By Gloria J. Browne-Marshall
Streets ran red with blood. It was the worse year of racial conflict in American history. The summer of 1919 was aptly named the Red Summer. That fateful summer race riots claimed the lives of hundreds of Blacks in cities and rural areas, alike. Men, women, and children were shot dead from Washington, D.C. to Elaine, Arkansas, St. Louis, Missouri, to New Orleans. Riots raged every month in the summer of 1919. Today, as racial tensions escalate, the economy unnerves, and guns abound, the stage may be set for the Red Summer of 2012.
America’s racial tensions lie just beneath the surface. They erupt in the form of hate crimes. Since Barack Obama’s election, racial vitriol has come from a Federal judge, members of the United States Congress, and local politicians all of whom swore an oath to uphold the U.S. Constitution. The less sophisticated participates in military maneuvers in rural hideaways in preparation for a race war. Once again, Black progress has undermined their basic identity. If a Black man is president than who am I? In 1919, Black soldiers were lynched while wearing their uniforms. If he is a soldier than who am I?
Now, as in 1919, unemployment is pitting us against each other. Back in 1919, there were tensions over jobs. The post-World War I boom was ending then. As America spiraled into an economic depression, the status of working class Whites was threatened. Blacks returned from war impatient for democracy. They were called “uppity” when they demanded more than menial jobs, segregated lives, and terrorism. The Ku Klux Klan’s membership swelled with every inch of Black progress. Then, as now, America was in an upheaval over unemployment, women’s rights, labor reforms, unionization, and immigration.
The current national threat is real. In 2011, undetonated pipe bombs, containing nails and poison, were found along the Martin Luther King, Jr. parade route in Spokane, WA. Later that summer, the cold-blooded murder of James Anderson, a Black man, by White teens in Jackson, Mississippi, was ruled a hate crime. As debate continued over the shooting of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed Black teenager in Florida, two White men confessed to randomly seeking out five Blacks to shoot in Tulsa, Oklahoma, killing three.
In Tulsa, in 1925, riots raged for nearly a week. Hundreds of Blacks were killed. Police refused to protect them. When Blacks armed themselves the U.S. military intervened, and arrested them. The stately homes and thriving businesses of Black Tulsa were ransacked and destroyed. In Florida, in 1923, the Black community of Rosewood was attacked by Whites. Both riots began with false rumors of a raped White woman. Like Rosewood, economic tensions fed the rage taking Black lives, destroying their homes and businesses.
Of course, progress in race relations has been made. In 1994, the Florida legislature voted to give reparations to the surviving victims of the Rosewood race riots. However, the Tulsa legislature refuses to compensate the few surviving victims of the 1921 race riots because Blacks in Tulsa defended themselves against the mobs.
Today, guns are plentiful and better at taking human life. The Second Amendment provides the right to bear arms. In 2008, the U.S. Supreme Court decided District of Columbia v. Heller. Dick Heller successfully challenged gun laws in Washington, D.C. In 2010, Otis McDonald, a Black man in Chicago, brought a similar case challenging his city’s strict ban on legal handgun ownership. The Court ruled in McDonald v. Chicago that self-defense is a basic right protected by the Second Amendment and upheld the right to possess a handgun for home protection.
Now, ‘Stand Your Ground’ laws condone shoot-outs anywhere. There has always been leniency when an intruder is shot within the home. It was understood a burglar took the risk of injury when breaking into a private residence. Now with both bully and victim armed, either may shoot in self-defense based on a threat of attack. Black people scare me. Shoot first. Then, explain later. Add ‘Stand Your Ground’ violence to the gun violence by common criminals, wayward teens, disgruntled employees, jilted spouses, and the mentally unstable. Combine poor race relations and President Obama’s re-election campaign into this simmering mess.
Today, as in 1919, fear of Black progress enrages those helplessly invested – body, mind, and soul – in White supremacy. Supremacy by law has ended. The tradition remains. A small minority of those investors will hunt for Black targets in the streets. Sophisticates will target them at voting booths.
Our unseasonably warm winter may bring a violently hot summer in 2012. When presidential campaigns promise to “Take America Back” ask the question – back where? 1919?
If so, stand your ground.
Gloria J. Browne-Marshall, an Associate Professor of Constitutional Law at John Jay College in New York City, is author of “Race, Law, and American Society: 1607 to Present” and “The U.S. Constitution: An African-American Context,” and is a journalist covering the U.S. Supreme Court.