‘This Is a Crime Against the Laws of Humanity’
I spent a little time in my Friday column going over the details of the 1918 Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill, which was the first major piece of anti-lynching legislation introduced to the United States Congress. It’s named after Representative Leonidas C. Dyer, a white Republican from Missouri who represented a largely Black constituency in St. Louis.
Dyer was elected to Congress in 1910 and introduced an anti-lynching bill in 1911, but it was killed in committee. As the historian Philip Dray notes in “At the Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black America,” Dyer “redoubled his efforts after the East St. Louis riot of 1917”:
There has been much greater public awareness, in the past few of years, of the racial pogroms of the early 20th century. The HBO series “Watchmen” made the Tulsa, Okla., massacre of 1921 the departure point for its story, and a number of outlets and authors published works commemorating the centennial of the “Red Summer” of 1919, in which hundreds of Blacks were killed in “race riots” in cities across the country, including Chicago; Norfolk, Va.; Washington, D.C.; Omaha; and Elaine, Ark.
The East St. Louis riot of 1917 is, by contrast, much less well known and practically forgotten beyond the world of historians, interested observers and the community itself.
But it was, at the time, a major event that drew commentary and condemnation from across the political and ideological spectrum. President Woodrow Wilson denounced it, albeit a year after the fact, in a presidential proclamation, stating:
Congress, likewise, empaneled a joint committee of five members of the House and five members of the Senate to “to investigate the mob violence and riots in East St. Louis, Ill., and the causes thereof, and make a report of the same to Congress.”
Ida B. Wells-Barnett, in a contemporaneous account, called it “the greatest outrage of the century.” W.E.B. Du Bois devoted an entire chapter of his 1920 memoir, “Darkwater: Voices From Within the Veil,” to the riot, which he described in nearly apocalyptic terms:
The background to the riot is mostly straightforward. St. Louis, at the time, was one of the largest cities in the United States, with a population of nearly 700,000. St. Louis and East St. Louis, a neighboring community across the river in Illinois, were homes to a number of major industries that, during the years of World War I, attracted Black migrants from the South and white migrants from around the country, as well as immigrants from Europe.
For Du Bois, there were two forces that made this a combustible situation. The first was white racism, which kept or drove Black workers out of unions and divided labor in the city. “The best electrician in the city was refused admittance to the union and driven from town because he was black,” Du Bois wrote. “No black builder, printer, or machinist could join a union or work in East St. Louis, no matter what his skill or character.”
The second was the war in Europe. It supercharged demand for industrial products like steel and aluminum, which, in turn, supercharged demand for labor. When white workers took advantage of this demand to strike for higher wages, employers used Black workers — excluded from union work — as scabs and strikebreakers. “Here were black men,” Du Bois wrote, trying to capture the rage of the white workers, “guilty not only of bidding for jobs which white men could have held at war prices, even if they could not fill, but also guilty of being black!”
In a more recent account, “American Pogrom: The East St. Louis Race Riot and Black Politics,” the historian Charles L. Lumpkins argues for a third force, namely, politics. As their population grew, “African Americans in East St. Louis became skilled in mobilizing as a voting bloc, swinging elections, and winning patronage.” By 1915, he continues, “black residents had become … a source of fear for white inhabitants who thought that black voters held ‘the balance of political power.’” And as an “increasingly assertive black population reshaped the city’s political culture,”
The violence began on May 28, 1917, after the Aluminum Ore Company had hired several hundred Black workers to replace white workers who had gone on strike. At a City Council meeting that evening, nearly 1,000 people gathered to “protest to the Mayor about the influx of the negro,” Lumpkins writes. During the meeting, “two white city police detectives spread the word that patrolmen had just arrested a black man for shooting a white man.” As if on cue, people rushed to the city jail, attempting to seize and lynch the suspect. There were assaults on nearby Black residents and some property damage, but the mob spirit eventually left the crowd.
It would emerge again, on July 2 and 3, organized and supported by figures in the white political class. “The July pogrom represented a political solution planned by certain white real estate men, politicians, and businessmen,” Lumpkins writes. “The mass racial violence of July accomplished what the May riot had failed to achieve: the elimination of the black community’s influential role in local electoral politics.”
Or, as a local political boss said in the days after the riot, “This is going to be a white man’s town hereafter; the blacks will be run out of here and we’ll have a white man’s town.”
The violence was initiated by a group of assailants who carried out a series of ambushes of Black residents. Police officers looked the other way and even worked to disarm Black residents. When a large group of Black men opened fire on and killed several white men — who they believed to be masquerading as policemen — all hell broke loose.
Mobs destroyed neighborhoods and assaulted any Black resident they could find. They inflicted horrific violence on men, women and children with a sadism that would shock the nation. They ransacked stores and robbed homes, setting them on fire after carrying off furniture, clothing and other valuables. Several victims were lynched against the backdrop of those flames.
Whites who tried to protect their Black neighbors were singled out for abuse as well. “Assailants injured or killed, or threatened with drawn pistols, white people who attempted to rescue black people or prevent destruction of black homes and shops,” Lumpkins notes. “Small white businesses that employed significant numbers of black workers were targeted as well.” The mob and its leaders wanted to discipline the white population as well as expel the Black one.
The violence began to end only with the arrival of the National Guard. The rioters, however, had accomplished what they set out to do. They had fatally wounded the Black community of East St. Louis and set the stage for renewed white dominance of the city’s politics.
In the aftermath of the riot, the N.A.A.C.P. would organize protests condemning the violence, and Congress, through men like Dyer, would try to take action. But I’ll leave you not with their words but with those of the Jamaica-born Marcus Garvey, head of the Universal Negro Improvement Association.
“This,” he said, “is a crime against the laws of humanity; it is a crime against the laws of the nation, it is a crime against Nature, and a crime against the God of all mankind.”
What I Wrote
My Tuesday column was on Ginni Thomas, wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, and the extremism of the Republican establishment:
My Friday column was on the anti-lynching bill and what its passage says about the American political system:
I joined the “Disaster Girls” podcast to talk about the movie “Anaconda.” You can listen here! You can listen, as well, to the latest episode of my podcast with John Ganz, on the 1991 film “Company Business.” I also released another cereal review for Serious Eats, which you can watch on Twitter.
Joel Anderson on “the slap” at the Oscars for Slate magazine.
Lyle Jeremy Rubin on the “war on terror” for Dissent magazine.
Rachel Cohen on the challenge of teaching history in public schools for The New Republic.
Molly Fischer on the economic historian Adam Tooze for New York magazine.
Jennifer Wilson on Antonio Gramsci for Bookforum.
Brooke Jarvis on eels for The New Yorker.
Feedback If you’re enjoying what you’re reading, please consider recommending it to your friends. They can sign up here. If you want to share your thoughts on an item in this week’s newsletter or on the newsletter in general, please email me at [email protected]. You can follow me on Twitter (@jbouie) and Instagram.
Photo of the Week
These are the derelict sand filtration units at McMillan Park in Washington, D.C. I used to live nearby, and every so often the gate would be open and I would walk around (read: trespass) and take pictures. I used an old Nikon point-and-shoot (that I sold a long time ago) and Kodak Tri-X film.
Now Eating: Madhur Jaffrey’s Roasted Cauliflower With Punjabi Seasonings
I can’t praise this recipe, which comes from Jaffrey’s “Vegetarian Indian,” enough. It is very simple — although it requires you to plan ahead a bit — and very good. I could eat an entire pan of this cauliflower if you let me. If you like your roasted vegetables to be very crispy, I would keep the cauliflower in the oven for 35 to 40 minutes instead of 25 to 30. Either way, the results are great.
1 large cauliflower, broken into florets about 1½ inches wide by 2 inches long (about 1½ pounds of florets)
1½ tablespoons lemon juice
½ teaspoon ground turmeric
1 teaspoon peeled and finely grated fresh ginger
1 teaspoon salt
¼ to ½ teaspoon cayenne pepper
2 teaspoons ground cumin
2 teaspoons ground coriander
2 tablespoons chopped cilantro leaves
4 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon whole cumin seeds
Place the cauliflower florets in the large bowl. Combine the lemon juice, turmeric and ginger in a small bowl, then pour the mixture over the cauliflower. Add the salt, cayenne, ground spices and fresh cilantro and mix well, using large spoons or your hands. Set aside for 2 hours, tossing now and then.
Heat the oven to 425 degrees. Heat the oil in a small sauté pan over medium-high heat, add the cumin seeds, let them sizzle a few seconds, then pour the spiced oil over the cauliflower and toss it well, making sure to distribute the spices as evenly as possible.
Spread the florets in a single layer in a medium roasting pan or baking dish and place in the oven. Roast for 15 minutes, then turn the pieces and roast another 10 to 15 minutes or until lightly browned and cooked through.