Jamelle Bouie
The New York Times

‘This Is a Crime Against the Laws of Humanity’

I spent a little time in my Friday column going over the details of the 1918 Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill, which was the first major piece of anti-lynching legislation introduced to the United States Congress. It’s named after Representative Leonidas C. Dyer, a white Republican from Missouri who represented a largely Black constituency in St. Louis.

Dyer was elected to Congress in 1910 and introduced an anti-lynching bill in 1911, but it was killed in committee. As the historian Philip Dray notes in “At the Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black America,” Dyer “redoubled his efforts after the East St. Louis riot of 1917”:

When he appeared before a congressional committee investigating the violence, he referred to the East St. Louis assaults on innocent black men, women, and children as “the most dastardly and most criminal outrages ever perpetrated in this country,” and estimated that there had been five hundred black fatalities, a number well above any other estimate, including that of the NAACP.

There has been much greater public awareness, in the past few years, of the racial pogroms of the early 20th century. The HBO series “Watchmen” made the Tulsa, Okla., massacre of 1921 the departure point for its story, and a number of outlets and authors published works commemorating the centennial of the “Red Summer” of 1919, in which hundreds of Blacks were killed in “race riots” in cities across the country, including Chicago; Norfolk, Va.; Washington, D.C.; Omaha; and Elaine, Ark.

The East St. Louis riot of 1917 is, by contrast, much less well known and practically forgotten beyond the world of historians, interested observers and the community itself.

But it was, at the time, a major event that drew commentary and condemnation from across the political and ideological spectrum. President Woodrow Wilson denounced it, albeit a year after the fact, in a presidential proclamation, stating:

I therefore very earnestly and solemnly beg that the governors of all the States, the law officers of every community, and, above all, the men and women of every community in the United States, all who revere America and wish to keep her name without stain or reproach, will cooperate — not passively merely, but actively and watchfully — to make an end of this disgraceful evil. It cannot live where the community does not countenance it.

Congress, likewise, empaneled a joint committee of five members of the House and five members of the Senate “to investigate the mob violence and riots in East St. Louis, Ill., and the causes thereof, and make a report of the same to Congress.”

Ida B. Wells-Barnett, in a contemporaneous account, called it “the greatest outrage of the century.” W.E.B. Du Bois devoted an entire chapter of his 1920 memoir, “Darkwater: Voices From Within the Veil,” to the riot, which he described in nearly apocalyptic terms:

The white men drove even black union men out of their unions and when the black men, beaten by night and assaulted, flew to arms and shot back at the marauders, five thousand rioters arose and surged like a crested stormwave, from noonday until midnight; they killed and beat and murdered; they dashed out the brains of children and stripped off the clothes of women; they drove victims into the flames and hanged the helpless to the lighting poles. Fathers were killed before the faces of mothers; children were burned; heads were cut off with axes; pregnant women crawled and spawned in dark, wet fields; thieves went through houses and firebrands followed; bodies were thrown from bridges; and rocks and bricks flew through the air.

The background to the riot is mostly straightforward. St. Louis, at the time, was one of the largest cities in the United States, with a population of nearly 700,000. St. Louis and East St. Louis, a neighboring community across the river in Illinois, were homes to a number of major industries that, during the years of World War I, attracted Black migrants from the South and white migrants from around the country, as well as immigrants from Europe.

For Du Bois, there were two forces that made this a combustible situation. The first was white racism, which kept or drove Black workers out of unions and divided labor in the city. “The best electrician in the city was refused admittance to the union and driven from town because he was black,” Du Bois wrote. “No black builder, printer, or machinist could join a union or work in East St. Louis, no matter what his skill or character.”

The second was the war in Europe. It supercharged demand for industrial products like steel and aluminum, which, in turn, supercharged demand for labor. When white workers took advantage of this demand to strike for higher wages, employers used Black workers — excluded from union work — as scabs and strikebreakers. “Here were black men,” Du Bois wrote, trying to capture the rage of the white workers, “guilty not only of bidding for jobs which white men could have held at war prices, even if they could not fill, but also guilty of being black!”

In a more recent account, “American Pogrom: The East St. Louis Race Riot and Black Politics,” the historian Charles L. Lumpkins argues for a third force, namely, politics. As their population grew, “African Americans in East St. Louis became skilled in mobilizing as a voting bloc, swinging elections, and winning patronage.” By 1915, he continues, “black residents had become … a source of fear for white inhabitants who thought that black voters held ‘the balance of political power.’” And as an “increasingly assertive black population reshaped the city’s political culture,”

white political bosses and progressive reformers firmed their resolve to reverse the expansion of black political strength that they viewed as a threat to white entitlements. In 1917, agents of the state would opt for violence to solve the “Negro problem.”

The violence began on May 28, 1917, after the Aluminum Ore Company had hired several hundred Black workers to replace white workers who had gone on strike. At a City Council meeting that evening, nearly 1,000 people gathered to “protest to the mayor about the influx of the negro,” Lumpkins writes. During the meeting, “two white city police detectives spread the word that patrolmen had just arrested a black man for shooting a white man.” As if on cue, people rushed to the city jail, attempting to seize and lynch the suspect. There were assaults on nearby Black residents and some property damage, but the mob spirit eventually left the crowd.

It would emerge again, on July 2 and 3, organized and supported by figures in the white political class. “The July pogrom represented a political solution planned by certain white real estate men, politicians, and businessmen,” Lumpkins writes. “The mass racial violence of July accomplished what the May riot had failed to achieve: the elimination of the black community’s influential role in local electoral politics.”

Or, as a local political boss said in the days after the riot, “This is going to be a white man’s town hereafter; the blacks will be run out of here and we’ll have a white man’s town.”

The violence was initiated by a group of assailants who carried out a series of ambushes of Black residents. Police officers looked the other way and even worked to disarm Black residents. When a large group of Black men opened fire on and killed several white men — who they believed to be masquerading as policemen — all hell broke loose.

Mobs destroyed neighborhoods and assaulted any Black resident they could find. They inflicted horrific violence on men, women and children with a sadism that would shock the nation. They ransacked stores and robbed homes, setting them on fire after carrying off furniture, clothing and other valuables. Several victims were lynched against the backdrop of those flames.

Whites who tried to protect their Black neighbors were singled out for abuse as well. “Assailants injured or killed, or threatened with drawn pistols, white people who attempted to rescue black people or prevent destruction of black homes and shops,” Lumpkins notes. “Small white businesses that employed significant numbers of black workers were targeted as well.” The mob and its leaders wanted to discipline the white population as well as expel the Black one.

The violence began to end only with the arrival of the National Guard. The rioters, however, had accomplished what they set out to do. They had fatally wounded the Black community of East St. Louis and set the stage for renewed white dominance of the city’s politics.

In the aftermath of the riot, the N.A.A.C.P. would organize protests condemning the violence, and Congress, through men like Dyer, would try to take action. But I’ll leave you not with their words but with those of the Jamaica-born Marcus Garvey, head of the Universal Negro Improvement Association.

“This,” he said, “is a crime against the laws of humanity; it is a crime against the laws of the nation, it is a crime against Nature, and a crime against the God of all mankind.”

The New York Times