knoxville, Tenn.; and Chicago in the summer of 1919. Between 1917 and 1919, more than 200 Blacks were lynched in the South, many of them wearing their Army uniforms. In 1919 alone, 11 Blacks were burned at the stake in the South.

DESPITE SIGNIFICANT radicalization, the working class remained severely divided. Much of the blame lay with the craft unions' policies over the previous two decades.

The dominant form of union organization was craft unionism, represented by the AFL craft union leaders, who saw their position as that of maintaining exclusive control over the skills and labor of narrow-based unions. Thus, many AFL leaders referred to unskilled, Black and foreign-born workers as "garbage" and often saw their role as protecting the jobs of "native-born white men."

The revolutionary Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) challenged the AFL's political backwardness. It organized, often heroically, industry-wide, regardless of skill, race, sex, ethnic origin or other divisions. The IWW organized Blacks and whites together in lumber camps of Louisiana, on the docks of Philadelphia and on the grape ranches of California.

But the dominant AFL unions in the industrial North often presented Blacks with two choices: organize in segregated "Jim Crow" unions or remain unorganized.

Throughout the teens, meatpacking owners used Blacks to break strikes in East St. Louis, Ill., and in Chicago. As the influential Black newspaper, the Chicago Defender, complained in 1919, "Unwillingly, we assume the role of strikebreakers. The unions drive us to it."

AFL practices left a broad scar on the working class movement. Many white workers came to identify Blacks as "scabs," and many Black workers grew hostile to unions. Employers were able to exploit these divisions, helping them defeat strikes and to lower all workers' wages.

The growth of mass production industries in the First World War challenged some organizers to build industrial unions that united all workers--Black and white--in large unions. These efforts succeeded in the Chicago stockyards on the eve of the war's end in 1918. But the end of the war slowed the economy. Factories laid off Blacks and women first, often to make room for returning white soldiers.

When Black soldiers returned to the U.S., they found that racism was as strong as ever--and in many cases, stronger. Black soldiers were denied admission in Army parades. Many were denied jobs when demobilized.

As Blacks organized to press their demands, and as whites and Blacks competed for jobs and living space in the cities, a racist backlash grew. In July 1917, a white mob in East St. Louis killed 125 Blacks and destroyed 300 Black-owned homes. Race riots exploded throughout the country in 1919--more than half of them taking place in Northern cities.

Blacks fought back. In the 1919 Chicago riot, Blacks--many of them ex-soldiers--organized militias to defend the Black community against racist and police attacks. In July 1919, Black farmers in Phillips County, Arkansas, organized a union, armed themselves and conducted a near-insurrection against white landlords.

1919 saw the highest pitch of class struggle in the U.S. since the Pullman strike of 1894. Hundreds of thousands of workers went on strike that year, fighting for all kinds of demands--from wage increases to recognition of an industry-wide union. The struggles shook the U.S. ruling class. But it recovered to beat back the challenge from below.

In the wake of working class defeats, workers' frustrations with the bosses often were turned against other workers. Right-wing ideas and movements began to flourish. The race riots and the anti-foreign, anti-radical hysteria of the Red Scare, encouraged and promoted by the bosses and government authorities, owed much of their ferocity to lingering frustration.

But the lost opportunities of 1919 pointed out the sour legacies of the disunities between Black and white--disunity the employers promoted and reactionary union leaders aided.

The experience of 1919 shows that any movement hoping to challenge fundamentally American capitalism must uphold anti-racist demands as an indispensable step to the organization of the working class.

First published in the August 1985 issue of Socialist Worker.

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