}

Sunday, July 28, 2019

Remembering ‘Red Summer’


July 27, 1919 was a hot day in Chicago, and people did as they’ve always done in hot weather: They went swimming in Lake Michigan. That day, 17-year-old Eugene Williams, who was black, either drifted or swam (accounts differ) near the “white” area of the beachfront. White people were enraged, someone threw a rock that struck Williams in the head, and he drowned. That lead to a week of rioting in Chicago that left 38 people dead (23 black 15 white) and more than 500 people injured. Yet I never heard of it this until this year, and I know that I’m not alone in that. Ignorance of incidents the USA’s racist past isn’t unique—many people have it, and it’s one reason why the USA continues to be plagued by racism. We must be and do better.

After Eugene Williams was killed, (black) witnesses pointed to the (white) person they accused of being the one who threw the rock. Police refused to act. Instead, they arrested a black man. Fights broke out on the beach immediately, and over the next week it resulted in some of the worst violence of a summer filled with racist violence. The violence that year was so bad that it was dubbed “Red Summer”, apparently so-named because of all the blood spilled.

There were some 38 anti-black riots across the USA, and such racist attacks weren’t unusual. What made that summer’s riots unique was that it as the first time that black people fought back. That year, more than 165 people, most of them black, were killed. Thanks to a series of stories from the Associated Press, I finally learned about all this (the video up top is related to that series).

I think I know why I never heard about Red Summer: The problem with racism has never gone away.

When I was a young boy, racist violence in my corner of Illinois was common, so much so that it seemed there was some racial confrontation going on all the time. On August 5, 1966, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. led a protest March in Chicago’s Marquette Park, a white, working class neighbourhood. King had led other marches in Chicago, and had met white protesters, many carrying Confederate flags or swastikas. King said, "I have never seen — even in Mississippi and Alabama — mobs as hostile and as hate-filled as I've seen here in Chicago". That remark, while accurate, was not liked by white people.

The month after Dr. King’s march, the head of the American Nazi Party led a protest in the area, apparently with far more support than he usually got. He was killed by a disgruntled ex-member of his group the next year. In 1970, a new group for American nazis was formed and it was headquartered in Marquette Park, and for the better part of the next 20 years there was ongoing racial violence in that area.

Considering the ongoing racist violence in Chicago and Illinois, it’s not that surprising that people simply forgot about Red Summer. Dr. King’s march was roughly 47 years after Eugene Williams was killed. Racist violence continued for years, including, in one form or another, even after I left Chicago.

If you add it all up, it’s not in any way surprising that the Chicago events of Red Summer weren’t ever talked about—so much had happened since then, and racial division and racist violence is still a problem in the city to this day (the murder of Laquan McDonald is probably the best-known example in recent years). For Illinoisans, Red Summer wasn’t exceptional, and to me, that’s the greatest tragedy of all.

We must be and do better

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