Racial Violence and a Pandemic: How the Red Summer of 1919 Relates to 2020Historians in the News
tags: racism, violence, riots, Red Summer
Racial strife flaring across the United States. Black Americans standing up to societal structures in unpredictable ways. People enduring months of a deadly pandemic infecting millions worldwide, shuttering businesses and heightening fears of a lengthy economic downturn.
That was 1919, during what would later be coined the "Red Summer," when communities across America were reeling from white mobs inciting brutality against Black people and cities were still wrestling with a third wave of the so-called Spanish flu pandemic that emerged the previous year.
The story line parallels with today: violence against Black people, leading to mass demonstrations and calls to end systemic racism, converging with a months-long coronavirus pandemic. Such commonality is not lost on historians and scholars of African American history.
"These are moments of extreme precariousness, where people are suddenly uncertain about their fate, economic prospects and the social order," said Geoff Ward, a professor of African and African American studies at Washington University in St. Louis who has mapped out historic incidents of racial violence.
"Mass mobilization may be more likely in such circumstances where people feel they have little to lose," he said, "and so much at stake."
But if history is any indication, the developments of barely a century ago, when civil rights groups were reinvigorated and Black journalists and activists asserted their voices, might also offer a glimpse into how 2020 — and beyond — could play out.