Massacres And Riots


In his book Robert F. Kennedy: Apostle of Change, Douglas Ross says Kennedy told South Carolinians in 1963 that blacks were reaching a boiling point of resentment that could lead to agitation and bloodshed.

How Kennedy thought what he was saying would help civil rights advance, I don’t know. It seems to me not only an inflammatory statement, but also idiotic considering that the agitation and bloodshed had for at least three centuries been the province of slave-owners and other racists. It was also a slap in the face to the nonviolent campaigns of Martin Luther King Jr.

Much the same sort of thing was said during the apartheid era in South Africa. The thinking went that if the government allowed black South Africans independence and equal rights, they would use them to slaughter every white South African.

The successful slave revolt in Haiti (1791-1804) under Toussaint L’Ouverture had terrified US slave-owners and politicians. The very thought of slaves rising up led to even more repressive conditions for them. Nat Turner’s rebellion of 1831 caused even more reprisals, with more than 200 blacks dying as punishment for the 55 white people killed.

So let’s talk about the real history of agitation and bloodshed in this country, starting with the Civilian Draft Riots of 1863. Because the riots happened in New York City, and not somewhere in the South, they are referred to in just about every book written about the Civil War. They illustrate, tragically, the syndrome of one oppressed minority scapegoating another oppressed minority.

Certainly Irish immigrants in New York in the mid-19th century lived in hellish conditions of poverty and disease, hardly better than what they’d immigrated from. Resentment grew as they saw freed slaves pouring into the city and competition for jobs became greater.  Worse yet, if they went on strike for better wages and working conditions, companies hired blacks to get the job done. James McPherson says in Battle Cry of Freedom that Democrats, who were against the Civil War and emancipation, fanned the flames of the immigrants’ anger with editorials denouncing the opportunities taken by the blacks.

Into this desperately tense atmosphere came a new draft. Men who were wealthy could buy a substitute to go to war for them. The immigrants were too poor to do so and furthermore felt they would be damned if they were going to go to war to help free more slaves.

On the first day of the draft, hundreds of Irish men, women, and even children went on a rampage through the city, attacking anyone who was black, anyone who was associated with blacks, and anyone they thought was involved with conscription or emancipation. For five days they lynched, looted, and burned a swath through the city. Blacks’ homes, Protestant churches that were pro-emancipation, a “colored” orphanage, all went to the torch. Black men were hung from lampposts and then dragged by their genitals down city streets. Blacks who survived retreated before the onslaught, having to leave their neighborhoods behind. This is in part how Harlem became home to so many African-Americans.

The Colfax Massacre

Eric Foner, author of Reconstruction, calls the Colfax Massacre the “bloodiest single act of carnage in all of Reconstruction.” Many historians have called the event the end of Reconstruction and the beginning of Jim Crow.

Ironically, Republicans had been making a lot of headway in Louisiana in getting former slaves registered to vote and elected to local and state offices. Of course, since white supremacists had been forgetting they lost a war just eight years before, this situation was a red rag to a bull.

The gubernatorial election of 1872 was a particularly acrimonious one. There is disagreement in the record as to who actually won the election, Republican William Pitt Kellogg or Conservative John McEnery. Kellogg probably did edge out McEnery, but both claimed to have won and each started setting up state offices.

Freed slaves and blacks who had served in the Union army were called to Colfax to support Kellogg and hold a rally in support of their own right to vote. They cordoned off the town for fear of reprisal. On Easter Sunday, 1873, a force of 300 whites, possibly members of the White Knights or another supremacist group, stormed the town with rifles and cannon. The 150 blacks sought shelter in the courthouse and tried to defend it. Cannonballs shot into the building set it on fire and, as blacks jumped from the windows to escape, they were shot. A group of fifty former slaves who had laid down their arms and surrendered were executed. Even blacks who had nothing to do with Kellogg or the rally were indiscriminately killed.

Again, there is disagreement on the number of blacks slain that day; the number is definitely more than a hundred, as opposed to three whites who died. One of them, the commander of the white forces, was shot by his own men.

Historically speaking, apparently a violent event is called a massacre if you have sympathy for the victims and a riot if you don’t. All the worst events of unprovoked mass violence against blacks in the 20th century have been called riots, starting in 1917 in East St. Louis. Striking white workers were replaced by black migrants. Carloads of whites began cruising the streets and firing into the homes of black residents. Again, black men were lynched, buildings were burned, and a story is even told of a 2-year-old black child who was shot and thrown into the doorway of a burning building. Five thousand blacks were driven from their homes.

Then there was the violence in Chicago in 1919 that escalated from a black teen, Eugene Williams, who swam past the “colored” line in Lake Michigan. White boys began to throw rocks at him as he rested on a raft. Eugene was hit, fell off the raft, and drowned. Thirteen days of mob violence ensued.

In Cicero, IL in 1951 the Harvey Clark family was prevented from moving into a white neighborhood by a mob of 4,000 people who trashed the Clarks’ apartment and all of their belongings.

And the beat goes on.


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