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Never Been a Time: The 1917 Race Riot That…

Never Been a Time: The 1917 Race Riot That Sparked the Civil Rights…

by Harper Barnes

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Despite growing up just 60 miles away in mostly white Southern Illinois, I had never heard of the 1917 race riot in East St. Louis until this past year when I read Dennis Lehane’s historically detailed story of the 1919 Boston police strike, The Given Day. White resentment and fear against thousands of recent black migrants from the Deep South exploded into a two-day riot as whites reacted to the shooting of two police officers by killing blacks and burning down a large part of the black area of the city. The police and National Guard were at best criminally negligent and inept and at worst, actively supported the rioters. The riots were ended only when a new officer took charge of the guard.

The riot took place in one of the most corrupt and wide open cities in America. Corrupt politicians ruled the streets in cahoots with corrupt businessmen and directed a corrupt police force. White-run corporations encouraged the migration of blacks specifically to East St. Louis with false promises of easy jobs at good wages. Instead, the black workers were used as strikeworkers to break several strikes. East St. Louis also had an undue number of low-life violent, thugs, drunks, and pimps who were among the leaders in the riot. At least 100 blacks (possibly many more) and nine whites died.

Harper Barnes, a veteran writer and editor at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, is not a professional historian and at times it shows. Barnes’s personal knowledge and commitment to the area is a strength of the book. Barnes’s demonstrates his devotion to his fellow journalists by giving several reporters deservedly key roles in telling the story.

Barnes gives his book solid structure and comprehensive scope in just 240 pages or so. He develops the national historic context of the East St. Louis race riot by detailing racially-motivated violence against blacks throughout the country’s history. He works in the contrasting views of W.EB. DuBois and Booker T. Washington. He explores the migration of blacks from the South to the North. His presentation of the riot is measured and detailed. He does not force the facts to be clearer than he knows them to be.

Barnes follows a chapter on the aftermath of the riots in the courts with one examining the psychology of the white rioters. He ends with a retrospective chapter on East St. Louis through the voices of its residents, including many notables like Miles Davis Katherine Dunham. Barnes only briefly examines the subtitle’s premise that the riot ‘sparked the civil rights movement’.

While the book is somewhat uneven, I highly recommend it for its thorough look at an important event in US racial history, a riot that has been almost totally ignored at least in the history books. ( )
  dougwood57 | Jan 23, 2009 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0802715753, Hardcover)

The dramatic and first popular account of one of the deadliest racial confrontations in the 20th century—in East St. Louis in the summer of 1917—which paved the way for the civil rights movement.

In the 1910s, half a million African Americans moved from the impoverished rural South to booming industrial cities of the North in search of jobs and freedom from Jim Crow laws. But Northern whites responded with rage, attacking blacks in the streets and laying waste to black neighborhoods in a horrific series of deadly race riots that broke out in dozens of cities across the nation, including Philadelphia, Chicago, Tulsa, Houston, and Washington, D.C. In East St. Louis, Illinois, corrupt city officials and industrialists had openly courted Southern blacks, luring them North to replace striking white laborers.  This tinderbox erupted on July 2, 1917 into what would become one of the bloodiest American riots of the World War era. Its impact was enormous. “There has never been a time when the riot was not alive in the oral tradition,” remarks Professor Eugene Redmond. Indeed, prominent blacks like W.E.B. Du Bois, Marcus Garvey, and Josephine Baker were forever influenced by it.

Celebrated St. Louis journalist Harper Barnes has written the first full account of this dramatic turning point in American history, decisively placing it in the continuum of racial tensions flowing from Reconstruction and as a catalyst of civil rights action in the decades to come. Drawing from accounts and sources never before utilized, Harper Barnes has crafted a compelling and definitive story that enshrines the riot as an historical rallying cry for all who deplore racial violence.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:23:48 -0400)

Documents the deadly racial confrontation in 1917 East St. Louis between white and black citizens, describing the Jim Crow limits that prompted the move of half a million job-seeking African-Americans to northern industrial cities, and the resulting backlash.… (more)

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