The events of Red Summer are important to remember in part because they are representative of the kind of horror that lies within the history of being black in America, a horror most white Americans little understand or appreciate, reinforced by their often willful ignorance.
However, these events all were noteworthy in another important regard: They represented the first time that black communities organized and resisted this violence, with varying degrees of success. But the pushback was just beginning, and eventually turned the tide.
Lynchings continued at their usual pace through the next year or two, finally beginning their decline in 1925. There were race riots, too, most notably in Ocoee, Florida, on Nov. 2, 1920. That riot was sparked by organized efforts by black people—led by successful black merchants—to claim their franchise by voting. The voting day violence that erupted when they did so turned into a murderous ethnic cleansing event.
New York Times, Nov. 4, 1920
When a white mob formed to lynch one of the leaders of the vote drive after he confronted officials at the ballot station, it turned into a rampaging flood of violence. The mob besieged the home of a man believed (wrongly) to be harboring its target and eventually lynched him. White paramilitary forces surrounded the Ocoee black community and laid siege to it. After setting fire to rows of African American houses, they waited outside them and opened fire on the residents who were forced to flee.
Over 20 buildings were consumed, including every African American church, schoolhouse, and lodge room in the vicinity. The black residents fought back in an evening-long gunfight but eventually had to retreat through the orange groves and flee. The remaining black residents of Ocoee with homes outside the besieged area were rounded up and ordered to leave, some 500 in all. Ocoee became an all-white town and remained that way until 1981.
As James Loewen explains in his landmark work Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism, there was a kind of contagion caused by these events that spread from county to county:
Some towns went sundown simply because a neighboring town did so. The neighboring event served as a catalyst of sorts, but actually it shows the absence of a catalyst. The only event required to set off an expulsion seemed to be envy of a neighboring town that had already driven out its African Americans.
So what then befell the black community in Tulsa in May 1921 was preconditioned by the many riots that had preceded it, not to mention inspired by them. The contagion meant that “race riots” became serial ethnic cleansing events, the net result of which was black people driven out of rural America.
Tulsa Tribune, May 31, 1921.
The Tulsa riot began, as many of these events did, with a white mob intent on lynching a young black man who it claimed had threatened to soil white womanhood—in this case, 19-year-old Dick Rowland, a shoeshiner who had some kind of exchange with elevator operator Sarah Page, 17. The nature of the exchange was never clear, but police arrested Rowland the next day, and the Tulsa Tribune front-paged the story with the headline “Nab Negro for Attacking Girl In an Elevator.” Its editorial page (all copies of which were subsequently destroyed) ran an editorial headlined: “To Lynch Negro Tonight.”
A white mob began gathering outside the courthouse. A group of about 50-60 armed blacks headed to the courthouse, intent on ensuring that Rowland was not lynched. The 1,000 or so whites already gathered saw their guns, went home, and got their own. Upon their return, gunfire broke out.
A rolling gunfight ensued back into the prosperous black Greenwood neighborhood. Clusters of whites continued to exchange gunfire with blacks sporadically during the night. Around 1 a.m., the white mob began setting fire to the black neighborhood along its borders. At dawn, a mob of whites descended on Greenwood and, despite being initially repelled by gunfire, soon overwhelmed the neighborhood with sheer numbers, destroying everything in their path. The surviving black residents fled.
The once-prosperous ‘Black Wall Street’ in Tulsa, Oklahoma, went up in smoke in 1921.
The Tulsa riot also featured one of the earliest uses of airplanes to bomb a minority community: In its drive to set Greenwood aflame, the white faction flew biplanes overhead that dropped flaming turpentine balls onto the homes below. Firefighters did not arrive. It all burned down.
Afterward, a number of white community leaders expressed remorse for the riots in a New York Times piece. However, the participants often defended their behavior by claiming they were putting down an armed “negro uprising.”
Two years later, in Rosewood, Florida, in the first week of January 1923, there was another “race riot” that in fact was another horrific massacre of blacks by their white neighbors. Once again, a black community was razed to the ground after it fought back, its residents permanently exiled.
The burned remains of Sarah Carrier’s home in Rosewood, Fla.
It began, once again, with a white woman’s claim that she had been assaulted by a black man. A black chain gang fugitive was blamed, and a white mob soon formed. It lynched a black blacksmith whom it randomly encountered. Then the mob attacked a house full of black people because someone claimed the fugitive was hiding there. The home’s proprietress, “Aunt Sarah” Carrier, was killed in the fighting, along with two white men.
The fighting attracted thousands of white men from around the state of Florida, who flocked there to participate in a “race war,” drawn by stories suggesting that black people in Rosewood had “taken up arms against the white race.” The remainder of the week saw an unchecked assault on the black community, at the end of which the survivors fled through the woods and never returned. As many as 150 people are believed to have died. The mob then indulged in an orgy of looting and burning, at the end of which the town was ash.
By this time, there was already an active and effective campaign being undertaken by the pioneering black civil rights activists who formed the earliest iterations of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, including notably Ida B. Wells. The violence, in fact, helped fuel the effort to fight for civil rights; In its early years, nearly the entire raison d’être of the NAACP was its organized opposition to lynching. A 1917 NAACP anti-lynching march in New York attracted 10,000 (and is credited today as the first mass march of any kind by African Americans). By 1919, the NAACP had 90,000 members.
The NAACP’s famous banner on Fifth Avenue.
One of the NAACP’s more memorable ways of raising public awareness about lynching was the banner that it flew outside its headquarters at 69 Fifth Avenue in Manhattan every day following the latest news: “A Man Was Lynched Yesterday,” it read. People paid attention.
Over the ensuing decade, a national debate arose over lynching that gradually turned the tide of public attitudes about its moral value. A federal anti-lynching law, championed by the NAACP, very nearly became law, but failed due to filibustering Southern Democratic senators. Eventually the civil rights movement gained broad momentum and produced the significant changes in the law, overthrowing Jim Crow and defenestrating the Klan and the overt regime of bigoted white supremacy that ruled not just the South but much of America before 1960.
But the changes in the American landscape wrought by the Red Summer of 1919, and the broader phenomenon of lynching and racial terrorization that was intended to create precisely those changes, are very much still with us. White supremacy does not vanish with the wave of legal wands.
The reasons the racial divide that was at its deepest and widest in 1919 remains with us today lie buried in the events themselves of that Red Summer, and in Tulsa in 1921, and in the many other horrors of that era in our history. Their entire intent, after all, was to create a white racial cartel.
This cartel was created with fear and violence, leading to black dispossession and economic disenfranchisement. So even after cultural mores about racial discrimination and the value of racial diversity finally shifted, the system of economic and cultural advantages and disadvantages the previous regime of violence had created (better known in this case as “white privilege”) persist ad infinitum.
The mechanics of how this happened can be observed by looking at what happened to America demographically as a result of these “race riots.” Essentially, black Americans were driven out of rural America and forced to reside in racially and economically segregated urban neighborhoods.
Loewen’s Sundown Towns is an essential text for understanding how this occurred. As he noted in describing the contagious effects of white mob violence, the end result of most of these ethnic cleansing events was to make whole swaths of America uniformly white. Once a “race riot” had cleared the area of black people, towns would pass “sundown ordinances” that outlawed the presence of any nonwhites after dark. Signs were erected on town limits: “N—er, don’t let the sun set on you here.” There were more civilized versions too.
These were not a Southern phenomenon particularly, though such towns were indeed common in the South, especially in the suburbs. But there were literally thousands of these “sundown towns” throughout America—in the Midwest, the Northeast, even in the far West and on Pacific Coast. These ordinances only began disappearing after the 1960s, and many of the racial covenants that existed in housing districts continued to be enforced through redlining and other mechanisms that kept black people in economically and culturally detached neighborhoods and out of white zones.
As Loewen writes in his conclusion:
We have seen how residents often interpret the continued overwhelmingly white population of sundown suburbs as the result of economic differences and individual housing decisions, including those made by black families. Even worse, suburban whiteness can get laid at the eugenics doorstep: whites can blame African Americans for being too stupid or lazy to be successful enough to live in their elite, all-white town. Token desegregation makes those interpretations easier to believe, because now nonblacks can point to a handful of black families to “prove” that “we have nothing to do with the overwhelming whiteness of our suburb.” Such “explanations” only compound the problem, because whites can infer that racism is over, the metropolitan area and the nation are fair regarding race, and African Americans are responsible for whatever inequalities remain. Between 2000 and 2005, arguments such as these have intensified in America, not just in discussions about residential segregation but about affirmative action and many other policy areas. That is why it is so important to know the history of sundown towns and suburbs—to give this cheery optimism the lie.
Loewen maintains a website where you can look up your own hometown to see if it is or was a sundown town. It’s an eye-opening resource.
Another important text—Daria Rothmayr’s Reproducing Racism: How Everyday Choices Lock in White Advantage—provides even deeper insight into how and why it is that, 60 years after the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act, the nation’s African American community remains locked in a cycle of disenfranchisement. The racial cartel created in the depths of the nadir and stamped into permanence by the sheer dread fear of the Red Summer and its associated violence, as Rothmayr explains, was designed (like all cartels) to maintain its underlying features even when forced to change by the law. Importantly, cartel behavior features what’s called “lock-in,” the model of which is used by economists and scholars to explain why an early lead for one technology can persist even when a superior alternative attempts to supersede it in the marketplace. Microsoft is a key example.
A story about Microsoft will help to illustrate the key features of the lock-in model. In the mid-1990s, the US government charged that Microsoft had acted illegally to gain an unfair monopoly in the operating systems market, in violation of US antitrust law. According to the allegations, Microsoft engaged in a range of very bad (and illegal) behavior that pushed computer manufacturers to buy Microsoft’s operating system, Windows. …
As the judge at the litigation noted, Microsoft’s bad behavior went on to trigger a “positive feedback loop” in the operating systems market. This feedback loop connected software authors and consumers. Consumers wanted to buy an operating system with the widest range of software available. In turn, software authors wanted to write software for the operating system with the most customers. Because of this loop, every increase in consumers triggered a future increase in software authors. Of course, every increase in software authors produced an increase in consumers, and the company’s small early advantage “snowballed.”
Ultimately, the company’s marketing advantage became locked in. Other competitors could not possibly overcome the company’s advantage. Notably, Microsoft’s monopoly advantage lasted long after the company stopped engaging in anticompetitive behavior.
Racial cartels work similarly to economic cartels, which are typically defined as a group of actors who work together to extract monopoly profits and limit competition. White cartelists create monopolies in every sphere of life, in large part because they have a zero-sum view of humanity in which people can only gain when others lose.
As Rothmayr’s subtitle indicates, the book importantly explores “how everyday choices lock in white advantage” to this day: “Choices like whether to refer a friend … for a job, or whether to give one’s child help with college tuition turn out to play a central role in reproducing racial gaps.”
Reconciliation and recognition come slowly, especially when great shame is in play. That’s why you don’t learn about the Red Summer, or Tulsa 1921, or the lynching era in high school—just as you rarely learn about the Native American genocide or the Japanese American internment.
Many black people, quite understandably, want to look away from this because it’s a painful reminder of everything bad about America in their lives and reinforces the message of their own dispossession. Many white people, on the other hand, use the ensuing silence as their own excuse to look away too. Deliberate ignorance is the result.
That ignorance is what enables so many whites to react defensively, with open hostility, to the simple plea contained in the slogan Black Lives Matter. No, you twits, they’re not saying only black lives matter. They’re saying black lives don’t matter to white people, and they must.
At the sites of the Red Summer riots, there have been halting, sometimes rewarding attempts at reviving this history so that a broader swath of America can finally come to grips with why we are where we are as a nation racially. The New York Times published a centennial retrospective on the Millen, Georgia, riots of 1919 earlier this year, noting that efforts to recognize the atrocity are under way within the community now, but that old scars remain. In Tulsa, there have been multiple commissions examining the history and how to move forward with reconciliation and, one hopes, reparations. Most recently, there has been a concerted effort to locate the mass graves where many of the Tulsa dead were buried unceremoniously.
Finally, as the Equal Justice Institute suggests, the intertwined legacy of lynching as a kind of extralegal form of execution also suggests how closely “race riots” were connected to the mass incarceration of African Americans as part of the systemic oppression of black people. After all, it should be obvious that black people have a multitude of reasons to believe that their lives do not matter to white people, from the depths of history to the modern record of easy police disposal of their lives.
Knowing the history of Red Summer—especially for white folks—ultimately isn’t about self-flagellation, white guilt, or political correctness. It’s about reality and truth and coming to terms with our own history. As someone who’s long grappled with the consequences of my white ancestry—one of my great-grandfathers avidly participated in the plundering of former Native American reservation land in southern Idaho—I long ago realized that there’s precious little individuals can do to compensate.
Collectively, as a society, that’s another story, which is why I’ve long supported not just reconciliation but, as Ta-Nehisi Coates suggests, reparations.
However, that doesn’t let individuals off the hook either. The knowledge of this history does carry an obligation: No, you can’t fix things that happened in the past, but you can—no, you must—work hard to fix things in the here and now. That’s what the Red Summer should mean to American whites today. If only they knew enough to remember it.
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