It’s not healthy to repress bad memories, yet we always try.
Perhaps that explains why Chicagoans have not memorialized the city’s 1919 race riots, which erupted 100 years ago this week, very much.
Even the Fort Dearborn Massacre, a 15-minute battle in 1812 that U.S. soldiers lost to the Potawatomi Native Americans, has its own park and a majestic sculpture on the Michigan Avenue Bridge.
But the 1919 race riots, a catastrophe that left 38 people dead – 23 black and 15 white, along with more than 500 injured and hundreds homeless – is remembered mostly as a case study for historians, journalists and social policy experts in how quickly and horribly our country’s fabled racial and ethnic “melting pot” can boil over.
Chicago was by no means alone in its violent eruption. The “Red Summer,” a label credited to author and NAACP field secretary James Weldon Johnson, became the brand for interracial violence that broke out in more than three dozen cities that year.
The causes were ominously similar. Black immigrants fleeing segregation, low wages and Ku Klux Klan terrorism in the South flowed into Chicago during the “Great Migration” between 1915 and 1920 at a rate as high as 100,000 in one year.
Many were lured north to fill factory jobs during World War I when mostly white workers went overseas and new immigration from Europe was stopped. But almost no new housing was built either. When soldiers returned from overseas, they found themselves competing for jobs and housing with black veterans who, having both weapons training and a taste of European-style freedom, were more inclined than previous generations to fight back when attacked.
Battles for elbow room extended to such leisure spaces as the city’s lakefront beaches, where the rioting began. On a hot July 27, a black teenager named Eugene Williams floated on a wooden tie past an invisible but mutually understood line that separated a black beach at 29th Street from a white beach at 26th Street. White youths threw rocks at him, according to later investigations, and Williams, who could not swim, was hit and drowned.
Although several people, white and black, tried to revive Williams, a police officer at the 26th Street Beach was unwilling to either arrest the rock throwers on the word of their black accusers or to help Williams. Unequal justice proved to be the rule during the ensuing violence, until the four-day chaos finally was ended by the Illinois militia and a cooling rain.
“The riots provided an excuse for every element of Gangland to go to it,” wrote reporter and poet Carl Sandburg, who covered the riot for the Chicago Daily News, “and test their prowess by the ancient ordeal of the jungle.”
South Side gangs turned out to be one element that prolonged the riot fires and fury, according to a commission that investigated its causes. Unlike today’s Chicago gangs, which are mostly black or Latino, the “gangs” named in connection with the riot were white and based in athletic clubs near the Chicago stockyards. Most remembered is the Hamburg Social and Athletic Club, because of its now-famous member, Richard J. Daley, who later became mayor.
Daley would be better known years later for forging an alliance with U.S. Rep. William “Big Bill” Dawson. The powerful ward boss of a black Democratic “sub-machine,” Dawson helped Daley corral enough black votes to win the mayor’s office in a tight 1955 race and be reelected five times. Black voters were becoming full players in Chicago’s political life.
A lot has changed in Chicago since those days. The city has seen other riots, most significantly after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968. Each time, we see the same lessons reemerge: People, regardless of their color or creed, don’t like to be taken for granted.
It is ironic to see the same xenophobic rage, fear, suspicions and turf wars that fueled the 1919 riots now roil today’s immigration debate – including cries of “go back where you came from.”
African Americans are still here. One of us, a transplanted Chicagoan, even was elected president. That’s upward mobility. That’s the American way.
It’s easy to gain power by fanning irrational fears. But it’s self-destructive. Better leaders look for ways to answer “yes” to the immortal question raised by another man named King – Rodney King – “Can we all get along?”