On July 27, 1919, a white man threw stones at Eugene Williams, 17, a black boy who had drifted into an unofficially “white” section of a Chicago beach. Williams was floating on a raft and the flaying caused him to slip and drown. When police refused to make an arrest, outrage led to protests and a week of riots as white Chicagoans responded with violence.
Over the next few days, riots broke out between gangs of black and white Chicagoans, concentrated in the South Side neighborhood. By the time the violence ended on August 3, 15 whites and 23 blacks had been killed and more than 500 people had been injured. Some 1,000 black families also lost their homes when they were set on fire by rioters. Later this summer, The New York Times claimed that the real cause of the unrest was “Soviet influence”.
The scapegoat theory emerges under the first red fear
It was a common conspiracy theory to be found in the white papers in the north during the “red summer”, a period between April and November 1919 or so when “race riots” broke out in at least 18 states and towns. White crowds in Washington, DC were the root cause of most of these riots, and black Americans – who had just served their country in World War I and were tired of unequal citizenship – fought back. Among white Americans, communism has become a convenient scapegoat.
It was during the country’s first red scare. Two years earlier, the leader of the Bolshevik Party, Vladimir Lenin, had carried out a coup to establish a communist regime in Russia, now the Soviet Union. In the United States, unions like the Industrial Workers of the World, or IWW, defended workers’ rights by carrying out strikes across the country.
In March 1919, the Communist International, or “Comintern”, was formed with the intention of spreading communism around the world. And over the next two months, anarchists began sending mail bombs to figures like US Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer.
In the midst of this, some white Americans feared that the Communists and other perceived “radicals” would try to overthrow the United States by sowing racial unrest for black Americans to revolt.
At the root of this conspiracy theory was the assumption that someone must get black Americans to protest. South Carolina Representative James F. Byrnes claimed that the average black man in the south was “happy and contented and will remain so if the propagandist of the IWW, the Bolsheviks of Russia and the misguided theorist from other sections of this country leave him alone, ”According to the Congressional Record of August 25, 1919.
WATCH: The Red Fear began before the McCarthy era
Black Magazine becomes a target
Byrnes suspected the IWW of funding a magazine called The messenger in order to spread anti-American messages, and he called on the US government to sue the magazine under the 1918 Sedition Act.
Mark Ellis, a lecturer in history at Strathclyde University in Glasgow and who has written on Red Summer, said part of what was happening was that people like Byrnes thought black Americans “didn’t. could not produce as clearly and well, a skillful journalism as you would see in Crisis magazine and The messenger magazine.”
“I think the deeply racist officials, who didn’t seem to believe black people were capable of doing this sort of thing and coming up with these ideas and arguments on their own, just assumed they were submissive.
There was never any evidence that Communists or other supposed political radicals influenced black publications or convinced black Americans to riot, but the theory did not need proof to thrive. The conspiracy theory was similar to a previous one involving fear of German WWI spies. When the United States entered the war in 1917, many white Americans saw the campaigns of black activists and soldiers for equal rights as evidence of German subversion.
“The idea of ’pro-Germanism among the negroes’ – this is how military intelligence conducted its reports – is really spreading [during the war]Ellis says. “There are all kinds of briefings given to newspapers like The New York Times on German infiltration and various kinds of plots without any supporting facts. I think a lot of people just thought it was a simple fact that the Germans were trying to overthrow the loyalty of black Americans, and were doing quite well.
The paranoia about blacks resisting the white rule goes back even further, to the days when southern whites feared slave revolts, says Cameron McWhirter, author of Red summer: the summer of 1919 and the awakening of black America.
“I think some whites have always feared in American history that African Americans are plotting against them,” says McWhirter. “The rise of the Bolsheviks and the collapse of Russia, the rise of anarchism and anarchists leaving bombs on people’s doors in 1919, really fueled this notion that… sort of [the Red Summer] was linked to these radical movements.
J. Edgar Hoover promotes the theory of communist influence
This conspiratorial thinking influenced how Attorney General Palmer and a young J. Edgar Hoover reacted to the Red Summer. In August 1919, 24-year-old Hoover became head of the new General Intelligence Division or “Radical Division” within the Bureau of Investigation (an early version of the FBI). In this new role, he tasked his agents to seek out Communist influence in the Red Summer riots, hired a black agent to infiltrate black activist groups, and fed the media with false stories about the influence. radical.
Even though Hoover’s agents have still failed to find evidence of this influence, Hoover continued to promote the conspiracy theory. That fall, he published a report titled “Radicalism and Sedition Among Negroes as Reflected in Their Publications,” which white newspapers used as evidence that Communists and other political radicals were behind the black magazines and newspapers that reported. questioned the racial status quo. (The report, written by an unattributed postal worker, did not actually prove a connection.)
Hoover later claims MLK is influenced by Communists
This type of thinking did not disappear until after 1919. A few decades later, white officials practically recycled Red Summer’s Communist conspiracy theory during the Civil Rights movement. In 1963, Alabama Governor George Wallace declared The New York Times that “President [John F. Kennedy] wants us to abandon this state to Martin Luther King and his group of pro-communists who instituted these protests. And across the south, billboards claimed to show an image of King “at the Communist Training School.”
Hoover’s paranoia about Communism and black activists during the Red Summer of 1919 also influenced how he targeted King and other civil rights leaders in the 1950s and 1960s. As Director of the FBI , he argued that these leaders were influenced by the Communists and authorized a series of illegal wiretapping and harassment campaigns against them.
“There’s a bit of a tendency throughout American history to attack people you don’t like for their alleged disloyalty, and that’s a way to avoid engaging with the point they actually do, ”says Ellis. “You don’t have to prove it to be effective, and I think that’s something Hoover has found.”