Masterly examination of the widespread outbreak of racially motivated mob violence in the summer of 1919.
In his debut, Wall Street Journal staff reporter McWhirter describes in gripping detail a wave of incidents of mob violence that erupted across America in the summer following the end of World War I. Chicago, Washington and Knoxville became battlegrounds, and in Omaha the mob sacked the county courthouse and nearly hanged the mayor. The Tuskegee Institute recorded 83 lynchings during the year, a record that still stands. The federal government did nothing; the Justice Department, led by the red-baiting Attorney General Alexander Mitchell Palmer, attributed the violence to radical agitators among black workers. As McWhirter skillfully demonstrates, the true causes of the violence were complex, arising in part from social dislocations resulting from the “Great Migration” of Southern blacks to northern cities in search of industrial jobs, a trend that exacerbated racial animosities in volatile societies that were often already ethnically fragmented. Lynchings and race riots had occurred throughout American history, but in 1919 white thugs encountered something new—the nation’s black communities now included soldiers returned from France who were determined to resist mob violence by force of arms. Their efforts were supported by black civic leaders like James Weldon Johnson, Walter White and W.E.B. Du Bois of the NAACP, who pressed for justice for the rioters’ victims in the press, the courts and Congress, and thereby established their burgeoning organization as the preeminent group advocating for black rights. In this new spirit of resistance, McWhirter sees “the start of a process—a great dismantling of institutional prejudice and inequity that marred American society.” Throughout the book, the author writes with professional detachment, permitting his subjects’ words and deeds to speak eloquently for themselves, amplified by liberal quotation from the vibrant black press of the period.
An unsettling reminder of the cruelty and hatred that can lie beneath the surface of a nation formally committed to equal justice for all, but also a monument to the suffering and perseverance of a people at last determined to demand rights promised but too long denied.