Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Black dawn

In Red Summer: the Summer of 1919 and the Awakening of Black America, journalist Cameron McWhirter looks at a familar scene through a particularly vivid lens

The following review was posted recently on the Books page of the History News Network site. 

Nineteen-nineteen is one of those years -- like 1776, or 1861, or 1968 -- that is deeply etched into American consciousness. Perhaps not coincidentally, all are associated with wartime, but the social changes they wrought were far more than strictly military. Each has been the subject of at least one book; 1919 has had a number of good ones that stretch from the the 1932 John Dos Passos novel 1919 to Ann Hagedorn's fine Savage Peace: Hope and Fear in America, 1919 (2007). Journalist Cameron McWhirter wedges his way into this crowded field with an entry that looks at 1919 from the specific angle of race relations. His reportorial skills make this an original and skillful contribution to the literature on the subject.

The core thesis of Red Summer is one of paradox. On one hand, the middle months of 1919 were among the most dreadful in U.S. history in terms of racial violence. White-instigated pogroms stretched from coast to coast, and encompassed a wide range of communities: North and South; city and country; racially diverse and highly segregated. The most spectacular conflagration took place in Chicago; though it has been been much analyzed, McWhirter offers a richly detailed portrait grounded in primary sources.

At the same time, however, the very intensity of hate crimes such as lynching was so extreme as to mobilize the first systematic African American response to the violence, laying the foundation for what would culminate in the successful battle to finally destroy the legal basis for Jim Crow a half-century later. McWhirter devotes considerable space to the rise of the NAACP, which had been founded a decade earlier but whose membership trebled as it mobilized political, media, and organizational campaigns for blacks that extended from major metropolises to the deepest heart of Dixie. McWhirter also pays some attention to the more militant efforts of Marcus Garvey's United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), with cameos by other important figures like Monroe Trotter (who figures prominently in Hagedorn's Savage Peace) and Ida Wells, in the twilight of her career as an antilynching activist.

One other crucial aspect of McWhirter's argument is the role white public opinion outside the loud, and sometimes well-organized, extremist minority represented by constituencies such as the Ku Klux Klan and the Deep South congressional delegation. "Respectable" whites often expressed distaste, even disgust, at racial violence, but condoned it. One particularly appalling example of passive indifference that crossed the line into outright hypocrisy is that of President Woodrow Wilson, who courted the black vote in 1912 but who could barely veil a racism that has now badly damaged an already wobbly historiographic reputation. In effect, Wilson's incapacitating stroke in 1919 amid his efforts to lobby for the League of Nations becomes a metaphor for the sclerotic quality of his polite racism, which McWhirter argues was forced into eclipse after the outrages of 1919. From this point on, he asserts, segregationists were forced to fight an increasingly rear-guard campaign while civil rights activists began claiming, and seizing, the levers of government power to protect lives and property.

McWhirter, a reporter who has worked around the globe and is now based at the Atlanta bureau of the Wall Street Journal, makes his case with deft prose and an exhaustive survey of the historical record. Actually, he's almost too thorough for his own good; after a while, the blow-by blow reconstructions of riots and lynchings in geographically-based chapter-length accounts become numbing in their sheer detail. But he hits pay dirt in his reconstruction of a little known-lynch mob in Carswell Grove Georgia, which opens the book and becomes the setting for a satisfying coda.

Not all readers will find the affirmative tone of Red Summer entirely convincing. But the book is a carefully wrought document of a pivotal moment in African American history.