TODAY, WHEN WE HEAR THE TERM “RACE RIOT” WE ARE apt to think of the burning and looting that has occurred in poor, primarily black urban areas since the 1960s—of Watts, for example, a neighborhood in Los Angeles where anger about living conditions exploded in 1965, leading to 34 deaths in six days. Or we think of South Central Los Angeles in 1992, where violence erupted after a jury found white policemen not guilty of beating a black motorist named Rodney King, despite a videotape that clearly showed them clubbing and kicking King. The riot that followed that verdict left at least 45 people dead and caused an estimated $1 billion in damages.
Yet for many decades, the instigators and participants in race riots were usually white, not black, and the purpose of the rioting was to assert white domination rather than to express black anger and frustration. During Reconstruction and for a while thereafter, race riots often occurred during elections, as white mobs sought to intimidate the newly enfranchised black voters and to regain power from politicians who would give Blacks an equal opportunity in post–Civil War society. Riots in Memphis, Tenn.; New Orleans, La.; Charleston, S.C.; and Eufaula, Ala., led to dozens of African-American deaths.
Prior to the 1898 election in Wilmington, N.C., Whites took to wearing red shirts to symbolize their willingness to resort to the Winchester rifle and “a baptism of blood” to regain power. They would teach the “Southern Negroes that they cannot rule over the property and the destinies of the superior race,” the Washington Post editorialized, commending the Red Shirts.
Although white supremacists gave ample notice of their willingness to resort to violence, little effort was made to protect African Americans, and as many as 25 lost their lives in the weeks leading up to the election. The bigots won the election handily, despite spirited opposition from black political leaders and clergymen.
By the early part of the 20th century, race riots in New York City, Atlanta, Springfield (home of Abraham Lincoln), Houston and East St. Louis had left scores of Blacks dead. Almost invariably, white authorities did little or nothing to protect African Americans, while clamping down hard on those who exercised the right of self-defense.
In 1919 alone, there were 27 separate race riots and countless lesser acts of racial violence, including the following:
- In Texas, one man was killed and an African-American school principal was publicly flogged after a local newspaper article condemned lynching.
- In Chicago, a race riot erupted after an African-American youth was stoned while swimming at an all-white beach, resulting in his death by drowning. Thirty-eight people were killed during two weeks of sustained violence, and 1,000 black families were left homeless.
- In Georgia, a black World War I veteran was beaten to death for wearing his uniform in public. The mob ignored the man’s protests that he had no other clothes.
- In Knoxville, Tenn., six people were killed and 20 injured after unsuccessful attempts to lynch a black prisoner charged with killing a white woman. Afterward, U.S. troops shot up a black neighborhood on the basis of false rumors that Blacks had killed two white men.
- In Louisiana, an illiterate black man suspected of writing an insulting note to a white woman escaped lynch mobs twice before he was finally shot to death.
- In Arkansas, a riot by white racists left up to 200 Blacks dead. The violence resulted in 79 murder indictments—all against Blacks. Twelve were convicted and sentenced to die before their convictions were overturned on appeal.