Donald Trump’s Strangest Bedfellows: Part 23
Ignoring the Ogre
This is Part 23 of a blog series titled “Donald Trump’s Strangest Bedfellows.”
Although each entry in the series has some information and commentary that
can be of interest “standing alone,”
each builds on information, concepts, and commentary
introduced in earlier entries in the series, and thus it is most effective to
read the material sequentially from the beginning.
Click here to go to the first entry in the series, Part 1
Nobody knows precisely how or where it started, but on a steamy Saturday night, July 19, 1919, the word began to spread among the saloons and pool halls of downtown Washington [DC], where crowds of soldiers, sailors and Marines freshly home from the Great War were taking weekend liberty.
A black suspect, questioned in an attempted sexual assault on a white woman, had been released by the Metropolitan Police. The woman was the wife of a Navy man. So the booze-fueled mutterings about revenge flowed quickly among hundreds of men in uniform, white men who were having trouble finding jobs in a crowded, sweltering capital.
Late that night, they started to move. The mob drew strength from a seedy neighborhood off Pennsylvania Avenue NW called “Murder Bay,” known for its brawlers and brothels. The crowd crossed the tree-covered Mall heading toward a predominantly poor black section of Southwest. They picked up clubs, lead pipes and pieces of lumber as they went.
Near Ninth and D streets SW, they fell upon an unsuspecting black man named Charles Linton Ralls, who was out with his wife, Mary. Ralls was chased down and beaten severely. The mob then attacked a second black man, George Montgomery, 55, who was returning home with groceries. They fractured his skull with a brick.
The rampage by about 400 whites initially drew only scattered resistance in the black community, and the police were nowhere to be seen. When the Metropolitan Police Department finally arrived in force, its white officers arrested more blacks than whites, sending a clear signal about their sympathies.
It was only the beginning. The white mob – whose actions were triggered in large part by weeks of sensational newspaper accounts of alleged sex crimes by a “negro fiend” – unleashed a wave of violence that swept over the city for four days. Nine people were killed in brutal street fighting, and an estimated 30 more would die eventually from their wounds. More than 150 men, women and children were clubbed, beaten and shot by mobs of both races. Several Marine guards and six D.C. policemen were shot, two fatally. [Source]
A sample of one first-person testimony from the chaos:
“A mob of sailors and soldiers jumped on the [street]car and pulled me off, beating me unmercifully from head to foot, leaving me in such a condition that I could hardly crawl back home,” Francis Thomas, a frail black 17-year-old, said in a statement to the NAACP. Thomas said he saw three other blacks being beaten, including two women. “Before I became unconscious, I could hear them pleading with the Lord to keep them from being killed.”
Although no photo is available of that incident, here is a photo from a very similar “race riot” incident in East St. Louis, Illinois, in July 1917.
The events of that earlier Illinois riot were even more tragic than either the Washington DC or Chicago riots of 1919, with at least 100 (maybe many more) African-Americans killed (along with 9 whites) and 6 THOUSAND African-Americans left homeless after their St. Louis neighborhood was burned down by white mobs.
But the Washington riot was horrendous enough in its own right—and right in the nation’s capital, giving it a special significance.
The rioting only ended after 4 days, when 2000 federal troops called up by President Wilson… and a heavy thunderstorm…dampened the zeal of the mobs and everybody went home.
That was only one of over 20 such “anti-black riots” across the US in 1919, a period dubbed the Red Summer because of those incidents…and this:
…between January 1 and September 14, 1919, white mobs lynched at least forty-three African Americans [other estimates are much higher], with sixteen hanged and others shot; while another eight men were burned at the stake. [Source]
September 28, 1919
As noted in the previous entry in this series, these riots occurred at the same time as violence that resulted from such worker’s strikes in 1919 as the Boston Police strike, the Seattle General Strike, the Ohio United States Steel Strike, the Colorado mines strikes, and many others across the US. The riots and strikes spawned a public anxiety, fed by the US government and the mass media, that somehow all these events were being “stirred up” by Communist conspirators. Here’s what one prominent publication had to say after the Washington riots…
“It is also charged that Bolshevists are inciting the negroes to revolt.”
In June 1919, US Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer had told the House Appropriations Committee that all evidence showed that radicals would “on a certain day…rise up and destroy the government at one fell swoop.”
The Communist paranoia of this “First Red Scare” came to a head when Palmer began claiming adamantly throughout April 1920 that an insidious, huge cabal of radicals (headed by Communists, and joined by Socialists and Anarchists) in the nation had nefarious plans to attempt to overthrow the government of the United States on May 1, 1920.
But of course that never happened. And instead of Palmer realizing his dream of his anti-Communist efforts lifting him to the Presidency in the next election, he became a footnote in US history.
By the way, given what we know of the “later” history of rabid anti-Communism in America (the name Richard Nixon comes to mind…as does that of Joseph McCarthy, one-time Democrat who changed parties in 1944 and was a Republican when at the height of his fame…or ignominy…in the late 1940s and early 1950s) one might have assumed Palmer was a Republican. No, he was Attorney General under Democrat Woodrow Wilson. But he admittedly “out-patrioted” most politicians in either party before his government career came to an end.
Palmer sought the Democratic Party’s nomination for President in 1920. In a crowded field of candidates, he presented himself as the most American of all. Campaigning during the Georgia primary, he said: “I am myself an American and I love to preach my doctrine before undiluted one hundred percent Americans, because my platform is, in a word, undiluted Americanism and undying loyalty to the republic.”
Journalist Heywood Broun [a good buddy of the Marx Brothers, famous for his cheeky comments about politicians] pretended to investigate: “We assumed, of course, from the tone of Mr. Palmer’s manifesto that his opponents for the nomination were Rumanians, Greeks and Icelanders, and weak-kneed ones at that….We happened into Cox’s headquarters [Governor James Cox of Ohio was ultimately the nominee that year] wholly by accident and were astounded to discover that he, too, is an American. … Thus encouraged we went to all camps and found that the candidates are all Americans.” [Source]
After Palmer’s ignominious failure at prophesying a massive attempt at a Communist takeover, the intensity of the Red Scare dissipated within a short time. And although concern about Communist influence in America remained quietly simmering under the surface in some quarters, the topic was definitely on the back burner for most of the nation during the next whole decade.
The government and the media had worked hard to create a panic about the imminent, massive danger posed by the Communist Ogre. But when no actual ogreish rampage materialized, the public was more than happy to ignore the ogre. For instead of the US population becoming captives of a totalitarian dictatorship (like that which developed eventually in Russia under Stalin) and living bleak lives, the 1920s blossomed into something exactly the opposite in America… at least for the middle and upper classes.
This is not to say that race riots and lynchings didn’t continue throughout the 1920s. They certainly did, fed often by the influence of the resurrected Ku Klux Klan. The Klan went from 15 people who gathered to greet its incarnation on Stone Mountain in Georgia in 1915…
…to a nationwide, powerful movement just ten year later. By 1925 it was flexing its muscles in public for all to see in major demonstrations, such as this 1925 one, with 25 THOUSAND Klansmen marching right down Pennsylvania Ave in Washington DC, framing the Capitol Building in the distance!
And it’s not to say that confrontations between business and labor didn’t continue also. They did, particularly in the earliest part of the decade. Wages in many industries continued to be chronically, abysmally low, working conditions continued to be miserable at best and limb-and-life threatening at worst in many industries. So workers continued to attempt to improve their lot through cooperative strike efforts. Such as this one:
The Battle of Blair Mountain was the largest labor uprising in United States history and one of the largest, best-organized, and most well-armed uprisings since the American Civil War. For five days in late August and early September 1921, in Logan County, West Virginia, some 10,000 armed coal miners confronted 3,000 lawmen and strikebreakers, called the Logan Defenders, who were backed by coal mine operators during an attempt by the miners to unionize the southwestern West Virginia coalfields.
But just as happened in the 1919 Ludlow Strike in Colorado, described in the last entry in this series, the efforts of the strikers ultimately failed.
The battle ended after approximately one million rounds were fired, and the United States Army intervened by presidential order.
WW I bi-planes dropped “bombs” full of shrapnel and bleach near the camps of union members. Machine guns were said to have been used by both sides.
But of course the miners were outgunned, and ultimately had to surrender.
…In the short term, the battle was an overwhelming victory for management. UMW membership plummeted from more than 50,000 miners to approximately 10,000 over the next several years.
With the state and US governments more than willing to step in on the side of business almost without fail…including with force of arms, and with laws against picketing and such…none of the efforts of labor unions to use strikes to get higher wages and better working conditions in the 1920s got very far. And although a bit of agitation by home-grown Communist organizations could often be found to be part of labor unrest, this Communist influence changed nothing about the outcome of the strikes. Certainly not anywhere near being a threat of a “Russian Revolution” type of situation.
In fact, by the 1920s some viewed strikes as just something to make fun of…including the producers of the popular Mutt and Jeff comic strips and animated movie theater shorts. Such as this 1920 short…
Rankled by the luxurious lifestyle of their animator [creator Bud Fisher], Mutt and Jeff demand lower hours and a percentage of his profits, and, when loudly refused, they announce their intention to strike and “animate ourselves.”
When their first production flops, they scuttle back to their animator, assuring him they’ll work for nothing if taken back.
So while African Americans in general, and poverty-stricken workers of all ethnicities, didn’t participate fully in the “good times” of the Roaring Twenties, they were mostly ignored rather than feared as Communist dupes by the middle and upper classes… who mostly quit worrying about Bolshevism. Instead they dove headfirst into the benefits of an increasingly automated and electrified and consumer-oriented society, built primarily on the economic principle of unfettered capitalism.
The 1920s were an age of dramatic social and political change. For the first time, more Americans lived in cities than on farms. The nation’s total wealth more than doubled between 1920 and 1929, and this economic growth swept many Americans into an affluent but unfamiliar “consumer society.” People from coast to coast bought the same goods (thanks to nationwide advertising and the spread of chain stores), listened to the same music, did the same dances and even used the same slang!
Yes, how could you find time to worry about Communists when you were busy buying…
…and listening to…
….and dancing to the 1923 hit, The Charleston?
During the 1920s, many Americans had extra money to spend, and they spent it on consumer goods such as ready-to-wear clothes and home appliances like electric refrigerators. In particular, they bought radios. The first commercial radio station in the U.S., Pittsburgh’s KDKA, hit the airwaves in 1920; three years later there were more than 500 stations in the nation. By the end of the 1920s, there were radios in more than 12 million households. [Source]
One of the most powerful uses of radio to draw an audience from very early on was in “on the spot” news and sports broadcasting, including the amazing career of Babe Ruth.
It was one thing for baseball fans in New York and nearby areas to be able to travel to New York City to see The Babe play, and for others across the nation to see newspaper reports of his feats. But starting with the first radio broadcast of a World Series, in 1921, hearing the roar of the crowd, the breathless play by play of announcers describing Ruth’s latest homerun, and even hear from the Great Slugger himself, baseball obsession in America grew exponentially, providing perhaps the ultimate distraction from Red Scare worries.
That first year of World Series broadcasting in 1921, only a relative handful of baseball fans had access radio sets and were tuned in. But astonishingly, just one year later, 5 million listeners were tuned in.
Fans in New York crowd around a car’s loudspeaker
playing a radio broadcast of the 1922 World Series between the Giants and Yankees.
As popular as radio was, it wasn’t the only mass medium that contributed to the dying out of Red Scare anxieties by the early 1920s. The fast-growing motion picture industry provided the ultimate escape. It is estimated by some that by the end of the 1920s, three quarters of the US population went to the movies every week.
Movie goers often spent their evenings in venues identified as movie palaces, the ultimate in escapism.
As an example of the details of luxury of these palaces, here is the famous Roxy theater in New York, on its opening night in 1927.
The Roxy was the largest theater of its kind in the world for quite a while, with a grand lobby that had its own pipe organ, to entertain people waiting for the next show.
Here’s the stage and orchestra pit, that held a 110 piece orchestra to accompany silent films, and the live stage shows also held there.
Here’s a colored oil painting of the 5,920 seats inside the theater.
…the theater boasted lavish support facilities including two stories of private dressing rooms, three floors of chorus dressing rooms, huge rehearsal rooms, a costume department, staff dry-cleaning and laundry rooms, a barber shop and hairdresser, a completely equipped infirmary, dining room, and a menagerie for show animals. There were also myriad offices, a private screening room seating 100, and massive engine rooms for the electrical, ventilating and heating machinery. The Roxy’s large staff enjoyed a cafeteria, gymnasium, billiard room, nap room, library and showers.
…The Roxy presented major Hollywood films in programs that also included a 110-member symphony orchestra (the world’s largest permanent orchestra at that time), a solo theater pipe organ, a male chorus, a ballet company and a famous line of female precision dancers, the “Roxyettes“. [Source]
… Elaborate stage spectacles were created each week to accompany the feature film…
When the founder of the Roxy theater sold it and went on to open Radio City Music Hall, he took the dancing troupe along, eventually renaming them the Rockettes.
The theater’s orchestra and performers were also featured in an NBC Radio … The Roxy Hour, was broadcast live weekly from the theater’s own radio studio.[Thus the] theater was known to radio listeners nationwide.
If a night out at the Roxy didn’t take your mind off any lingering anxiety about “Reds,” I can’t imagine what would have!
Not only did millions upon millions of Americans visit the theaters weekly in big cities and small towns, but millions also obsessed on the “private lives” … and scandals…of the silver screen stars. LONG before the National Enquirer!
Oh… and if folks in the 1920s still needed an ogre to replace the “Communist Conspiracy,” there was a new one on the scene, that came in with the imposition of the new Prohibition Amendment to the Constitution in 1919.
Just to clarify, in case you didn’t know…under prohibition you could still drink alcoholic beverages…you just couldn’t buy them or sell them any more. I’ve read that even President Wilson bought a stock of his favorite adult beverages ahead of time…and stored them in the White House cellar! (He had not been in favor of the amendment.)
The imposition of Prohibition in 1919 had led very quickly to the rise of a new Public Enemy in the 1920s to take the place of the Communist Ogre…the Big Time gangster of the bootlegging industry. The legislators of America may have agreed to vote to ban alcohol, but a huge proportion of the public hated the idea, and was willing to do just about anything to get around it. Including supporting a system of Organized Crime whose greatest profits were in booze, providing the underground of Speakeasies (like those shown here) with the banned adult beverages.
The Mafia and other mobsters, with nicknames like Bugsy and Big Al, Vito and Tony, “Legs” and “Scarface,” and their high crimes and family feuds, provided constant fodder for the newspapers, and villains for the screens of the movie palaces.
St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, 1929
Another distraction from the old worries about the Reds was the growing passion of the populace, fed by the burgeoning advertising industry, to accumulate new “stuff.” The explosion of purchases of consumer goods and automobiles was made possible to a great extent by the push by producers and their ad companies to get everyone to “buy on time”… “buy now, pay later.”
All of this cornucopia of goodies could be attributed to the beneficence of the system of unfettered capitalism.
The big corporations of America were aiming at building an ever-expanding, never-ending Utopian economy. By the mid-1920s they were sure that they were on a trajectory that was destined to make America the Greatest, most Prosperous Civilization in history.
Yes, there was no reason any more for the average American citizen to waste time and emotions on worrying about Bolsheviks! The government wasn’t taking property away from anyone. In fact, more people than ever could buy land…”on time”…and many did so, with the expectation of buying and selling enough plots to get rich quickly. Especially in the burgeoning land market in California and Florida.
You could even buy stocks on time (“buying on margin” it’s called…) and lots of folks “got rich quick” that way. As the stock market climbed higher and higher.
For a while…
Unfortunately, all the methods of getting rich quick, from Florida swamp land purchases to trying to play the stock market, came crashing down around the ears of the speculators. And just about everyone else. As the Boom of the Roaring Twenties blew up in smoke at the end of 1929.
Many Americans practically overnight lost almost everything that had made them part of the great Conspicuous Consumer Generation… their bank accounts, their stocks, their automobiles, even the household gadgets that they’d “bought on time”… and hadn’t paid off yet.
The never-ending bountiful cornucopia provided by the Genie of Unfettered Capitalism…
…suddenly ran dry.
And as it did, the concern about Communism moved off the back burner and began more than simmering again in the US.
At first, this threat of Communism may appear to have been a great concern to those in positions of power in the unfettered capitalism business, such as the wealthy CEO’s of many big US corporations. If there really did arise a serious threat of an uprising of the “worker class” in America as it did in Russia in 1917, they’d be the first to have to worry about ending up like the Tsar and his family! And surely a “Great Depression” would be an ideal, fertile field in which resentment could grow.
We’ll travel a little farther down the winding path towards Donald Trump’s Strangest Bedfellows in the next entry in this series. Click the link below to read about…