July 3, 1917 the owner of a saloon died of what the coroner diagnosed as cardiac arrest. A newspaper wrongly reported that a black man had killed him.
“That evening a party of young white men riding in an automobile fired upon a group of Negroes at Fifty-third and Federal streets. In July and August of the same year recruits from the Great Lakes Naval Training Station clashed frequently with Negroes, each side accusing the other of being the aggressor.”
Tensions grew until in 1919 a white gang murdered two black men. Then on July 27, 1919- a teenager named Eugene Williams was floating on a railroad tie at a Lake Michigan beach and drifted into an ad-hoc whites only segregated area. Racists threw stones at him preventing him from reaching shore and he drowned. Rioting grew throughout the city. Newspapers, the YMCA, the Urban league, NAACP and law enforcement struggled to restore the peace while so-called “athletic clubs” (including the one future mayor Daley belonged to) were actually violent white supremacist gangs. When viloence began to rise again in the early 1920s, the Chicago police tried a different strategy. “Race riot? What race riot? Move along, nothing to see here .”
The riots began and ended with fake news. And the problem was swept under a rug until someone tried to make America great again by returning to this misremembered past.
This document was published in the riot’s aftermath. Its analysis of root causes and recommendations are sadly familiar 100 years later. It’s difficult to know where to begin but for those who don’t have time to read the entire e-book, here are some excerpts:
For White Union Men to Read
Let any white union worker who has ever been on strike where gunmen or machine gun have been brought in and turned on him and his fellows search his memory and recall how he felt. In this critical moment let every union man remember the tactics of the boss in a strike when he tries by shooting to terrorize striking workers into violence to protect themselves.
Well, that is how the Negroes feel. They are panic-stricken over the prospect of being killed.
A heavy responsibility rests on the white portion of the community to stop assault on Negroes by white men. Violence against them is not the way to solve the vexed race problem.
This responsibility rests particularly heavy upon the white men and women of organized labor, not because they had anything to do with starting the present trouble, but because of their advantageous position to help end it. Right now it is going to be decided whether the colored workers are to continue to come into the labor movement or whether they are going to feel that they have been abandoned by it and lose confidence in it.
It is a critical time for Chicago.
It is a critical time for organized labor.
All the influence of the unions should be exerted on the community to protect colored fellow-workers from the unreasoning frenzy of race prejudice. Indications of the past have been that organized labor has gone further in eliminating race hatred than any other class. It is up against the acid test now to show whether this is so.
The Evening American, in an editorial entitled “This Is Chicago’s Crisis; Keep a Cool Head,” said:
Chicago is facing its crisis today.
In one great section of the city law and order for the time being seem to have been flung to the four winds. White men and colored men are shooting one another down in the streets for no earthly cause except that the color of their faces differs.
These mobs are not representative of whites or blacks. They are the hoodlums of both races. But the law abiding whites and blacks are innocent victims.
Hotheads and smoking gun barrels have almost wrested the rule from the keepers of the peace.
It is worse than a calamity, this race rioting. It is a deadly, ghastly scourge, a dire contagion that is sweeping through a community for no reason except that mob violence is contagious.
It is up to the cool-headed men of Chicago to settle the great difficulty. It is up to the serious-minded business men of the city to get together and find a solution to a problem which has become so serious.
To meet violence with violence is but making matters worse. Gun toting at a time like this only adds fuel to the fire already raging.
Reason is the solution. It is mightier than the six-gun. How it is to be exerted is for the level-headed citizenry to decide, and decide at once.
Hardly an hour passes that more names are not added to the already long list of slain in the South Side rioting.
There is no time to be lost. Other matters must be put aside for the moment and a solution reached for Chicago’s greatest problem.
A hundred years have now passed. There is no time to be lost.