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The Summer of 1919 and the Awakening of Black America

A-Red SummerWall Street Journal reporter Cameron McWhirter, the recipient of a Nieman Foundation Fellowship for Journalism in 2007, has also worked for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the Detroit News. Red Summer is his first book.

The Topic: Fifty years after the abolition of slavery, African Americans still chafed under widespread bigotry and institutionalized discrimination. "This is a white man's country," declared Mississippi Governor Theodore Bilbo, "and any dream on the part of the Negro race to share social and political equality will be shattered." During the summer of 1919, white mobs, fueled by questionable reports of conspiracies and crimes, lynched 52 black men and incited 25 deadly riots. Although racial violence had been relatively common before 1919, these brutal attacks, which extended as far north as Connecticut, were set apart by African Americans' determination to defend themselves. Their defense marked a pivotal moment in American race relations--"an unprecedented political awakening" that would bear fruit during the Civil Rights movement four decades later.
Henry Holt. 368 pages. $32.50. ISBN: 9780805089066

Barnes & Noble Review 4 of 5 Stars
"Drawing on newspaper accounts and government reports of the events--as well as correspondence and other material in the papers of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People--McWhirter offers something more than a chronicle of repeated atrocity. ... [His] book is an absorbing treatment of events all too completely repressed from the public memory." Scott McLemee

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"[A] carefully researched, briskly narrated account of this difficult period in our national history. ... The author's tempered optimism is the most notable feature of Red Summer." Wendy Smith

Minneapolis Star Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"McWhirter weaves an understated, powerful narrative about a season in which scores of blacks and many whites met senseless, grisly deaths in killing fields that stretched from backwoods Georgia to Chicago's dense, hardscrabble South Side. ... In unflinching, just-the-facts style bolstered with copious footnotes, McWhirter describes how the entrenched white power structure--small-town police, elected officials, businessmen and even newspapers--were bent on preserving the social order in uncertain economic times." Joseph Williams

Seattle Times 4 of 5 Stars
"[McWhirter] details the summer's violence in a manner that could be numbing, but somehow isn't. McWhirter's insistence on attaching names--to the dead and, when possible, to those responsible for the violence--provides the book with a cumulative power and a sense of historical accountability." Ken Armstrong

Washington Post 3.5 of 5 Stars
"McWhirter ... has done a capable job of rescuing the story of the summer of 1919 from oblivion. His prose doesn't exactly sing, but he writes competent journalese, and he clearly is a dogged researcher." Jonathan Yardley

Critical Summary

The greatest achievement of this unflinching chronicle may be to rescue these crucial but long-forgotten events from historical obscurity. McWhirter's plain, matter-of-fact prose contrasts with the terrible scenes he describes, and his insistence on naming both victims and perpetrators lends Red Summer "a social consciousness ... that is enormously appealing" (Seattle Times). There is no doubt as to McWhirter's sympathies, but his optimism is perhaps the book's most remarkable aspect: "If you explore the whole story of those troubled months," McWhirter argues, "you are not left thinking of America's bald and cruel failings, but of its astounding and elastic resilience. The Red Summer is a story of destruction, but it is also the story of the beginning of a freedom movement."

Supplementary Reading

On the Laps of the Gods The Red Summer of 1919 and the Struggle for Justice That Remade a Nation | Robert Whitaker (2008): On the evening of September 30, 1919, a riot erupted in rural Elaine, Arkansas, after white planters tried to disperse a group of black sharecroppers who had assembled to start a union. Journalist Robert Whitaker focuses on this one episode, recounting the events that left 100 black men, women, and children dead and one lawyer's valiant efforts to free the 12 black men condemned to death in the aftermath.