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HOW much do cities, a people, a nation learn in fifty years?
Half a century ago, on a hot and steaming July day, a Negro boy swam past an invisible line of segregation at one of Chicago's public beaches. He was stoned, knocked unconscious and drowned. Police shrugged off requests from Negroes that the rock-throwing white men be arrested. After the body was pulled from the water fighting was renewed. This and other forms of violence did not stop for three days. Thirty-four men had then been killed, twenty Negroes, fourteen whites. An uncounted number, more than a hundred, had been wounded. Several houses in the "black belt" had been burned and damaged.
A young reporter and writer, Carl Sandburg, was assigned to write a series of newspaper articles on the riots. They were published in book form in 1919 by a newly established publishing book form in 1919 by a newly established publishing firm, Harcourt, Brace and Howe.
It is from these reports that we learn that a city, a nation, a people don't learn very much, if anything, about themselves in half a century.
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There were commissions in 1919. They discovered there was much poverty. They found that the hearses haul more babies out of poverty areas than from those where the wages and hours better.
There were other facts revealed by investigation.
Chicago's black-belt population of 50,000 had more than doubled, to at least 125,000, by 1919. (The black population was 812,637 in the 1960 census. An early estimate for 1969 was near one million.)
In 1919 no new tenements or housing had been built in Chicago to absorb the pressure of doubled population.
The black doughboys had come home from France and war cantonments. They had a new voice -- or wanted to have one.
Thousands of Negroes had migrated from the South where "neither a world war for democracy, nor the Croix de Guerre, nor three gold chevrons, nor any number of wound stripes, assures them of the right to vote or to have their votes counted or to participate responsibly in the elective determinations of the American republic."
Housing, war psychology, politics and organization of labor and jobs fueled the Chicago riot in 1919.
That and several other riots of half a century ago were a good school of experience. But we were all drop-outs. Few Americans learned anything.
The decade of the 1920s was about to begin--the era of wonderful nonsense.
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During that span of stock-market frenzy, few north of the Mason-Dixon Line were to pay any attention to the cotton South--where the boll weevil had arrived. He had made a long journey of many years from South America into Mexico, across the Rio Grande and the waters of the Mississippi, into the region where for so long a time cotton had been king. The boll weevil makes tiny noises. It lays an egg in a cotton boll. The hatched-out weevil chews away--just enough to kill the boll. The clicking of the stock-market ticker tapes drowned out the weevil chorus.
By 1922 and 1923 cotton plantations and farms that had been producing thousands of bales of cotton were turning out 150 or 220 bales. By the late 1920s many of the two-storied houses were empty and deserted. So were thousands of cabins and shacks where the tenants and sharecroppers had lived. The hearthstones about which families had warmed themselves in grief and hope were cold. Doors swung drunkenly in the wind. Many a man owing "the man" and the county-seat store with its marked-up prices had vanished silently in the night. Numerous cabins were burned. Careless hunters, huddling inside in a sudden slash of November rain, would start fires that sometimes got out of hand. There were hundreds of lonely chimneys in the 1920s. (They were even lonelier in the 1930s.) Nearly 200,000 men, black and white, left the South in the 1920s--the boll--weevil decade. Most of them went to Detroit, to Akron, to Pittsburgh, to South Chicago . . . anywhere there were jobs that unskilled hands could do.
The very corrosiveness of the Depression years of
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fear, unemployment and grief brought a temporary halt to most of the migration from the South. Those years also delayed the development of resistance to racism that was plainly visible in the riots of 1919.
A. Mitchell Palmer, U.S. attorney general of that period, was far ahead of a later Joe McCarthy in creating a "red" hysteria. Woodrow Wilson sought to calm Palmer. He could not. The Palmer raids and charges yielded no results save that he was for a while a hero. The costly effect of A. Mitchell Palmer's becoming a hero was that he gave free rein to all the ugliness and violence in America.
Anti-Semites had their inning. They printed and distributed "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion," long before proved to be one of the more hoary fakes. The anti-Semites aroused the more simple minded with tales of a Jewish conspiracy. The anti-Catholics were also in full bloom. They blamed the war on the Catholics and the Negro. They printed smears and lies about Catholics and the plot for the Pope to come to America and take over. The Ku Klux Klan staged a revival out of Atlanta. America was so spiritually bankrupt that the nightshirt and mask business flourished nationally. The Klan stronghold was in Dixie. But it also established strong centers in Indiana, Oklahoma and Oregon. Never have all the peddlers of hate and lies had so great a harvest. The Negro suffered most.
Lynchings reached a crescendo in the South. Mob
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violence had been a part of Reconstruction. In exchange for Southern support to make Rutherford B. Hayes president in 1876, the North's political and economic power structures had abandoned the Negro. He was literally "turned back to states' rights." Black codes, disfranchisement and segregation bylaw were quick developments. That horror--the mob at a frenzy of bloody killing--was accompanied by laws and states' rights decisions that declared the Negro inferior and defined his "place." These mob activities also sent Negroes northward in search for jobs that were less and less to be found in the South, where fear and the boll weevil were at work.
But it was not merely the Negro who left. He was the more numerous in out-migration. But the poor white went, too--and all the Negro's liabilities also were his. He had but one advantage--he had a white skin and he had been reared to believe this gave him supremacy and status.
So, when Negro migrants came asking for jobs at factories and mills, the white job holders, especially the immigrants from Dixie, reacted with fury. In east St. Louis in 1917, forty-seven persons, mostly Negroes, were killed and hundreds more wounded in vicious race riots growing out of resentment against Negro employment.
In July of 1919, in Washington, the nation's capital, several thousand troops were called out to halt the white-black rioting. That same summer there were riots in New York and Omaha--all in addition to those in
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Chicago. In the South that summer there were seven riots. Most of them grew out of the "impudence" of returned Negro veterans demanding their rights as citizens.
Reporter Carl Sandburg's accounts were not easy to get. They are not always, as he himself said, in exact sequence. But it was a fine, down-to-earth job.
Among the many revealing sentences from his reports, one will illustrate:
"During 1918 there had been 30,000 applications for jobs and 10,000 placed. . . . There is a steady influx of colored population from the Southern states. . . ."
Let us go back also to some lynching headlines out of the year 1919:
April 5, 1919--Blakely, Georgia: "When Private William Little, a Negro soldier returning from the war, arrived at the railroad station here a few weeks ago, he was met by a band of whites who ordered him to remove his uniform and walk home in his underwear. Bystanders persuaded the men to release him. Little continued to wear the uniform as he had no other clothes. . . . Anonymous notes reached him warning him to quit wearing it. Yesterday Private Little was found dead, his body badly beaten, on the outskirts of town. He was wearing his uniform."
May 1,1919--Shreveport, Louisiana: "A Vicksburg, Shreveport and Pacific train was held up by an armed mob here today, about five miles from Monroe, and George Holden, accused of writing a note to a white woman, was taken from the train and shot. . . . The note was in plain handwriting. According to friends, Holden was not able to read or write."
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May 15, 1919--Vicksburg, Mississippi: "Lloyd Clay, Negro laborer, was roasted to death here last night. He had been accused of entering a white woman's room. . . . A mob of between 800 and 1,000 men and women removed the prisoner from the jail. He was taken to the corner of Clay and Farmer Streets, covered with oil, set afire and hoisted to an elm tree. Bullets were fired into the body. . . ."
These are samples.
During the first six months of 1919, lynchings declined as against the first half of 1918. The total was a mere twenty-eight in comparison with thirty-five in 1918. Of those lynched in the first half of 1919, one was a Negro woman.
The exodus from South to North continued. The Depression decade slowed it. But by 1940 it was at a greater peak than ever. It was speeded again by World War II, when lend-lease factories working overtime were a tremendous magnet for labor. The disaster at Pearl Harbor turned much of this tide of labor westward to build planes, ships and weapons for retaking the Pacific.
This out-movement of people has never stopped. Indeed, the largest migrant movement was in 1950-1960. Since 1940 almost four million Negroes have left the South. When the war plants closed they stayed on, for they had nowhere else to go. They filled up the central cities. They are the ghetto, the slum people--they and enclaves of poor "hillbilly" whites. The latter, also
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cheated and degraded by the system, no longer have a meaningful skin value.
Their bitterness and alienation increases.
In 1940 about 70 per cent of all the Negroes in America were in the South. And now? Maybe 50 per cent. We shall need to wait for the 1970 census. . . .
Carl Sandburg's reports of half a century ago are a serious indictment of us as a people. We are again confronted with our incredible neglect of social facts and our lack of awareness of their meaning.
One of his chapters reproduces the demands of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People following the Chicago riots. They are mild compared with those of 1968. One wonders what might have happened to the social, political and economic health of America had those modest demands been met half a century ago.
There cannot be a repetition of the past. There will be renewed attempts to thwart, delay or ignore the laws and the gains. They can hardly succeed.
In 1919 there were few Negroes registered to vote--and almost none in the South. In 1944 there were about a quarter of a million Negroes registered in the South. The voter registration laws were not enacted by the Congress until 1964 and were not implemented until 1965. In 1964 there were over two million black voters registered in the states of the old Confederacy. In 1969 the total is certainly three and a quarter million. There
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now are 385 Negroes elected to public office in the South--the heaviest concentration of such officials in the nation.
The melancholy aspect of this progress is that the South and most of its congressmen, senators, public leaders, editors and clergymen opposed the advances. But they came on. (Open-housing legislation, for example, was stalled until the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.)
The lesson of 1919 and of later years has not been fully learned. There still is resistance to creating an unsegregated society in which the Negro is free to be his own self--not an imitation white man, but a Negro or black citizen of his country.
This re-issue of Chicago's riot reports of fifty years ago is a bitter-tasting medicine. It indicts us as a people addicted to folly and violent resistance to healthful social and political change.
If the gentle reader is in need of a chill tonic, then let him open up the bottle of Carl Sandburg's report of fifty years ago and take a dose.
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