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How Communists Became a Scapegoat for the Red Summer 'Race Riots' of 1919

August 6, 2020 in History

By Becky Little

A conspiracy theory emerged during the Red Scare, blaming “the Bolsheviki” for protests and violence.

On July 27, 1919, a white man hurled rocks at 17-year-old Eugene Williams, a Black boy who’d drifted into an unofficially “white” section of a Chicago beach. Williams was floating on a raft and the pelting caused him to slip off and drown. When police refused to make an arrest, outrage led to protests and a week of rioting as white Chicagoans responded in violence.

in order to spread anti-American messages, and he demanded the U.S. government prosecute the magazine under the 1918 Sedition Act.

Mark Ellis, a senior lecturer in history at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow who has written about the Red Summer, says part of what was going on was that people like Byrnes thought Black Americans “couldn’t be producing such articulate, well-produced, slick journalism as you would see in The Crisis magazine and The Messenger magazine.”

“I think deeply racist officials, who didn’t seem to believe that Black people are capable of doing this sort of thing and coming up with these ideas and these arguments on their own, simply assumed that they were being put up to it.”

There was never any proof that communists or other supposed political radicals were influencing Black publications or convincing Black Americans to riot, but the theory didn’t need proof to thrive. The conspiracy theory was similar to a previous one involving a WWI German spy scare. When the United States entered the war in 1917, many white Americans saw Black activists’ and soldiers’ campaigns for equal rights as evidence of German subversion.

“The idea of ‘pro-Germanism among the Negroes’—which is how military intelligence headed its reports—really spreads [during the war],” Ellis says. “There’s all sorts of briefings given to newspapers like The New York Times about German infiltration and various sorts of plots without any facts to back it up. I think a lot of people simply believed that it was just a straightforward fact that Germans were trying to subvert the loyalty of Black Americans, and were being quite successful.”

Paranoia about Black people resisting white rule goes back even further, to when white southerners feared slave revolts, says Cameron McWhirter, author of Red Summer: The Summer of 1919 and the Awakening of Black America.

“I think there was always a concern in American …read more


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