A narrative history of America's deadliest episode of race riots and lynchings
After World War I, black Americans fervently hoped for a new epoch of peace, prosperity, and equality. Black soldiers believed their participation in the fight to make the world safe for democracy finally earned them rights they had been promised since the close of the Civil War.
Instead, an unprecedented wave of anti-black riots and lynchings swept the country for eight months. From April to November of 1919, the racial unrest rolled across the South into the North and the Midwest, even to the nation's capital. Millions of lives were disrupted, and hundreds of lives were lost. Blacks responded by fighting back with an intensity and determination never seen before.
Red Summer is the first narrative history written about this epic encounter. Focusing on the worst riots and lynchings—including those in Chicago, Washington, D.C., Charleston, Omaha and Knoxville—Cameron McWhirter chronicles the mayhem, while also exploring the first stirrings of a civil rights movement that would transform American society forty years later.
In his study of the bloody summer of 1919, when lynching "spread like influenza" across the U.S., McWhirter, staff reporter for the Wall Street Journal, focuses most sharply on seven outbreaks of violence notable for their devastation: Charleston, S.C., in May; Longview, Tex., Washington, D.C., and Chicago in July; Knoxville, Tenn., in August; Omaha, Neb., in September; and Elaine, Ariz., in October. McWhirter writes, "his extraordinary summer was forging a new dynamic in race relations. Race riots almost every one started by white mobs were nothing new." What was new was black resistance. McWhirter pays detailed attention to the growth of the NAACP as the primary organized political resistance and individual attempts at self-defense, "from lofty oratory to swinging a baseball bat." The author brings a journalist's diligent digging and skillful storytelling to this historical account; behind the names of towns, he takes the reader into the lives of victims who suffered, perpetrators who destroyed, enablers who dawdled, and politicians who profited, as well as those who fought back, making 1919 "a turning point in American race relations." While less local in his treatment than Robert Whitaker's On the Laps of Gods or Harper Barnes's Never Been a Time, both of which cover the "red summer," McWhirter's valuable study, in chronologically examining the outbreaks of violence, may well qualify as "the first narrative history of America's deadliest episode of race riots and lynchings."