The race riot that inspired a movement

Times Staff Writer

AS YOU read St. Louis journalist Harper Barnes’ new history, “Never Been a Time: The 1917 Race Riot That Sparked the Civil Rights Movement,” it’s hard not to zero in on the cold reality that this is a single nation of multiple histories. And some of them are not pretty.

Barnes’ book centers on a race riot in East St. Louis, Ill., on July 2 and 3, 1917, that killed at least 48 men, women and children, 39 of them black, and destroyed a large swath of mostly black neighborhoods across the Mississippi River from St. Louis. It was the bloodiest race riot in U.S. history, until the 1992 Los Angeles riots. The details of how most of those people came to be in East St. Louis and how they died offer a sobering look at white-black history in this country and how it informs race relations today.

Simply put, white history and black history follow parallel tracks but can be as different as, well, black and white. That difference coursed through controversial bromides by Barack Obama’s pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., against a white society that over the centuries has brutalized and marginalized blacks. Not to defend Wright’s objectionable hyperbole, but white Americans look backward with different eyes, sometimes glancing past such long and destabilizing episodes as slavery, segregation and the lynching of blacks by the score. Yet those experiences infuse black identity, finding expression through such disparate outlets as the 1939 jazz classic “Strange Fruit” and the backlash that slammed Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly last February after he told a caller he didn’t “want to go on a lynching party against Michelle Obama” over some comments she had made.


Within that broad historical context, the East St. Louis violence was no mere act of rage. Blacks were methodically chased down by white mobs, kicked and battered and then strung up from light poles in acts of unmistakable symbolism. Others were beaten bloody, then, as they lay helpless, summarily shot in the head. Still others were flushed from their homes by arsonists, as in a rabbit hunt, and shot as they fled the flames.

So how did the riot begin? With a labor dispute, which shows how interwoven racial and class strife can be. Barnes traces an influx of Southern blacks to East St. Louis in the months before the riot to collusion among local industrialists bent on destabilizing the local work force, driving down wages and limiting strikes by amassing a ready reserve of scabs. Through hiring agents, business leaders put out the word across the South that there were jobs to be had in East St. Louis. Poor rural blacks -- many of them fleeing lynchings in their home areas -- arrived only to discover that the number of jobs had been exaggerated. Black neighborhoods became even more crowded and began encroaching on white neighborhoods. Idle and starving blacks filled the streets, some resorting to robbery and other crimes to get by. Mix in economic and racial resentment among white strikers, unions that barred blacks, inflammatory speeches and sensationalist articles in the local papers, and the tinder was ready for the match.

It came in the form of the nighttime shooting of two white plainclothes cops in an unmarked car by a group of blacks who were reacting to an attack by a car full of white men who had just driven through their neighborhood, guns blazing. The response to the shooting of the police was immediate and stomach-turning.

Yet the riot’s proximate cause is less significant than how the pressure built, for East St. Louis was not the only American city to burn in those tumultuous times. Lesser riots erupted in Atlanta, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and elsewhere. Recalling the pogroms in Jewish oral tradition, Barnes’ title is from a remark by East St. Louis poet Eugene Redmond: “There has never been a time when the riot was not alive in the oral tradition.” Barnes does a sterling job of exploring the forces that led to the one in East St. Louis, then puts the reader into the middle of the burning; here his tone is dispassionate, letting the heinous acts speak for themselves.

But Barnes is insufficiently skeptical of undocumented deaths, giving too much weight to unverified reports of incinerated bodies, river burials and secret mass graves. And for all the description, there are no photographs of the riot; Barnes attributes their absence to rioters robbing news photographers of their cameras and film or threatening photographers when they raised a camera. A map, at least, would have been useful to help readers grasp the geography.

Moreover, despite his subtlety, Barnes doesn’t quite make the case that this bloody episode began the civil rights movement. The NAACP was founded in 1909, had been pressing for federal anti-lynching laws and in 1915 organized protests against D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation.”


But those minor blemishes are easy to overlook, as Barnes brings fresh light to a troubling past that white Americans would prefer to forget and black Americans cannot.

Scott Martelle, a Times staff writer, is author of “Blood Passion: The Ludlow Massacre and Class War in the American West.”