Donald Trump’s Strangest Bedfellows: Part 20
Red Scare—Red Summer
This is Part 20 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
The daily news in 2017 has been giving many Americans the weird feeling that they have tumbled down a rabbit hole…
… and entered an alternate universe where nothing makes any sense…
…and everyone is mad.
It might appear that current events are totally disjointed, and current circumstances are just springing up “out of nowhere,” with no roots in the past. So many things going on seem to have no logical explanation…especially—HOW did Donald Trump, a man so far from the mainstream of historical national party politics, get elected?! And in particular—how did a man with a lifestyle so foreign to the morals and ethics and values promoted in the Bible manage to surround himself with so many Strange Bedfellows from the religious world? Christian leader bedfellows—pastors, preachers, televangelists, popular Christian authors and lecturers, leaders of Christian educational institutions—who were so influential in the circles of Evangelical Christianity that they were able to deliver to him the votes of 80% of their followers and supporters. Disgruntled working class folks wanting to recapture the prosperity of the Good Old Days when America was Great…and Majority W.A.S.P. …were no doubt a key part of Trump’s victory. But he could not have gotten over the finish line without the massive turnout of Evangelical voters on his side.
None of that seems to make any sense. But that is only the case if one ignores history. There really is a “thread” of people and circumstances and events that has wound through the past American century that has ultimately led us to this point. A point where zealous, pious Christians in great numbers were willing to vote for a casino-owning acknowledged adulterer (with three marriages) with an avowed penchant for grabbing the private parts of young women; a crude, loud-mouthed promoter of fake “professional wrestling,”; a glad-handing buddy and business associate of Mafioso-types; and a boorish man given to public bullying, ridiculing, and bad-mouthing others on a massive scale.
As strange as it may seem, there really is a path through American history that can “make sense” of this outlandish anomaly.
It is not a straight path, easily understood. Which is why the speculation of so many pundits has failed to nail down just “how we got from there to here.” This blog series is carefully and methodically sorting through the factors that have made up that path, with the ultimate goal of making sense out of the madness.
As was noted in earlier entries in the series, this particular historical thread has its beginning at the time of the Russian Revolution in 1917, in the midst of World War 1. That revolution was the triggering event that started the US down the path to the recent strange choice made by American Evangelicals in the 21st century. We’ll pick up the thread in this entry immediately after the Great War.
The previous entry in this series explored the labor agitation all across America that immediately followed the end of World War 1. The war years had deeply affected the US economy. For instance, compared to 1915, food prices had doubled by 1920, clothing costs more than tripled. The necessity to gear up for war production had quickly led to a boom in factory jobs and wages—and demobilization at the end of the war had just as quickly deflated the boom, leaving many without work. The employment situation was desperately exacerbated by the return of over 4 million soldiers from Europe who would immediately need employment—many of them so mangled by their war experiences that it was even more difficult for them to find work.
Add to this the “Great Migration” of Southern African Americans to the North—where wages were typically three times what they could get doing farm work in the rural south—that had begun before the outbreak of WW1, but intensified in 1914. By 1919 over one million had swarmed into industrial centers like Detroit (black population up over 600% from 1910 to 1920) and Philadelphia (up 500%.) Jobs were easy for them to find in the war years—but so easy to lose once the war was over. When they were desperately needed, during war time, employers overlooked their own racial prejudices—and that of their white employees. But once the war was over, many blacks found themselves the first to be laid off…or unceremoniously replaced by new white applicants.
Competition for jobs and impatience with miserable working conditions, long hours, and unfair labor practices led to an astonishing outbreak of strikes in 1919.
As mentioned in the previous entry in this series, the government and much of the non-striking population of the US chose to basically ignore the real roots of the strikes…the grueling lives of the workers, the rock-bottom wages and unfair labor practices of many owners of industries, the insecurity and danger of many of the jobs performed by those choosing to go on strike. No, instead of looking at real problems and considering real solutions that would alleviate those problems, the solution of choice was to assume it was just “outside agitators”…Communists and Socialists in particular…who had put foolish notions in the heads of the workers. The solution on behalf of some governmental authorities, along with the popular press, was to stir up a nationwide “Red Scare” to give the populace a tangible enemy to focus on.
A steel strike that began in Chicago in 1919 became much more than a simple dispute between labor and management. The Steel Strike of 1919 became the focal point for profound social anxieties, especially fears of Bolshevism.
Organized labor had grown in strength during the course of the war. Many unions won recognition, and the 12-hour workday was abolished. An 8-hour day was instituted on war contract work, and by 1919, half the country’s workers had a 48-hour work week.
The war’s end, however, was accompanied by labor turmoil, as labor demanded union recognition, shorter hours, and raises exceeding the inflation rate. Over 4 million workers—one fifth of the nation’s workforce–participated in strikes in 1919, including 365,000 steelworkers and 400,000 miners. The number of striking workers would not be matched until the Depression year of 1937.
The year began with a general strike [by multiple unions, literally shutting down the city] in Seattle. Police officers in Boston went on strike, touching off several days of rioting and crime. But the most tumultuous strike took place in the steel industry. About 350,000 steelworkers in 24 separate craft unions went on strike as part of a drive by the American Federation of Labor to unionize the industry. From management’s perspective, the steel strike represented the handiwork of radicals and professional labor agitators. The steel industry’s leaders regarded the strike as a radical conspiracy to get the company to pay a 12-hour wage for 8 hours’ work. At a time when communists were seizing power in Hungary and were staging a revolt in Germany, and workers in Italy were seizing factories, some industrialists feared that the steel strike was the first step toward overturning the industrial system.
The strike ended with the complete defeat of the unions. From labor’s perspective, the corporations had triumphed through espionage, blacklists, and the denial of freedom of speech and assembly, and through the complete unwillingness to recognize the right of collective bargaining with the workers’ representatives.
During the 1920s, many of labor’s gains during World War I and the Progressive era were rolled back. Membership in labor unions fell from 5 million to 3 million. The U.S. Supreme Court outlawed picketing, overturned national child labor laws, and abolished minimum wage laws for women. [Source]
All, in part, as a fruit of the zeal of the anti-Communism hysteria of the first “Red Scare.”
Given all this emphasis on the “Red” Scare (red being the color of the Soviet Union flag, and thus the nickname for “Communists”) you’d think that the period of 1919 described in many US history timelines as the Red Summer would be a reference to that kind of “Red.”
The Red Summer refers to the summer and early autumn of 1919, which was marked by hundreds of deaths and higher casualties across the United States, as a result of race riots that occurred in more than three dozen cities and one rural county. In most instances, whites attacked African Americans.
Actually, it wasn’t just in the summer in 1919 that blood was shed.
…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.
Most of these lynchings were very public spectacles…viewed by from 100s to many 1000s of men, women, and sometimes children…and often included hideous torture committed in full view of the spectators prior to death, including castration, dismemberment…or worse. Professional and amateur photographers often took photos of the ghoulish goings-on, and before the day was out would print up “souvenir postcards” for folks to buy to send to friends and family or keep in their own photo albums.
“Burned at the stake”… Some of the men’s dead bodies were burned in front of the teeming crowd after they had been killed by hanging or gunshot…others’ live bodies were burned in full sight of everyone until they were dead…
Such as in this incident in Omaha, Nebraska.
From statements in the media, the public was encouraged to believe that the states were powerless to interfere. (Although the reality seems to be that they were often unwilling to do so.) As seen in this quote from Governor Bilbo of Mississippi regarding the lynching in his state of John Hartfield.
Poignantly, none of this, including the burnings and postcards and failure of governmental authorities to intervene, was “new.” Such atrocities had continued unabated since Reconstruction times. It’s just that there was an extremely unusual cluster of such events in 1919, at the same time as the numerous “race riots” described below.
Starting in the late 1960s, when reading about “race riots” in American newspapers, one usually expected the stories to be about militant African Americans in metropolitan areas engaging in massive public disturbances including violence against people and property, in protest of perceived civil rights injustices. Many of them had become frustrated after it became obvious that the Martin Luther King-style non-violent, passive resistance type of civil disobedience of the 1950s and early 1960s…sit-ins, marches, boycotts and the like…had failed to complete the process of fully establishing civil rights in the land. This was so even after formal Civil Rights legislation had been passed in Washington.
What a significant portion of Americans in the 21st century don’t realize is that, historically, the term “race riot” was used in reports in the US media to describe something much different.
A race riot in the early 1900s was almost exclusively a situation in which large groups of angry “whites” indiscriminately attacked those of the “Negro Race,” killing or injuring many, destroying their property, and in some cases completely driving all blacks out of a given neighborhood, county, town, or city.
Incidents of such riots had been increasing all across the country in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and came to a head in the Red Summerof 1919.
Here is just one example of the more than three dozen that occurred that year.
Starting July 27, the summer’s greatest violence occurred during rioting in Chicago. The city’s beaches along Lake Michigan were segregated by custom. Eugene Williams, a black youth, swam into an area on the South Side customarily used by whites, was stoned, and drowned.
When the Chicago police refused to take action against the attackers, young black men responded violently.
Violence between mobs and gangs lasted thirteen days, with white rioting led by the well-established ethnic Irish, whose territory bordered the black neighborhood.
The resulting 38 fatalities included 23 black people and 15 whites. The injured totaled 537, and 1,000 black families were left homeless.
Other accounts reported 50 people were killed, with unofficial numbers and rumors reporting more. White mobs destroyed hundreds of mostly black homes and businesses on the South Side of Chicago; Illinois called in a militia force of seven regiments: several thousand men, to restore order.
So what was the response of the US government to this and other such “race riots” and the many lynchings of blacks?
Authorities viewed with alarm African Americans’ advocacy of racial equality, labor rights, or the rights of victims of mobs to defend themselves.
… Unlike earlier race riots in U.S. history, the 1919 events were among the first in which black people in number resisted white attacks and fought back.
Why might the “authorities” view this with alarm? Perhaps they were responding to the attitude at the very top of the government.
In a private conversation in March 1919, President Woodrow Wilson said that “the American Negro returning from abroad [from serving in the US military during the Great War] would be our greatest medium in conveying bolshevism to America.”
Yes, the fact that Negroes might physically resist being burned at the stake, or resist with force having their neighborhoods burned to the ground, couldn’t possibly be because they had legitimate concerns about these things. It had to be that they were just “stirred up” by “outside agitators.” Communist agitators. For hadn’t they always, up until the time of the Russian Revolution, just meekly accepted abuse?
And why might Negroes who had been immersed in the European War, exposed, for instance, to the French society that had no Jim Crow laws and welcomed blacks, be expected to be open to arguments against the American Way of dealing with the resident Negroes in America?
Perhaps part of it was what happened when Woodrow Wilson took office as president in 1913.
As president, Wilson oversaw unprecedented segregation in federal offices. It’s a shameful side to his legacy that came to a head one fall afternoon in 1914 when he threw the civil-rights leader William Monroe Trotter out of the Oval Office.
Trotter led a delegation of blacks to meet with the president on November 12, 1914 to discuss the surge of segregation in the country. Trotter, today largely forgotten, was a nationally prominent civil-rights leader and newspaper editor. In the early 1900s, he was often mentioned in the same breath as W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington. But unlike Washington, Trotter, an 1895 graduate of Harvard, believed in direct protest actions. In fact, Trotter founded his Boston newspaper, The Guardian, as a vehicle to challenge Washington’s more conciliatory approach to civil rights.
Before Trotter’s confrontation with Wilson in the Oval Office, he was a political supporter of Wilson’s. He had pledged black support for Wilson’s presidential run when the two met face-to-face in July 1912 at the State House in Trenton, New Jersey. Even though then-Governor Wilson offered only vague promises about seeking fairness for all Americans, Trotter apparently came away smitten. “The governor had us draw our chairs right up around him, and shook hands with great cordiality,’’ he wrote a friend later. “When we left he gave me a long handclasp, and used such a pleased tone that I was walking on air.” Trotter viewed Wilson as the lesser of other political evils.
[But in the 1914 meeting]…Trotter came prepared with a statement and launched the meeting by reading it.
Trotter began with a reference to their 1913 meeting and to the petition he had presented, containing 20,000 signatures “from thirty-eight states protesting against the segregation of employees of the national government.” He listed the on-the-job race separation that had gone unchecked since—at eating tables, dressing rooms, restrooms, lockers, and “especially public toilets in government buildings.” He then charged that the color line was drawn in the Treasury Department, in the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, the Navy Department, the Interior Department, the Marine Hospital, the War Department, and in the Sewing and Printing Divisions of the Government Printing Office. Trotter also noted the political support he and other civil-rights activists had provided to Wilson. “Only two years ago you were heralded as perhaps the second Lincoln, and now the Afro-American leaders who supported you are hounded as false leaders and traitors to their race,” he said. And then he reminded the president of his pledge to assist “colored fellow citizens” in “advancing the interest of their race in the United States,” and ended by posing a question that contained a jab at Wilson’s much-ballyhooed [New Freedom] economic reform program. “Have you a ‘New Freedom’ for white Americans and a new slavery for your Afro-American fellow citizens? God forbid!”
The meeting quickly turned sour. The president told Trotter what he previously admitted in private—that he viewed segregation in his federal agencies as a benefit to blacks. Wilson said that his cabinet officers “were seeking, not to put the Negro employees at a disadvantage but … to make arrangements which would prevent any kind of friction between the white employees and the Negro employees.” Trotter found the claim astonishing, and immediately disagreed, calling Jim Crow in federal offices humiliating and degrading to black workers. But Wilson dug in. “My question would be this: If you think that you gentlemen, as an organization, and all other Negro citizens of this country, that you are being humiliated, you will believe it. If you take it as a humiliation, which it is not intended as, and sow the seed of that impression all over the country, why the consequence will be very serious,” he said.
As you can imagine, Trotter and his delegation left extremely disheartened. And within a year after that disheartening meeting, came an even bigger blow to the prospects for progress for the African American population of the US. It came in the unexpected form of a wildly successful silent motion picture.
Notice on the poster for this 1915 film that it is based on a novel titled The Clansman, by a Thomas Dixon, Jr.—a personal friend of Woodrow Wilson.
Wilson had been studying for his PhD in Political Science at Johns Hopkins University in 1883 at the same time Thomas Dixon arrived there. Dixon was also there to do graduate work in PoliSci, and the two struck up a long-lasting friendship. But instead of a life in politics, Dixon eventually went on to become a well-known Baptist minister and lecturer. However, his greatest fame came not from preaching but from writing.
In 1905 he wrote The Clansman.
Dixon has been born in North Carolina in 1864, just before the end of the Civil War. So his earliest memories were of life in the South during the Reconstruction period. Woodrow Wilson had been born in Virginia in 1856, and had grown up in Georgia and South Carolina. His father, a minister, slave owner, and defender of slavery, was at one point a chaplain to the Confederate Army.
Woodrow Wilson’s earliest memory, from the age of three, was of hearing that Abraham Lincoln had been elected and that a war was coming. Wilson would forever recall standing for a moment at General Robert E. Lee’s side and looking up into his face. [Source]
And thus Wilson’s early memories as a child and teen were of life in the South during both the Civil War and Reconstruction.
Although by 1905 Dixon had accepted that eliminating slavery in the US was a good thing, he still clung to his “roots” in his estimation of the potential of African Americans.
“…no amount of education of any kind, industrial, classical or religious, can make a Negro a white man or bridge the chasm of centuries which separate him from the white man in the evolution of human nature.”
-Thomas Dixon Jr., 1905 from “Booker T. Washington and the Negro”, p. 1, Saturday Evening Post, August 19, 1905.
And he made it clear, in describing his novel, what he thought the destiny of inter-racial relations in America were to be.
“My object is to teach the North, the young North, what it has never known—the awful suffering of the white man during the dreadful Reconstruction period. I believe that Almighty God anointed the white men of the South by their suffering during that time . . . to demonstrate to the world that the white man must and shall be supreme.”
How was this conveyed in the book?
As Nel Painter points out, there are no poor whites in The Clansman: “In Dixon’s work all whites display the attributes of power, not only wealth and education (formal or informal), but also height, slenderness, and refinement. These are the natural rulers of Dixon’s made-up society, in which whites unfitted for leadership do not exist” (“Tom Dixon and His Clansman,” 124). This emphasis on nobility ties the novel, first, to the romance genre, from medieval romance to Sir Walter Scott, whose work was a model for the Southern cavalier, and, second, to Dixon’s emphasis on “clan,” Old Scotland as a sign of Aryan purity. [Source]
As you might guess by the title, the book was about the Ku Klux Klan. The first KKK.
For those unaware…there was a group called the Ku Klux Klan that arose in the South at the end of the Civil War. It is neither the Klan of the 1920s, which was a second incarnation of the name, nor the Klan of the 21stcentury, which is a third incarnation of the name.
The first Ku Klux Klan was founded in 1865 in Pulaski, Tennessee, by six veterans of the Confederate Army. The name was probably derived from the Greek word kuklos (κύκλος) which means circle.
It quickly became popular enough to have its own “theme music”!
KKK sheet music 1868
Although there was little organizational structure above the local level, similar groups rose across the South and adopted the same name and methods. Klan groups spread throughout the South as an insurgent movement during the Reconstruction era in the United States. As a secret vigilante group, the Klan targeted freedmen and their allies; it sought to restore white supremacy by threats and violence, including murder, against black and white Republicans. In 1870 and 1871, the federal government passed the Force Acts, which were used to prosecute Klan crimes. Prosecution of Klan crimes and enforcement of the Force Acts suppressed Klan activity. [Source]
But before it was suppressed, it made its way out of the South, too…
KKK group, Watertown, NY, 1870
And thus the Klan of that era sort of “disappeared from history” except as a dim memory for most people. For about 35 years.
Then in 1905 Dixon resurrected the glorious memory of the 19th century Klan in his novel The Clansman…which was subtitled: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan.
Immediately after publication, Dixon turned it into a stage play, and both book and play, but particularly the play, took much of the nation by storm, including productions in Los Angeles:
“Cave Scene” from a live production of The Clansman
Playbill for Los Angeles production of The Clansman
The book is presented as fiction…but “historical” fiction, in that much of it was based on his own childhood memories of Reconstruction.
Dixon’s father, Thomas Dixon, Sr., and his uncle Leroy McAfee, both joined the Ku Klux Klan early in its history with the aim of “bringing order” to the tumultuous times, and Col. McAfee even attained the rank of Chief of the Klan of the Piedmont area of North Carolina. But, after witnessing the corruption and scandal involved in the Klan they would both dissolve their affiliation with the group and attempt to disband it within their region. [Source]
But in spite of this “later outcome,” Dixon never seemed to let go of his admiration for the Klan, and built a grand and glorious mythology around it in his writing.
There were no doubt terrible injustices committed by individuals and groups of both the North and the South during the period of Reconstruction, but you’d never know that from a reading of The Clansman. There is no hint in the book and play that the Klan was ever anything but an entirely noble Savior of the White man and woman of the South.
And in 1915, DW Griffith’s classic movie, the first real “Blockbuster” in movie history, brought Dixon’s written words to vivid and splendiferous life.
The Birth of a Nation began filming in 1914 and pioneered such camera techniques as the use of panoramic long shots, the iris effects, still-shots, night photography, panning camera shots, and a carefully staged battle sequence with hundreds of extras made to look like thousands.
It also contains many new artistic techniques, such as color tinting for dramatic purposes, building up the plot to an exciting climax, dramatizing history alongside fiction, and featuring its own musical score written for an orchestra.
The movie, like the book, glorified the Ku Klux Klan…at the same time it depicted virtually all African-American men (most played by white actors in blackface) …
…as ignorant, uncouth, uncivilized rabble at best…
“Negro legislators” shown in session…eating fried chicken,
drinking booze, propping bare feet on desks.
…and beasts prone to rape at worst.
Young white woman, pursued by a black soldier intent on rape,
jumps to her death from a cliff.
The first half of the film depicted the Civil War clear up to the assassination of Lincoln. It was portrayed so dramatically and heroically, and, to a certain extent, appeared so authentic and historically accurate…
…that it set the audience up to accept the second half as also being “historical.” Rather than a melodramatic, highly fictionalized account of Reconstruction designed to glorify the Klan and vilify the freedmen.
To give the movie an even greater punch… There were quotations from President Woodrow Wilson displayed on some subtitles in the movie, such as this one—a quote from Wilson’s own 1902 book, History of the American People.
When the film was released, it shattered both box office and film-length records, running three hours and ten minutes. [Source]
And it soon swept the nation, from Baltimore, Maryland…
…to New York City…
…to Appleton, Wisconsin…
…to Wichita, Kansas…
…to Boise, Idaho…
…to Seattle, Washington…
…and all points in between.
It even reached as far North and West as Portland. Oregon, as you can see from these newspaper ads in the Portland Oregonian from the summer of 1915.
Thomas Dixon, Jr., succeeded beyond his wildest dreams in “teaching” not only the North but the West and East to accept his idiosyncratic view of history.
The social impact of the book was certainly enormous. Though Anglo-centric groups had existed previously, they were mostly limited to Southern states and had small membership. The book and subsequent play and movie glorified Anglo-Saxon dominance through the power held by the Klan. This appealed to Anglo-Saxons everywhere, not merely in the South. [Source]
White audiences everywhere ate it up. Including a 35 year old man in Atlanta named William Joseph Simmons.
While convalescing in 1915 after being hit by a car, Simmons decided to rebuild the Klan which he had seen depicted in the newly released film The Birth of a Nation directed by D.W. Griffith. He obtained a copy of the Reconstruction Klan’s “Prescript,” and used it to write his own prospectus for a reincarnation of the organization.
As the nucleus of his revived Klan, Simmons organized a group of friends, in addition to two elderly men who had been members of the original Klan. On Thanksgiving night 1915, they climbed Stone Mountain to burn a cross and inaugurate the new Klan, with fifteen charter members.
From the Atlanta paper, 1915.
Stone Mountain, right outside Atlanta, as it appeared in 1910
Stone Mountain as it appears now, as part of a tourist destination park
The gigantic (158 feet wide, 76 feet tall) Confederate Memorial Carving
on the side of Stone Mountain, depicting Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee,
and Stonewall Jackson. Begun 1923, dedicated 1920.
The imagery of the burning cross, which had not been used by the original Klan, had been introduced by Griffith in The Birth of a Nation. The film, in turn, had derived the image from the works of Thomas Dixon, Jr., upon which the film was based. [Source]
As a matter of fact, Stone Mountain has seen a lot Klan gatherings and cross burnings ever since 1915…
1920 from the Chicago Tribune
1934 from the Sandusky, Ohio paper
1946 from TIME magazine
1948: Dr. Samuel Green, a Ku Klux Klan Grand Dragon,
at Stone Mountain, flanked by two KKKids
Here is a one minute clip of a group gathering at Stone Mountain in 1949.
And lest you think that the Klan has abandoned its Birth of Its Nation roots at Stone Mountain in recent decades, have a look at a short video allegedly filmed on a night in 2009 at Stone Mountain. No, not at the Amusement Park. The area is big enough to allow… private parties in hidden hollows.
But let’s go back to 1915, when the Birth of a Nation movie was in its heyday, and the “second incarnation” of the KKK was just in its infancy.
Those African American men who had visited Woodrow Wilson in his office in 1914 certainly had every right to feel despondent about the future possibilities of an improvement in civil rights for African Americans, given the attitude at the top of the government of the US. And once Birth of a Nation became a smash hit, portraying blacks in an extremely negative light, they had every right to feel even deeper discouragement. With lynchings on the rise, and “race riots” destroying black neighborhoods, it would seem to me that black Americans would have every reason to be inclined to begin more active resistance to their circumstances—without ANY help from “outside agitators” of this or that “-ism”!
That was not the view of much of white America, though. In 1919, or in coming years, such as when this sign was posted all over Alabama in 1934.
We’ll continue on down the winding historical road leading From 1919 to Now in the next entry in this series.