Tuesday, February 7, 2012

"Red Summer" by Cameron McWhirter

The summer of 1919 would become known as the Red Summer, not for the Communist scare sweeping the nation under the heel of the Palmer Act, but for the red blood of African-Americans, coast to coast, who were beaten, stabbed, shot and hung, from Connecticut to California.

Imagine coming home from war after having served your country and being denied the rights of a full citizen as a reward for your efforts. In the summer of 1919 African-American veterans of the First World War, during which they had shown supreme courage in some of the longest fighting of the war, earning more medals than their white counterparts, were faced with exactly that.

In the first part of the year, African-American troops returning from France marched up Fifth Avenue and through Harlem, with crowds, black and white, cheering all the way. Savoring the moment was a good idea, as the camaraderie wouldn't last long.

By July of 1919 the United States would be gripped by a wave of fear and paranoia. First there was the Red Scare engendered by the Communists, which prompted the infamous Red Act, which stifled political dissent and saw many Americans imprisoned for their belief in a different political system. On top of that there were the Unions, with their attendant violence, making their way across the land, further fueling the fears of political change.

But the straw that broke the camel's back was the expectation of thousands of African-American Veterans; men who had fought to preserve the system now under fire from the Unions and Communists; that they would be free at last from the yoke of Jim Crow laws, which had proliferated in the days after the Civil War. Alas, it was not to be. Instead, these brave men received some of the most brutal treatment in the history of the nation.

In many cases these men were victimized by the very soldiers that they had served with overseas. The white Veterans could not stand to see the African-American Veterans receive the same accolades as themselves for their service. This attitude, which begat the wholesale violence of that summer, was not confined to just the South, but spread like wildfire across the entire nation. Rumors and outright lies were the cause of most of the violence.

As Mayors and Governors attempted, in some cases, to quell the violence, politics entered the fray. These politicians, who wished to be re-elected needed to choose a side, and they did so quickly, mobilizing the local Police and National Guard units to quell the violence, mostly at the expense of the victims, who in many cases would not have the right to vote for almost another 50 years.

But something different was beginning to happen in America; African-Americans were starting to fight back. They had fought for the liberty of all Americans, including themselves. From this point on, there would be no turning back. The bloody summer of 1919 would give life to the Civil Rights Movement, and though it would take the better part of the 20th Century to accomplish the goals set forth by its members, the long march toward equality had begun in earnest.

Carefully researched, with 60 pages of notes on the sources used in writing this book, Mr. McWhirter has given us a complete and accurate picture of just what it took to spark the fire which would lead to the quest for racial equality in America.

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