Much of the trouble in the summer of 1919 revolved around people trying to get decent work for a living wage. But underneath boiled and bubbled rampant white supremacist ideals and corporate greed.
- Government policies reflected a hyper-nationalist attitude prevalent throughout America
- People demanding a more equal distribution of wealth, especially union strikers, were labeled far-left wing and denounced as un-American
- Immigration from Mexico was on the rise and African Americans migrated to the North in great numbers.
- Newspapers exacerbated fear and xenophobia
- The anti-immigrant Sedition Act of 1918 and subsequent state statutes allowed deportation of people with undesirable politics, and gave police unspoken authority to physically harass or arrest anyone considered suspicious or thought to be causing trouble
Labor strikes turned bloody when wartime price controls lifted and industrial companies tried to preserve wartime profit levels, often hiring blacks from the south to break strikes. You know that story if you've read my book Fannie Never Flinches.
And she became one of the hundreds of Americans to die that bloody summer.
Fannie Sellins was shot to death late in the summer of 1919, when
Allegheny Coal and Coke hired armed guards to badger strikers and provoke violence.
This year, to mark the 100th Anniversary of Fannie Sellins' death, folks in Western Pennsylvania and West Virginia will gather to remember her love of working people, her courage and the ideals for which she gave her life. See News & Links below for my speaking schedule at these events.
Warning: Graphic images accompany the article below.
The Red Summer
Even more atrocious—hundreds of black Americans killed in cold blood that summer—their killers never facing charges or trial. Their deaths blamed on "race riots" supposedly started by the blacks themselves.
In separate incidents, white supremacists lynched at least 100 African Americans. All this, with no repercussions for the killers, in fact they were sometimes aided in the murders by local law officers and U.S. Army troops called in to police the violence.
The episodes of deadly violence often lasted for days. In Chicago, the killing and destruction of property in black neighborhoods went on for a week, as mobs tried to drive African Americans from industrial jobs and white neighborhoods. Often the excuse was the need to “protect” white women against the alleged assaults of black men.
This added fuel to the false accusations of "race riots" instigated by blacks.
The most heinous attacks, a racially-motivated massacre, took place over several days in Phillips County, Arkansas. In the area of cotton plantations, blacks, mostly sharecroppers, outnumbered whites ten to one.
African American sharecroppers attempted to unionize. When several whites showed up to harass a meeting of the Progressive Farmers and Household Union of America.
Debate remains over who fired first, but a white man was killed and the deputy sheriff injured.
The armed force met little opposition from the blacks in the county, but hysteria and an imagined black insurrection swept through the group. The mob started indiscriminately killing black men, women and children, and ransacking their homes.
Federal troops were sent in to "put down the rebellion" and joined the killing spree.
White newspapers reported the insurrection of blacks had been brought to heel with the deaths of five whites and approximately one-hundred blacks.
That's the way it happened with all the violence involving blacks and whites that year. White newspapers blamed the victims for starting the violence and reported false stories to justify the murders.
Image shows newspaper report following the massacre of blacks in Phillips County, Arkansas.
Similarly, 1919 headlines misrepresented legitimate labor strikes as crimes against society, conspiracies against the government and plots to establish Communism.
And so, history was written. The truth of what happened in Arkansas has only begun to be reported accurately in the last decade. And a look at most any U.S. history textbook, if it mentions the events of 1919 at all, calls the mob killings of blacks "race riots" and distorts the truth, giving short shrift to racism and efforts by African Americans to defend themselves, framing the violence as the fault of "both sides."
Looking clearly at our history is necessary to understand current events and to end the echoing of the dangerous words that twist the truth and manipulate us.