When Anderson Cooper’s mother, the designer and heiress Gloria Vanderbilt, reached her 91st birthday, they began a correspondence, breaking a wall of silence between them. This 2016 conversation covered life in the spotlight, suicide, money, and grieving for a parent and a child. Vanderbilt Died in June at age 95.
The summer of 1919 was a bloody one in the U.S. Antiblack riots and lynchings swept the nation from April until November. A field organizer for the NAACP dubbed it the “Red Summer.” World War I had just ended, and black soldiers returned home hoping to finally gain equal rights. Instead they found hostility. But for the first time, blacks organized and fought back. In civil rights history, the summer’s events are often forgotten. But in his new book, “Red Summer,” journalist Cameron McWhirter examines the summer’s violence and how it influenced the civil rights movement.
- Cameron McWhirter Reporter, The Wall Street Journal.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us, I'm Diane Rehm. The summer of 1919 was supposed to be a time of promise. World War I had ended. Legions of black soldiers returned home expecting to have earned equality, but it was not to be. The summer months saw the worst spate of race riots and lynchings in American history.
MS. DIANE REHMWall Street Journal reporter, Cameron McWhirter, examines the violence in the summer of 1919 and its influence on civil rights. His new book is titled "Red Summer." I invite you to join us, call us on 800-433-8850, send us your e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org, send us a tweet or post a message on Facebook. Good morning to you, Cameron, it's good to have you here.
MR. CAMERON MCWHIRTERGood morning, thanks for having me on.
REHMYou start the book with the story of a riot in Jenkins County, Ga., in April of 1919. Tell us what happened.
MCWHIRTERApril 13, 1919, it was a Sunday and a black church there, Carswell Grove Baptist Church, had an annual celebration for the anniversary of the founding of the church and thousands of black people from all over that part of Georgia would come to celebrate. And an incident occurs there in which two white law officers show up and there's a shooting and beatings and the two white officers end up dead, another black man ends up dead and another black man is severely wounded. That instigates enormous white riot throughout the county.
REHMTell me about Joe Ruffin and why he was asked to speak at that celebration.
MCWHIRTERHe -- Joe Ruffin was the man who was severely wounded. Two of his sons where then lynched at this riot. He was a very, very prominent man within the black community in Jenkins County. He was a farmer who actually owned land, which in the South at that time, for a black person was very rare. Most of the people were share croppers. He owned his land, he owned cars and he was a prominent Mason and they had asked him to come speak.
REHMAnd he had apparently, after he spoke, stopped in his car, waiting for the crowds to leave.
MCWHIRTERExactly. He saw...
REHMAnd then what happened?
MCWHIRTERHe saw a man, a friend of his, who had been arrested by these two law officers. It's unclear to this day why and it's unclear why those law officers were there, but the -- he offers to give the man a bond and really have him released. The law officers get an instigation, there's a fight and shots ring out.
MCWHIRTERAnd the interesting thing is he was a man of great prominence who had never had any problems with any white people in the county at all and within hours, two of his sons were dead and he was bloodied and cowering in a Augusta, Ga. jail waiting to be lynched.
REHMWaiting to be lynched.
REHMThe church, in the meantime, gets burned down.
MCWHIRTERIn the meantime, the church is burned to the ground and the white mobs range around the county, burning down black buildings and killing several more black people.
REHMSo that's one incident in 1919. What else is going on?
MCWHIRTERWell, that was the beginning of the Red Summer, by my estimation, and it started this conflagration where riots started erupting all over the country and this riot began in the South, a small rural area. I think most Americans would have sort of a predisposition to think that that would occur in a Southern area, but it happened in Chicago, it happened in Washington, D.C., right here, it happened in Omaha, Neb., it happened in San Francisco, it happened all over the country.
MCWHIRTERIt was a period in which America's racial violence, which had been occurring since slaves were first brought to this country, really exploded.
REHMIt was supposed to be a time of peace and celebration, the First World War had just ended, many African-American people had participated in that war and thought they were coming home to something different.
MCWHIRTERWell, yeah, there's three major things I would talk about in terms of what was happening for black people at the time, which were all positive things, but led to lots of friction. One was, as you rightly point out, black soldiers had gone to France to fight in World War I. Many of the soldiers had worked in support units, but tens of thousands had fought on the front lines very bravely and they had been treated incredibly well by the French people who were thrilled that any people were coming to fight the Germans.
MCWHIRTERSo when they started to -- when they returned home in their uniforms, they met all kinds of friction heading back to their small towns in the South. I was...
MCWHIRTERBecause they were black people who now were acting as though they were, you know, better than they were or, you know, in small town, yes.
REHMDeserving of some better treatment.
MCWHIRTERExactly. Or well, I would say equal treatment.
REHMBetter than they had had. Yeah.
MCWHIRTERYeah, and there's numerous, numerous examples of soldiers returned to small towns in the South and meeting either violence or just rudeness. I live in Atlanta and it's -- the airport there is a transfer point for soldiers going to Afghanistan and Iraq. So whenever you go to the Atlanta airport, you're going to soldiers coming and going, meeting their families. It's always very moving to go there and see that.
MCWHIRTERAnd try to imagine what it would be like for a black soldier coming back from Afghanistan and he lands in Atlanta and he's suddenly told, all right, boy, that's your -- you know, that's your section over there, you wait there. You know, or -- and being mistreated, being called insulting names. And this happened over and over again.
REHMIt was Wilson at the time who, realizing that the world had united to defeat these enemies, but apparently, he said in the spring of 1919, the world is on fire. There was conflagration going on all over the place.
MCWHIRTERYeah, and especially in the United States. Again, we were supposed to -- we won this great victory, he -- Wilson had these notions of fashioning a peace that would survive in Europe, creating the League of Nations, but in the United States, people were panicked. There was -- inflation was out of control, it was known then as HCL for high cost of living. All kinds of prices were crazy. People were -- there were lots of labor riots, lots of labor strikes. The Bolsheviks had taken over Russia, anarchists and communists in the United States were agitating and everything was influx.
REHMAnd at the same time, during this period of war, you saw black moving from the South, northward.
MCWHIRTERYes, thank you. That was -- good point 'cause I wanted to get back -- so the black soldiers were coming home, that was a cause of friction. At the same time, during the war, there was no immigration, obviously, from Europe, there was a giant war going on. So where did American industry turn? They turned to the South where there was cheap labor.
MCWHIRTERThey had already -- obviously, the Great Migration had already begun, but it really took off during World War I and black people were moving by tens of thousands to northern cities, like Chicago, Detroit, Pittsburgh and they were -- industrialists loved having black people come up there because the labor was cheap and they were non-union, which was another big plus for them. They were into that.
REHMThey wanted them there, but there was a lot of prejudice to their being there.
MCWHIRTERCorrect, and that certainly -- you know, Chicago is a classic example. Their -- where they could live was incredibly restricted, where they could -- what parks they could go to, what entertainment they could visit was all very restricted and -- but they, at least in places like Chicago, they could vote, so they did have some political power.
REHMSo on May 9 of 1919, three men were shot and wounded in a mini riot in Philadelphia and though a white mob attacked the house in which a black man and his family had just moved.
MCWHIRTERThat was incredibly common. In Chicago, they were actually throwing bombs when people -- they would leave bombs at doorsteps when people would move -- when black people would move out of their neighborhoods to a white neighborhood. And the black neighborhoods were incredibly restricted. They didn't have enough -- there wasn't enough housing, so they were desperately trying to move out. And when they did, they would be met with brutal violence.
REHMSo on the one hand, employers desperately needed them, but on the other hand, the white surrounding population had wanted to have nothing to do with them.
MCWHIRTERRight, and their employers weren't doing much to solve that problem.
REHMWell, that's what I wondered about. They weren't making any provisions for them to come, even that they knew that racial prejudice existed.
MCWHIRTERYeah, they wanted the cheap labor and once the cheap labor was there, they didn't mind -- to a certain extent, they didn't mind the friction because it was union versus anti-union and they were fine with that. Anything that weakened unions in the stockyards of Chicago in 1919 was considered a good thing.
REHMSome of the pictures in this book are absolutely horrific.
MCWHIRTERYes. We -- publishers and I talked about -- we were trying to be very careful, but I felt that some of them needed to be in there.
REHMCameron McWhirter, his new book is titled "Red Summer." When we come back, we'll take your calls, read your e-mail. Stay with us.
REHMAnd if you've just joined us, Cameron McWhirter of the Wall Street Journal has written a book about 1919, a book he titles "Red Summer," in which Blacks were lynched, were killed, were excluded. Here's an e-mail from Dan in Tulsa, Okla. who says, "My great grandfather, Will Lacy (sp?), was lynched in Tulsa in September, 1920 while walking back to a little black township east of the city called Alsuma. He was a World War I vet who served in Europe.
REHMHe had walked into Tulsa to buy a car. The dealer refused to sell him a car. He began walking back home, but never made it. His body was found on the train tracks. Of course, his money was gone. I've never heard of the Red Summer, but the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot was just around the corner. For many African-Americans, the Red Summer lasted far longer than summer."
MCWHIRTERThat's true. That's very true. And 1921 was a horrendous situation in Tulsa. I -- when I started researching this book, I thought that I would be just bombarded with the horrific violence and overwhelmed by it. And I have to say though, after writing this book, I was incredibly hopeful about America because of groups like the NAACP and what they did that summer. A group of people who pushed back and fought very, very hard for constitutional rights, for equal rights, they started -- I believe they started the Civil Rights Movement in 1919.
REHMHere's another from Amy here in Washington. "One of the most surprising things for me when I read about race relations in this era in a biography of W. E. B. Du Bois is how very racist Wilson was and that he drove people out of the government because they were black. This is something one doesn't usually associate with Wilson. It should be better known."
MCWHIRTERI think Wilson -- after working on this book, I think Wilson was one of the worst presidents we ever had in this country.
REHMIn terms of race relations or (unintelligible).
MCWHIRTERI'd go farther, but just to focus on race relations, I would say that in terms of race relations, he was (word?). He -- he -- to get elected, he had made some promises to some black organization and once he got into office, he re-segregated parts of bureaucracy. He was completely...
REHMThere wasn't one black official within his government, was there?
MCWHIRTERHe had some officials within the military, but they were low down. And he had -- at that point in American history, there were no black elected officials in the federal government at all, so he felt no need to give them anything and didn't and was completely tone deaf.
REHMAnd meanwhile. you had lynchings going on in the South. There was one particularly gruesome one in Ellisville, Miss.
MCWHIRTERYes. One of -- it was a -- there were horrible lynching -- obviously a lynching is horrible and there were horrible lynchings all over the South that summer. Ellisville is unique because it was a man -- a man named John Hartfield was captured. He had been accused of raping a white woman. He was captured after several weeks of pursuit and he was wounded, probably fatally.
MCWHIRTERBut the mob captured him -- the sheriff captured him and then the mob broke into the jail and took him out, took him to a doctor, not to give him a fair trial to make him better, but to literally keep him alive for 24 hours and the doctors did. And then they put out the word, we're going to lynch this guy in public in broad daylight. And they let the word go forth throughout Mississippi.
MCWHIRTERThe NAACP heard about it and desperately tried to stop this from happening, sent cables to the governor who was -- could care less and said, what can I do? And the man was lynched in front of a mob that some people estimate was 10,000 people in broad daylight.
REHMThey also cut off several of his fingers.
MCWHIRTERSold souvenirs of his -- they cut him to pieces and sold the pieces as souvenirs. They took -- postcards -- made postcards. It was, in my mind, the worst lynching that I'd ever read -- it's definitely the worst lynching I've ever read about.
REHMSo then in August, you had lynchings of black men Louisiana, South Carolina, Mississippi, Georgia and elsewhere. These were public events in daylight.
MCWHIRTERRight. And I mean, the important thing about where we've come is -- Emmett Till being killed in the 1950s was a horrible event, but it took place at night, it took place with a handful of people who whispered what they had done. These events were taking place in broad daylight in the middle of the day. And the NAACP, which became a really heroic element that summer, desperately pressed the government to take some kind of action.
MCWHIRTERThey urged state governments to take action. Some of them tried. Some state governments, Georgia, Tennessee, tried and they pressed the federal government and they got -- at that time, the federal government, under Wilson, was just not going to intervene. He refused.
REHMWhat's so interesting is that a number of these lynchings began with rumors of rape. Why was that at the center so often?
MCWHIRTERWell, that was the -- that's the quintessential justification for these sorts of actions. And over and over again, there would be an -- there would be crimes committed. Crimes are committed all the time in this country and some of them are committed by black people, so -- but in -- at that time, it was the essential justification for mayhem. And over and over again, you'd see someone was accused of a crime like that and the mob would indignantly gather and very quickly, any concern about justice...
MCWHIRTERYeah, (word?). Well, any concern about the, you know, preserving womanhood or whatever their justifications were, were out the window and they were trashing courthouses and burning them down, ransacking, you know, in several instances. Knoxville is one example. They broke into the courthouse and took all the liquor out and got drunk and burned down buildings, ransacked the sheriff's house, took all his clothes, his wife's clothes out. I mean, they were -- any heroic or noble purpose that they thought they were beginning with quickly, it dissipated into just bald violence.
REHMIt's interesting, you write that in 1919, the NAACP held an anti-lynching conference at Carnegie Hall.
REHMWhat did that accomplish?
MCWHIRTERIt -- well, it was at the beginning of the summer, so I guess you could argue it didn't accomplish very much, since we then had the Red Summer, but it was the beginning of the NAACP's rise to power. It had always been -- it had been around for almost 10 years at that point, but really had been an organization run by white do-gooders. I don't know if there were limousines at the time, but they were basically limousine liberals in New York were the people controlling the organization and they were well-meaning.
MCWHIRTERBut it wasn't until people like James Weldon Johnson and W. E. B. Du Bois and Walter White began really actively working in the organization that it became a black political organization, with the political goal being very clear, equal rights.
REHMBut they put out a report finding that at least 3,224 people had been lynched between 1889 and 1918. At least 2500 of them were black.
MCWHIRTERYeah, this was their campaign and they -- the Red Summer helped them really bring that campaign home to black Americans and white Americans. There's a point where James Weldon Johnson, who I consider to be one of the undiscovered heroes of American politics, really -- he gives a speech toward the end of the summer in which he says, we need to hold a mirror up to the nation. And he's speaking almost -- you could hear Martin Luther King speaking the same words.
REHMSo he became really, really passionate. He grew up in, I gather, comfortable black middle-class surroundings, but then went on to Atlanta University, got a law degree. He really spoke very well.
MCWHIRTERWell, he was -- he was -- he's a phenomenal person, period. There needs to be an enormous biography -- there needs to be -- you know, the Martin Luther King statue's about to be built -- or opened in Washington here. We need a James Weldon Johnson statue. The guy was amazing. He wrote novels, he wrote poetry, he wrote "Lift Every Voice and Sing" with his brother. He had been a diplomat for the U.S. government in the Caribbean and he was very successful as a journalist. And he had no -- he didn't have to join the NAACP, but the boys convinced him to do so and once he did, he was a dynamo.
MCWHIRTERHe was traveling -- in 1919, he travels all over the United States, and I mean all over. All up and down the California coast giving speeches and recruiting members. By the end of 1919, NAACP membership virtually doubled. Now, I would put a lot of that on Johnson.
REHMWhat about communism? How does the fear thereof sort of figure in here?
MCWHIRTERIt played a huge role in perceptions of black political activism. One of my peeves is that I think certainly at the time, the media and the government -- there was a young J. Edgar Hoover working for (laugh) the attorney general at the time who -- somehow all this violence and all this -- and all the fears of communism merged and meshed and somehow black people were perceived as radicals.
MCWHIRTERWhen if you really look at what happened and what people were -- what black people were advocating for, they were advocating for equal rights under the Constitution of the United States of America, not, you know, a proletarian dictatorship. They were looking for, very simply, I want a fair trial, I want to be able to live where I want to live, I want to be able to hold a job that anyone else can hold.
REHMBut the ruling power saw that as a threat...
MCWHIRTERExactly. And there were -- there was a report that Hoover probably helped draft that -- the attorney general submits to Congress toward the end of the Red Summer in which there's probably the first half of it is about anarchists and why we need to ship anarchists back to Russia, so -- Emma Goldman and others. And then the second half of it is all about black publications and how they're becoming radical and they're really scary and we need to do something about that.
REHMCameron McWhirter, his new book is titled "Red Summer" and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Tell us about the riot here in Washington, D.C. in July of 1919.
MCWHIRTERIt actually began on July 18, today, and it was incredibly hot, just like today. A -- there had been a lot of reports in the local newspapers about black crimes, crimes being committed allegedly by black people, so on that day on July 18, a young woman whose husband worked in the Navy was walking home and some -- no one's exactly sure what happened, but she was jostled on a sidewalk by two black men. They bumped into her umbrella, something happened and one of the men was taken into custody.
MCWHIRTERThe rumors that spread out from that was that the woman had been raped. And at that time in Washington, there were lots of soldiers and sailors coming back, being decommissioned and so the place was -- you know, lots of soldiers milling about. They heard these rumors and they instantly started rioting and attacking any black person they could find.
MCWHIRTERThis became -- now Washington, D.C. at the time had an enormous black population. There were about 110,000 black people living in the city and so their neighborhoods were suddenly under attack. A lot of those people -- a lot of the people living in those neighborhoods were veterans, so they got out weapons and went on their rooftops to defend their neighborhoods, especially around Howard University, and it was absolute mayhem.
MCWHIRTEROne of the key points, getting back to Wilson, is the guy was in the White House and could've completely shut this down because he didn't have to seek constitutional authority, it's the District of Columbia, he can control it. And there were thousands and thousands of well-armed disciplined soldiers right outside of the city, so all he had to do was literally snap his fingers and the riot could've been shut down in a second, but he didn't. He waited and waited, he let the district commissioner try to resolve it. And so a riot that could've been stopped in hours went on for days.
REHMWent on for days.
REHMAnd what was the ultimate result in terms of destruction of buildings or lost lives?
MCWHIRTERNo one's really sure how many people died or how many buildings were destroyed because the federal government refused to investigate it. They never investigated it. They never did a thorough investigation of what happened. There was some irritation and some discussion about how many police had been deployed, but the police were overwhelmed immediately. And it certainly wasn't the police -- it wasn't their fault that they couldn't deal with the situation.
REHMBut, you know, it was a time when blacks finally retaliated.
MCWHIRTERAfter the riot's over and things settle down, the message that was sent out to black America was incredible pride, because black people had defended their neighborhoods and people -- this idea of fighting back thrilled them all. It -- within a week, there's the Chicago Riot, in which there was even more fighting in -- over a much more larger area for a much longer period of time, again because of political delays and political -- politicians not doing their job, basically.
REHMBlacks began pulling whites off streetcars.
MCWHIRTERYes. Yeah, and -- or usually they would set up perimeters in their neighborhoods so that if cars started driving down, they would open fire. If -- in Chicago, for example, peddlers, people who worked -- white people who worked in the black neighborhoods were all attacked. But also many, many more black people who were -- who would go out of those neighborhoods to work in the stockyards or work as porters or work in -- as waiters, they would be attacked 'cause they would be outside of their neighborhoods, so it was absolutely mayhem.
REHMCameron McWhirter and the book is titled "Red Summer." When we come back, we'll open the phones.
REHMAnd as we talk about the Red Summer of 1919, with the racial violence that went on throughout this country, here's a tweet from A. J., who says, "Most Tulsans are unaware of the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot. It was good to hear it acknowledged on your show in regard to the Red Summer."
REHMHere is another from Vanessa in Cleveland who says, "Each time I hear someone recount our violent history toward the black population, I feel so embarrassed and shocked. It's hard to comprehend that one human being could treat another so violently and ever believe that there was a justifiable reason for it. It leaves me to wonder if we could walk that path again in my lifetime and if so, would we notice it at the time. It seems these wrongdoings only become blatantly obvious in the rearview."
MCWHIRTERI think that's a tremendous point. I became interested in writing this book because I felt that it needed to be brought out and it had been forgotten, really forgotten, and yet these cycles of violence, ethnic and racial violence, percolate over and over again, not just in the United States, but all over.
MCWHIRTERI'd spent some time in Africa as a younger man and every country you visit in Africa, there's ethnic strife. I -- as a reporter, I was in Bosnia for a while, obviously that is a clear example of ethnic strife gone absolutely insane and I felt this book needed to bring home to Americans that this has happened here, not that it could happen here, it did.
REHMMany people ask whether what happened back then still lingers in this country today in regard to President Obama and his race?
MCWHIRTERI -- well, there's -- no one's going to dispute that there is racism in this country, certainly, but I would -- I think the fact that he is the President of the United States is a testimony to people like James Welden Johnson, who in this time of chaos, decided to stand up for the Constitution of the United States and what it was meant to be, which is that everybody's treated equally and in that time of chaos, they were able to argue forcefully because of the violence to say, look, you've got to stop this and you have to treat everyone fairly or you're going to have more of it.
MCWHIRTERAnd it was such an embarrassment eventually -- and I mean, eventually, as in decades, that we finally did have, you know, the Civil Rights Act and, you know, the Voting Rights Act and things did change. That doesn't mean, by any stretch of the imagination, that we're perfect.
REHMDoes it mean there is, in your view, lingering racial animosity toward the president?
MCWHIRTERI think, yes, there's -- I mean, if you -- I'm a reporter, I work in the South, you certainly find animosity toward the president that is barely -- it's barely hidden that it's racially motivated. Now, does that mean he -- I mean, yet again, you have to say, we have a black president, that's incredible and he's -- everyone -- that would've been inconceivable to Woodrow Wilson. He would be stunned to hear such a thing.
REHMCourse, he was making jokes about blacks.
MCWHIRTERHe was a complete racist. I have lost -- as I researched the book, more and more, I lost more and more respect for him.
REHMInteresting. All right. To Charlottesville, Va. Good morning, Mary.
MARYHi. Mr. McWhirter said that he and his editors were careful in their selection of pictures for the book and I'm curious about what sensibilities they were concerned about? That's my question.
MCWHIRTERWell, I can really say that there's only one photograph particular -- well, there's a couple of photographs, but there's one in particular one photograph of the -- I would say the crucifixion of Willie Brown in Omaha, Neb., during that riot and that is -- we talked about that and it was -- it's a horrific photograph, but it captures to me how shocking this summer was.
MCWHIRTERAnd so the idea is to shock people to realize that this happened. That this -- this happened here. I mean, we can talk about lynching in the abstract, but that's literally what a lynching was, so we felt that it was necessary to put in the book. It's not on the cover or anything like that.
MARYI see. So you weren't eliminating the most horrific, necessarily. It was...
MCWHIRTERThere were many horrific photographs that we did not use, but...
MCWHIRTER...this one I felt was important because it captured -- the mob -- I won't go into great detail on the photograph, but there's -- the crowd is there, it's smiling and looking on cheerfully.
MARYAnd so you tried to select in a way that would show just how terrible it was?
MCWHIRTERYeah, I just didn't want to just bludgeon people with that, but yes.
MARYYes, thank you very much.
MCWHIRTERThanks for the call.
REHMTo Jim in Dallas, Texas. You're on the air.
JIMOh, well, thank you very much, that was very quick. I'd like to ask the question, I read an article probably 20 or 30 years in a Dallas paper concerning the history of the modern Klan in the '20s, the rise of the history -- or of the Klan in the '20s and it attributed this riot to an entrepreneur in Dallas who single-handily managed to franchise Klan ownerships throughout the South and to sell all of the accruements of the Klan to the franchisees, who then went out and organized their own Klans. Do you know anything about this? I'll take my answer off the air.
REHMAll right, sir, thanks.
MCWHIRTERWell, the modern Klan began in 1915 when "Birth of A Nation" came out and a man named Colonel Simmons in Atlanta -- he wasn't actually a colonel, he just called himself that, but he had never fought in the military. But he -- he claimed to have had a vision at Stone Mountain, that he had gone and restarted the Klan at Stone Mountain outside of Georgia -- outside of Atlanta and he began preaching, well, what the Klan preaches, which is that, you know, white people are superior and it was also very anti-Catholic at the time.
MCWHIRTERAnd he did have assistants who began to market the Klan and in 1919, it really began to grow in response to a lot of this violence, so the Klan began to expand dramatically throughout the South. When -- by the '20s, it was expanding all over the United States. It became a gigantic, enormous organization. It was treated like the Kiwanis Club. It was not treated as though it were some shocking, horrific thing and they became incredibly popular.
REHMAnd how long were they really a force?
MCWHIRTERI would say throughout the early '20s. By the -- they -- I mean, they were a force until...
MCWHIRTER...much later, but they were a gigantic political force throughout the '20s and they started to have financially because some of the people wanted to -- there was all this franchising going on and Colonel Simmons felt he had been betrayed and they had a lot of infighting, which was probably good for the United States (laugh), but it was bad for the KKK.
REHMAll right. To Henry, he's in Yellow Springs, Ohio. Good morning.
HENRYGood morning. Without taking away any of the responsibility of the South, I've always felt that the North has gotten away scot-free in discussions like this, not especially in the big city riots, but in the individual hangings and small towns and everything that had -- there were a decent number in the North. Could you talk about that, please?
MCWHIRTERHenry, that's an excellent point. You are absolutely correct. I mean, let's talk about the founding of the NAACP. It was founded in 1909 in response to the 1908 riot in Springfield, Ill., which was the home of Abraham Lincoln and there were people there...
REHMHow did that happen?
MCWHIRTERAgain, you know, there was a lot of tension, there'd been a lot of -- there'd been black people moving up from the South and it led to a huge riot and that really sparked people to organize the NAACP because they said, if you can have riot in Springfield, Ill., then you can have one anywhere. And they did. I mean, there were riots in Connecticut during 1919, there were riots in Nebraska. No one would think there would be a race riot Nebraska. There were very, very few black people living in the state of Nebraska. They were all living in Omaha.
MCWHIRTERSo these riots were happening all over the country and I -- there was a riot in Bisbee, Ariz. with members of the -- you know, the Buffalo soldiers out there. And -- so these sort of riots -- it wasn't about the -- that's one important point. This wasn't about the South, this was the United States.
REHMOne point that you make in the book was that after the war was over and blacks had made their way north, then the South was depleted of manpower, as it were, and tried to get these blacks to come back down south?
MCWHIRTEROh, yeah, no -- white businesses were writing desperate letters to the federal government trying to get labor to move back south. They were taking out ads in newspapers and these riots in the North, in some instances, they promoted, you know, Mississippi -- chambers of commerce would write letters to be published in Northern newspapers saying, look, look. Look what's happening up there. You know, white people in the North don't understand you like we do. Come back down. Black people did not hear that message (laugh).
REHMThey did not go back down.
MCWHIRTER(laugh) No, no, no.
REHMOkay. to Martinsville, Va. Good morning, Mary.
REHMGo right ahead, please.
MARYI'm having a little trouble hearing you. It's a little fuzzy. I just wish someone would refresh our memory about Wilson and whether he was being this bad handler of what went on before or after his stroke. His stroke -- he was hidden from the country in a government carried on by his wife and some of the government, is my understanding.
MCWHIRTERThat's a great point. That stroke happens in the fall of 1919 and he is basically out of commission after that point, so all my remarks regarding Wilson were prior. He was -- he ignored, utterly ignored with the exception of one offhanded sentence in one of his speeches, what was going on throughout the Red Summer. He never said a thing about it.
MCWHIRTERAnd he was traveling to fight for the -- he wanted approval the League of Nations Treaty and -- so that was where his focus, all of his energy was, to get the Versailles Treaty passed by Congress, which the Senate was not going to do it, the Republican Senate was not going to do it.
REHMAnd what was that one sentence?
MCWHIRTERI don't remember it exactly, but it was something like, isn't it terrible that people would cause mayhem. I mean, it was not very specific and he didn't -- he never really addressed -- he didn't issue a proclamation, he didn't -- he kept telling -- people would request his aid and he would say, well, this isn't really a federal matter.
REHMCameron McWhirter, the book is titled "Red Summer." You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And to Lynn Haven, Fla. Good morning, Gary, thanks for waiting.
GARYThanks, Diane, for taking my call.
GARYYou asked my question to Mr. McWhirter's earlier about whether within this historical context, how did this affect President Obama? And the answer that he gave to me was a little political, but I can understand that. But it seems to me that people should be able to understand the presidency right now, with President Obama, based on this historical context.
GARYWhen the hatred was so deep just so a few years ago and we can see that the impact in certain parts of the United States is still strong within the other parts of the United States. In the South, I think that -- and he said that he worked in the South and he's from the South, I think I remember him saying, but you can still see the impact here.
GARYThings haven't changed that much. I could venture to say that President Obama didn't carry one Southern state because this deep-seated hatred -- racial hatred still has not been totally cured. The last point is, during that time when he spoke about James Weldon Johnson was being labeled a communist and King -- King was also labeled a communist.
GARYThat was one way of demonizing or trying to denigrate blacks at the time of -- that had any intellectual prowess for the purpose of educating other black people and they've used that same tactic in the case of Obama. Not using the communist, because it seems to me, communist is more acceptable amongst mainstream, but they have confidently carried him as a socialist and not being an American and I wonder how historically, in the context of this history, how that compares.
MCWHIRTERWell, I -- a couple of points. Thanks for the call. I think that -- first of all, I'm from Chicago. I don't know if that -- I moved to Atlanta. Everyone in Atlanta, almost everyone in Atlanta, is from somewhere else, but -- so I grew up in the North, but I now live in Atlanta. The -- your point about James Weldon Johnson and about Obama, I mean, these -- obviously, these legacies are continuing in terms of linking people with leftist ideas.
MCWHIRTERThere's a -- I was -- there's one point in the book after the Washington riots, the world was shocked by this and newspapers across the world wrote about it and there's an article that I quote from a black -- from a German newspaper called "The Black Peril," that's the name of the editorial, and in it, the editorialist writes that, you know, this is crazy, what's happening in the United States, and someday, maybe, we might even see a black president. It was though it was some horrific, shocking thing that could happen.
MCWHIRTERSo there's certainly -- there's no doubt that there are racial issues in this country, I just think it's amazing that what has been achieved and I would give credit to the NAACP and their work in 1919.
REHMCameron McWhirter, the book is titled "Red Summer." Thank you for writing this book.
MCWHIRTERThanks for having me.
REHMAnd thanks for listening, all. I'm Diane Rehm.
ANNOUNCER"The Diane Rehm Show" is produced by Sandra Pinkard, Nancy Robertson, Susan Nabors, Denise Couture, Monique Nazareth, Sarah Ashworth, Lisa Dunn and Nikki Jecks. The engineer is Tobey Schreiner. Katy June-Friesen answers the phones. Visit drshow.org for audio archives, transcripts, podcasts and CD sales. Call 202-885-1200 for more information. Our e-mail address is email@example.com and we're on Facebook and Twitter. This program comes to you from American University in Washington. This is NPR.
Most Recent Shows
How the remote island became one of the world's most important laboratories for understanding climate change.
Democratic presidential hopefuls take the stage for two nights of debate. Winners, losers and what we learned about the state of the race.
Taffy Brodesser-Akner, a writer for New York Times Magazine, has a new book called "Fleishman Is In Trouble."