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Student Essay--East St. Louis Race Riots: Mob Violence or Rational Event


Allison Poehler
English 112 Honors
Dr. Patterson and Dr. Collins
5 February 2009

"There has never been a time when the riot was not alive in the oral tradition" (Barnes 240). This quote by East St. Louis's poet laureate Eugene Redmond was the inspiration for Harper Barnes's Never Been a Time, a work chronicling the 1917 East St. Louis race riot. Indeed, the riot has not been forgotten in the hearts and minds of the people of East. St. Louis as on that sweltering day in July 1917 hundreds of African Americans were murdered in the streets of the city while their homes and businesses burned to the ground. How could such a horrific event occur in the same state Abraham Lincoln, the Great Emancipator, called home? Many agree that the events that took place on July 2, 1917 were "rational" events. Whites did not simply act out of a mob mentality but rather had a specific goal: eliminate the rise of blacks and scare them out of the city. Factors such as political corruption in city politics, labor strife, racial tension, and exaggerated newspaper stories provided a backdrop for the mass violence that erupted that day, but it was fear of blacks gaining power that led hundreds of East St. Louis whites to commit a pogrom against their black neighbors.

In the months before the July pogrom East St. Louis erupted into its first race riot on the 28th of May. Labor issues sparked the short-lived riot but racial tension after the May uprising would build until July. Previous to the May riot hundreds of thousands of African Americans had moved North in the war years in what is today known as the Great Migration. Deep racial hatred and violence, unfair voting practices, and poverty dominated life in the South for African Americans. As World War I escalated, many Southern and Eastern Europeans, who had immigrated to America during the Second Immigration, returned to the countries of their birth to fight. United States companies depended on the flow of cheap immigrant labor to function especially since many factories were contracted to manufacture equipment for the war. Faced with a shortage of labor and employee unrest, companies began sending agents to the South to recruit African Americans for work in the North. These agents convinced thousands of blacks to emigrate to Northern cities where jobs were available, the standard of living was higher, and voting rights were honored. Most emigrating blacks however did not know they were to be used as strikebreakers. East St. Louis was a major railway hub and thousands of African Americans poured into the city either searching for employment or boarding the next train bound for Chicago or Detroit. African Americans who stayed in East St. Louis found work in slaughterhouses, chemical plants, and ore companies. As labor tensions increased and whites began to strike, blacks were brought in as "scabs" or strikebreakers. White employees' and union leaders' hostility intensified as the job market became saturated and African Americans continued arriving in the city by the hundreds. Labor tensions finally mounted on May 28, 1917, several months after Birth of a Nation began playing in the city (Barnes 83). With whites out of work and black unskilled labor taking their place, union leaders met with employees and citizens to discuss the growing labor problems. Labor leaders cautioned against rash action, but others such as lawyer Alexander Flannigen fed the flames (Barnes 99-100). Violence erupted in the city but was quelled in a short amount of time. The May uprising was white East St. Louisians first attempt at intimidating blacks. African Americans had migrated north in search of better opportunities in the Land of Lincoln but instead were met with racism equal to that of the South. Racial tension that began in May would continue to build. White employees hostility towards black strikebreakers turned to fear as labor situations became more desperate. This fear would lead whites to act in rational and predetermined ways on July 2, 1917.

After the May attacks, some blacks in East St. Louis armed themselves to protect their homes and families from mob violence. The idea that blacks were arming themselves sparked more fear in white St. Louisians minds as area newspapers began spreading rumors that blacks were planning revenge for the May riot:

On June 15, the Journal gave big play to the story of a black robber who had held up a white man. . .But rumors continued to spread through the white population that blacks were buying guns and were preparing to storm white neighborhoods and slaughter whites to exact revenge. . .(Barnes 108)

Though whites committed crimes in East St. Louis, newspapers focused exclusively on black crime. Not only were black robberies featured, but also crimes against "virtuous white women" were portrayed in headlines. In actuality, most crime committed was white crime, but through exaggerated stories, newspapers articles provided a rational basis for white fear towards blacks, a fear that would fester until whites took action (Barnes 226).

Black crime received must coverage in area newspapers, but the actual vice occurring in East St. Louis received little press. The overall lawlessness of East St. Louis, which included enough saloons to fund fifty percent of the city's revenue and numerous prostitution rings, would be a contributing factor to the violence that escalated during the July pogrom. Rampant crime existing in East St. Louis is described by Barnes as "East St. Louis's deal with the devil." "East St. Louis's deal with the devil meant that when July of 1917 rolled around, the city was full of thugs and saloon brawlers, many of them armed, all of them prone to violence, with little regard for the social compact" (Barnes 228). Most of East St. Louis's white citizens were either poor or criminals, sometimes both. Either way, both were a desperate kind, and as racial and labor tension grew while newspapers headlined stories of black men raping white women, fear grew in the minds of desperate men.

East St. Louis's problems did not only encompass that of labor and lawlessness but also political corruption. White political bosses such as slumlord Locke Tarlton held connections in city hall and over city mayor Fred Mollman. These political bosses ruled the streets of East St. Louis and made much profit from its illegal activities. During the Great Migration hundreds of blacks had come from the South into East St. Louis. So many African Americans were living in East St. Louis that the African American population was beginning to gain political influence from its sheer numbers. Mayor Mollman had received much black support during his reelection to office but he and other city officials were beginning to fear the power blacks held, especially that of Dr. LeRoy Bundy, who held much influence over the black community. This fear of black power is the factor Lumpkins cites as insinuating the riot. Bundy had upset white politicians in his endeavors to build a black political machine (Lumpkins 111). "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" (Lumpkins 110). The May riot had grown out of labor issues: blacks taking whites' jobs. As poor whites milled through the streets of East St. Louis they could see the rise of a black middle class. Everywhere blacks were gaining power and electoral politics was the next step.

When the mob began to form on July 2, 1917 it had a clear goal in mind: stop blacks from rising out of the lowest levels of society and drive them out of the city. "The aim was to turn East St. Louis into a sundown town, a place devoid of African American residents" (Lumpkins 112). The mob did not act only out of a mob mentality, but rather had rational and clearly defined goals. Building racial tension and exaggerated newspaper stories had been adding fears to white citizens' minds. East St. Louis's "deal with the devil" provided the types of lawless characters to incite violence (Barnes 228). Corrupt city politics feared a black political machine's possible power so that when the riot began little was done to stop it. Labor was not an issue in this riot:

The fact that perpetrators attacked African Americans regardless of gender or age, as well as African Americans who obviously did not even live or work in East St. Louis, suggest that concern about racial competition in local housing and employment was not a principal motivation (Lumpkins 120).

The goals of ending black power were driven by the fear whites had of blacks gaining equality. The July riot was a pogrom, a racial cleansing of sorts. As Eugene Redmond comments, the riot has never left the minds of the people of East St. Louis, and how could it (Barnes 240)? Such a horrific tragedy occurred simply because one group of people desired to be equal to another. The riot of 1917 is sparked the Civil Rights Movement. The very first civil right march was held in New York to protest the horrors of the July pogrom (Barnes 188). Yet it would be many years after the Silent Parade that African Americans would gain true equal protection under the law and segregation would forever be abolished. Yet deeply rooted racism still persists in every corner of America. Remembering the July riot of 1917 is as important now as ever. People must remember where they have been in order to clearly see where they are headed.

Works Cited

Barnes, Harper. Never Been a Time. Walker Publishing Company, Inc: New York, 2008.
Lumpkins, Charles L. American Program. Ohio University Press: Athens, Ohio.

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