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Discussion Questions - 1917 Race Riot


1917 Race Riot

Many scholars debate what caused the riot in East St. Louis on July 2, 1917. Some attribute the riot to cultural factors. The white-owned newspapers and magazines in East St. Louis downplayed crimes involving white people and exaggerated or invented crimes involving African Americans which led people to believe that African Americans were destroying the town and regularly attacking white people. The notion of white supremacy still existed in East St. Louis, especially for white women who were seen as virtuous and the prey of black men. Others believed the riot was caused by political factors. Political leaders of East St. Louis believed that African Americans were coming to East St. Louis to push the Democrats out of office by voting Republican as a massive political machine. African Americans also gained a political voice in East St. Louis at this time which scared and outraged many white politicians. Still, some people believe that economic factors precipitated the riot. White people often despised the growing middle class of African Americans and their economic success. African Americans also competed with white people for jobs which led to racial tension. Which of these factors do you think was the leading cause of the race riot of July 2, 1917, in East St. Louis: cultural, economic, or political? Or was the cause of the race riot of July 2 a combination of these factors, and if so, how did they influence each other? (CB)

Many whites who were not directly offended by the blacks used as strikebreakers participated in the July 1917 riot in East St. Louis, suggesting alternative motives for the riot beyond the loss of union worker jobs to African Americans. In one particular instance onlookers goaded a National Guard soldier into firing at blacks trying to escape from a burning building (Barnes 153). Other soldiers stood by and cheered white mob members as they performed their dirty work. In other areas of East St. Louis white prostitutes viciously attacked, and in some cases killed, African Americans. What were possible motives for these and other non-worker whites to participate in the riot? (Ex. Women, soldiers, upper class) (LM)

In Never Been A Time, Harper Barnes quotes Booker T. Washington, "Our greatest danger is that in the great leap from slavery to freedom we may overlook the fact that the masses of us are to live by the production of our hands, and fail to keep in mind that we shall prosper as we learn to dignify and glorify common labor… It is at the bottom of life we must begin, and not at the top" (34). Booker T. Washington supported accommodation, while on the other hand Marcus Garvey supported a Back to Africa movement. It seems that the medium between these two ideas won out, but was it the best solution? Would a Back to Africa Movement have lessened racial tensions in East St. Louis? Would a total accommodation movement have lessened racial tensions? Would the results of either been a better solution than the East St. Louis race riot and all following riots? (MV)

Many of the rioters in the 1917 riots avoided arrest, despite the presence of police forces and the Illinois National Guard. Though hundreds took place in the riot, only a small handful ever stood trial. Documentation of the riot was suppressed as well: rioters and the police smashed the cameras of reporters. For example, "Mayor Mollman's secretary, Maurice Ahearn, ordered police and guardsmen to arrest anyone photographing the beatings or killings or destroy their cameras" (Lumpkins 115). However, a few photographs taken in stealth during the riot do exist. Why were photographers attacked? Do you think that the fallout from the riot would have been different if photographs had been allowed? (KM)

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