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Writer chronicles the racial fires that scorched Chicago’s summer of 1919

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Updated: October 9, 2011 2:34AM

In 1919, Chicago was changing demographically, and it was difficult to avoid noticing. A steady flow of African Americans, mostly from Southern states, had become what author Cameron McWhirter terms “a flood.”

Because of ingrained racial prejudices combined with harsh economic circumstances, many Chicagoans did not welcome the flood.

Writing a book about black-white race relations across the United States is no big deal — thousands of authors have already been there. On the other hand, writing a fresh, compelling book about race relations is a big deal. McWhirter, not a professional historian but primarily a newspaper journalist, has written a fresh, compelling book, Red Summer: The Summer of 1919 and the Awakening of Black America (Henry Holt, $32.50), with Chicago featured prominently, along with Cleveland, Austin, Knoxville and Washington, D.C., among other locales.

McWhirter reports that Chicago did not turn out to be the promised land that migrants hoped to find. Instead, many of the migrants “found themselves abruptly locked in a fierce, ethnic competition for jobs, housing and political power.” The result as 1919 progressed: violence leading to injuries and deaths, with Caucasian mobs and African-American mobs battling along the Lake Michigan beaches, then spreading west and south and north.

The book is fresh in its examination for three reasons: the depth of McWhirter’s research on one year; the theme that African Americans began to shake off their shackles in that year because of their proud but largely unacknowledged service to their country during World War I; and the lucid explanation about why the saga of American race relations makes sense to tell using 1919 as the centerpiece.

The violence between whites and blacks — with whites usually the instigators to the extent that such truth can be determined — became especially widespread and deadly during 1919. The instigators might have called themselves Christians, but they acted like godless barbarians. Lynchings of blacks and burning their live bodies to death by throwing them into bonfires seemed commonplace. Many, probably most, of those blacks had done nothing illegal or even provocative. Whatever the reasons, McWhirter makes a persuasive case that the summer of 1919 served as a turning point unlike any before or since. He notes that many Americans today think first of death and destruction in the Watts section of Los Angeles, 1964; in Newark and Detroit, 1967; in the immediate wake of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, 1968; or again in Los Angeles, 1992.

But McWhirter says, “even if 1919 was hushed up and forgotten by generations, the Red Summer’s legacy has pervaded race relations to the present day. Much of that legacy had been positive. Black America awakened politically, socially and artistically like never before. Blacks were emboldened by the Red Summer, not diminished by it. They joined political organizations. They campaigned for politicians. They registered to vote where they could. They lobbied the government with an energy and frequency not seen since at least the 1870s.”

Perhaps the election of Barack Obama to the U.S. presidency demonstrates the continuing positive evolution of race relations across the nation since 1919. Or perhaps not. Using Chicago or any other large U.S. metropolis as a contemporary example, circa 2011, generalizing about race relations makes no sense, because progress or the lack of it comes down to individuals and neighborhoods differing vastly.

Steve Weinberg is a Missouri-based freelance writer.

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