Red Summer

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Red Summer

"Red Summer" was the term coined in 1919 by NAACP investigator James Weldon Johnson to describe the summer and early fall of that year, when twenty-five race riots and other racially based incidents erupted across the United Statesthe largest in Charleston, South Carolina; Washington, D.C.; Chicago; Knoxville, Tennessee; Omaha, Nebraska; and Elaine, Arkansas. Although the riots had different immediate causes, they had many common roots.

Tensions between blacks and whites were high in the aftermath of World War I. Overly rapid demobilization and the end of price controls led to inflation and unemployment. Whites in the North were angered and frightened by the presence of blacks who had migrated during the war, and white Southerners were aroused by blacks' new self-confidence and willingness to challenge the racial status quo. Black soldiers came home from Europe, where they had been treated as equals by the French (one black unit was decorated for bravery), expecting gratitude and employment opportunity. They received neither. There were seventy-six lynchings in a month and a half, a dozen of them of black veterans still in uniform. Racial tensions were augmented by the postwar anti-Bolshevik "red scare." Whites feared radicalism and reacted hysterically to rumors of subversion. Attempts at social change, particularly in the racial status quo, were stigmatized as "radical" and "subversive."

The riots themselves were generally white-instigated affairs, generated by real or fictitious black challenges to white authority. However, unlike most earlier racial disturbances, blacks often actively resisted white violence, and shot and beat white attackers. Radical black leaders such as A. Philip Randolph gave speeches and wrote articles proclaiming blacks' right to commit violence in self-defense.

Red Summer, though brief, convinced many African Americans that their participation in a war for democracy did not mean that white domination in America was going to disappear. The events pushed many blacks into militant action. Some blacks responded by redoubling their commitment to civil rights protest. Others supported black nationalist leaders, notably Marcus Garvey.

See also Johnson, James Weldon; Riots and Popular Protests


Tuttle, William M., Jr. Race Riot: Chicago in the Red Summer of 1919. New York: Atheneum, 1970.

alana j. erickson (1996)