We Are Living in a Red Spring

In the Red Summer of 1919, racist violence hit America as the Spanish flu ravaged the country. With mass protests against police murders sweeping the pandemic-plagued United States, it appears we might be now living in a Red Spring.

A protest, set off by the recent death of George Floyd by the police, in Lafayette Square Park on May 30, 2020 in Washington, DC. (Tasos Katopodis / Getty Images)

A rash of racist violence against African Americans has hit the United States. Across the land, African Americans and left organizations attempt to organize, or even fight back. Meanwhile, a pandemic ravages the country and the world. International crises further threaten to tear the nation apart.

This was the state of things in the summer of 1919.

The United States reeled from the “Red Summer” riots, where hundreds of African Americans were slain in cities and small towns alike. Many of the “riots” were little more than anti-black pogroms, waged in response to growing demands for civil rights, labor rights, and adequate housing. This all came as the nation struggled to return to a peacetime economy amid international uncertainty, and the influenza pandemic — popularly known as the “Spanish Flu” — pummeled the country. Ultimately, 675,000 Americans would die from influenza, part of over 50 million deaths worldwide.

Historians tend to say that history doesn’t repeat itself. But, in this case, it does feel like it rhymes.

When I began working on this piece last week, people across the nation were outraged at the latest on-camera murder of an African American. Ahmaud Arbery was shot and killed in the South Georgia city of Brunswick earlier this year while out for a run. His killers told the authorities that they feared Arbery fit the description of a local burglar and argued they were simply defending themselves under Georgia law — an argument supported by the local district attorney, who refused to pursue the case. (Police later arrested two men, charging them with murder and aggravated assault.)

Since then, in a radically short amount of time, additional killings of African Americans — men and women — at the hands of police have pushed a long-running debate about racism and policing to a possible breaking point. On Thursday, protesters in Minneapolis torched a police station following the on-camera killing of a forty-six-year-old black man, George Floyd, and seven people were shot in Louisville during protests following the murder of a twenty-six-year-old black woman, Breonna Taylor, by plainclothes police. On Friday and Saturday, demonstrations exploded across the country as the conflagration continued in Minneapolis.

The killings caught on camera offer a disturbing reminder of the numerous photographs of lynchings dispersed throughout the nation in the early twentieth century. Some were catalogued by the NAACP and displayed as examples of American brutality and barbarism. Others, however, were featured on postcards and sent to white Americans throughout the country, small trinkets of white terror.

The bloodiest wave of violence during the Red Summer took place in Elaine, Arkansas, as African-American sharecroppers struggled to organize. In the face of devastating landlord opposition, and constant rumors fueled by the local press of African Americans organizing to kill white people, the black sharecroppers were harassed and eventually murdered by soldiers and vigilantes. At least two hundred people — men, women, and children — were slaughtered; the exact number is still unknown today.

Arbery’s death is both a reflection of this legacy of white supremacist vigilantism and the latest iteration of the racist effort to control black movement and labor. The very idea of where a black person should and shouldn’t be has been deeply political, rooted in racist hierarchies.

The locations of the recent killings are also linked to the struggles of the African-American past. Brunswick sits on the Georgia coastline, close to the Black Belt — a predominately African-American region famous for its rich soil. In the 1920s and ’30s, Communists like Harry Haywood argued that the multistate strip of land was a “nation with a nation” where black people had a right to self-determination comparable to other independence movements. The white supremacist fear of black freedom fueled attempts during the Red Summer and through the decades to suppress African-American movements, which were often tied to the broader left.

Up north, the brutal death of George Floyd occurred in Minneapolis, a city that likes to pride itself for its racial liberalism but, like many otherwise progressive urban areas in America, has a deeply checkered history of police violence. In 1948, Minneapolis mayor Hubert Humphrey declared that it was time for the Democratic Party to “get out of the shadow of states’ rights and walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights.” Yet from 2009 to 2019, African Americans comprised 60 percent of the victims of police shootings in Minneapolis despite making up less than 20 percent of the city’s population.

Breonna Taylor’s death in Louisville, Kentucky at the hands of the police has drawn less attention than the deaths of Arbery and Floyd, but is equally important. Killed because the police served a warrant at her home following “no-knock” procedures, Taylor’s boyfriend, Kenneth Walker, fired his weapon believing their home was being robbed. Louisville has its own past of racist divisions. The attempt by Anne and Carl Braden in 1954 to help Andrew and Charlotte Wade, an African-American couple, purchase a home in the suburbs triggered accusations of communist sympathies and, in Carl Braden’s case, a conviction for sedition.

Today, as protesters take to the streets in Louisville and elsewhere, freighted with this history, they’re also contending with a COVID-19 pandemic that — due to austerity and economic immiseration — is dealing an especially severe blow to African Americans. The rallying cry “Black Lives Matter” has taken on a new and radically urgent tone.

In 1919, African Americans tried, in various places, to fight back during the Red Summer. In 2020, demonstrators in Minneapolis and around the country are struggling to overturn a brutally racist social order.

We are now living, it seems, in a Red Spring.