Shoeshine Lynchings: Race Riots in America

The history of American race relations is, at best, the story of  the slow struggle for equality and freedom that has been endured by various minorities over the centuries since America’s founding. At worst, the history of race relations in the United States reveals an endemic reign of terror, oppression, violence and injustice that had been perpetuated by the white ruling class against minorities, women, and the underprivileged.  While many people might instinctively separate the oppression of minorities such as African Americans or Native Americans from the political and social oppression of women and the poor, the differences in these types of oppression, on closer inspection, are seen to be much less significant than the similarities. In his study The Burning, Tim Madigan makes the argument that the 1921 race riot that took place in Tulsa Oklahoma can be regarded as symbolizing the experience of African in Americans in the post-Civil War era. The following discussion will show that Madigan’s thesis is correct. However, the discussion will also show, through reference to three other specific race riots in American history, that the connection between the riots and issues of economics and widespread oppression of women and the poor is intrinsic to the long history of  unstable race relations in the United States.

The idea that African Americans were accorded any degree of freedom and opportunity after the American Civil War is more of a myth than an historical reality. The African American experience prior to the Civil War was rooted in slavery and oppression. The African American experience in the years following the Civil War was also rooted in oppression — and violence. The so-called “Jim Crow” period of U.S. history is one of the most vile, tragic, and brutal events that can be imagined. The years following the Civil War were marked by bitter fear, resentment, exploitation and torture of African Americans by Caucasians. Madigan’s interpretation of Tulsa race Riot in 1921 is a solid choice for examining the  dynamics that are found beneath the surface of other race riots. These dynamics, as previously mentioned, are rooted in issues of sexism, economic exploitation, and ignorance. The pattern of the four race riots that will be examined below is constant. Each of the race riots begins with the tension that is produced by racism and poverty, is exacerbated by a sexual fear, largely imagined, that is experienced by white men, and culminates in the burning of African American neighborhoods and the slaughtering of African American citizens. In only one case, that of the Springfield race riot in  1908, were there more Caucasian deaths than African American. In every case, African Americans were beaten, detained, arrested, and killed by whites.

Similarly, not only were African Americans slaughtered and imprisoned due to the race riots, but they were almost always blamed for the initiation and escalation of racial violence that fed the race riots. In the case of the Tulsa riot, the “Final Report of the Grand Jury on the Tulsa Race Riot” makes it overtly clear that African Americans were to be held responsible for the tragic outbreak of violence. The report suggests that armed African American males incited the riots by threatening innocent bystanders. The report also suggests that there were no white lynch-mobs forming prior to the outbreak of violence and that, despite the assembling of a diverse group of African Americans, the blame for the riot rested squarely on the group of African American men who had gathered near the courthouse in an attempt to protect a shoe-shiner named  Dick Rowland from being hanged by a white mob. Rowland, who was nineteen years old, had been accused of “assaulting” a white teenager named Sarah Page.

This latter detail is extremely important to keep in mind when examining the history of race riots in America and most especially when comparing the similarities between race riots. This is because it connects the idea of racial fear and oppression to the idea of male-dominance and the sexual and political oppression of women. In many cases where violence was perpetuated against African Americans by whites  in the Jim Crow era, the underlying motivation for the violence was sexual in nature. Another similar factor is that economic conditions before and after the race riot indicate the systematic exploitation of African Americans by whites. In the case of the Tulsa riot, most of the property that was destroyed by white mobs was located in the so-called Greenwood district, which happened to contain the most economically prosperous African American neighborhoods in the country.

Of course, the underlying economic conditions for the race riots that took place in the years following the Civil war are not merely those which impacted African Americans and showed the brutal exploitation of African Americans by whites. The economic conditions that acted as an undercurrent for the race riots are also connected to the exploitation of white workers by the upper-classes. In many ways, the sexual and economic tension that existed between Caucasians and African Americans should be understood a “divide and conquer” strategy employed by the ruling class in American to subvert and thrawart the unification of workers. For this reason, the race riots must be understood as a way that the working-class was turned against itself by the machinations of an elitist economic society.

The Tulsa riot resulted in over one thousand African American homes being burned, over eight-hundred people being injured, and up to three-hundred African Americans being killed. Additionally, over ten-thousand African Americans were made homeless by the riot. In the thirteen years that had come before the Tulsa race riot, twenty-six African Americans, the majority of them men, had been lynched in the state. Oklahoma was also a state that had enacted strong Jim Crow legislation such as residential segregation and electoral and political exclusion. The conclusion of World war One in 1917 had led to a mass ingress of workers and veterans into America’s cities and the American labor market. The summer of 1919 was, in fact, heralded as the “Red Summer” due to the amount of race riots and labor riots that took place. The tension that existed between whites and blacks in the wake of World war one was economic in nature but manifested through racial and sexual anxiety and violence.

The Tulsa riot was initiated by a simple encounter between a white teenaged girl and a black teenaged male. the ensuing mayhem and destruction reveals the anxiety and bitterness that whites felt toward blacks who had, despite the endemic laws passed against them, managed to create a prosperous economic district in the city. the end-result of the race riot which was initiated by whites against blacks, was the utter destruction of their hard-won economic successes and  the spilling of their blood on no other basis than their skin color.  The Tulsa riot, indeed, stands as a metaphor for the experience of persecution that African Americans were subjected to in the years following the American Civil War.

Another race riot that shows the same results as that in Tulsa is the Detroit Race Riot of 1863 which took place during  the Civil War. In this riot, the reality of the draft was cited as being responsible for the outbreak of violence. The riot was original called the most bloody day in the history of  Detroit.  At east two people were murdered, and dozens if not hundreds of others, mostly African American, were injured. I addition, more than thirty buildings were burned to the ground and a multitude of other buildings were damaged by spreading fires. That this riot took place during the American Civil War, in a Northern city, exemplifies the fact that racial tension in America was not a matter of geographical location. In fact, it was more of a result of economic disposition.

As is well-known, during the American Civil War, it was possible to buy your way out of being drafted by paying a surrogate to serve in your place, or by paying a “bounty” to gain a government deferment. Of course, this remedy was only available to those who had money, so therefore was a manifestation of the classicism directed at both white and blacks. The racial enmity that led to riot can, again, be looked at as a divide and conquer strategy used by the rich against the poor. Like that later riot in Tulsa, the violence of whites against blacks actually emerged out of considerations if economic and political hardship, as well as racial prejudice. And again as in the later Tulsa riot, the majority of the violence and destruction that accompanied the riot was directed against African Americans and their property.

Another clear example of the economic and chauvinistic undercurrent of American race riots is the Springfield Race Riot which took place in 1908. This case, like Tulsa, was predicated on the idea of sexual assault by an African American against a white girl. Like Tulsa, the element of sexual predation seems to have been wholly imagined by whites. What is less imaginary is the economic realities of the region during the time of the riot. At that time, the city was economically prosperous and had one of the largest African American populations of any American city. In this instance, black defended themselves against whites and the riot ended as the only race riot in American history when the number of white deaths exceeded the number of murdered African Americans. Later, long after the race-riot had ended, the white woman who had originally claimed to have been raped by a black man admitted she had lied. her confession came too late to save the over two-hundred thousand dollars (in 1908 value) worth of property damage to African American homes and businesses, and the confirmed deaths of seven people including the lynching death of an eighty-four year old African American man.

These grim facts reinforce the pattern of economic tension, sexual paranoia, ignorance, and violence directed by whites against blacks that defines each of the race riots presently under discussion. Of course, the East St. Louis Riot of 1917 stands as further evidence of this pattern. this riot began as a direct result of labor tension in the city.  A mass influx of African Americans into the city caused resentment over the competition for jobs in the post World War one era.  the riot was begun by whites who performed a drive-by shooting on a group of black males. the end-result of the riot was two-hundred murdered African Americans, six-thousand homeless African Americans, and the mass destruction of African American homes and businesses. The riot was notable for the reported fact of National Guardsmen joining in the riot rather than attempting to shut it down. Such mass brutality by whites against blacks is staggering to many modern observers who belive that the Civil War “freed” African Americans.

The preceding discussion of race riots in American shows that the years after the American Civil War were not only highly influenced by ongoing racial tension; they were practically defined by racial tension and the struggle for equality and justice. The examination of the race riots also shows that economic themes are part of the emergence of racial tension and that prejudice against women is also closely associated with racial oppression in the history of the United States.  Also consistently present in the history of race riots in America is the pattern of murder, destruction, and torture that is initiated, escalated, and advocated by whites against African Americans. The pattern of race riots in America’s history shows that such events are not “race riots” at all, but vicious assaults against African American minorities that are the equivalent of the historic pogroms that were carried out against the Jews in Europe and culminated in the Holocaust perpetuated by the Nazis in World War Two.