White Violence and Black Response: From Reconstruction to Montgomery

By Herbert Shapiro | Go to book overview

THREE
In the Context of Empire

DURING THE 1890s a new framework for the black struggle was emerging within American society. A central factor shaping that context was a vigorous American imperialism that looked out from the continental mainland for territories to bring under colonial rule. This colonialism, raising issues of dominating other nonwhite populations, sharpened racial antagonisms within the United States. As Confederate veterans and northern Republicans united in war against Spain, stepping forward as the champions of oppressed Cubans, the contradiction between the assumed role of upholding freedom abroad and the reality of racial oppression at home was glaringly apparent. Though most white Americans as yet closed their eyes to this contradiction, spokesmen of the black community were quick to point to the inconsistency. As the nation fought against a decayed, oppressive Spanish colonialism, violence against Afro-Americans intensified.

The fall months of 1898 clearly revealed a rising tide of violence. In Mississippi, near the town of Harpersville, a confrontation resulted from an incident in which a black man, Bill Burke, had an altercation with his white employer, Charles Freeman, in which Burke "got the best of the difficulty." A sheriff's posse was organized to seize Burke, but the whites encountered resistance from a group of blacks situated in and around Burke's home. The posse was forced to withdraw but returned the next morning, heavily reinforced, and when the shooting was over one white and at least nine blacks were dead. In Illinois, during the weeks from late September to mid-October, several blacks were killed when coal operators brought in blacks to take the places of striking white miners. On October 5, in Annapolis, Maryland, a lynching took place, the Washington Post reported, under "the very shadow of the State Capitol of Maryland." A black man, Wright Smith, alleged to have assaulted a white woman, was taken from the jail by a party of forty whites, most of them masked, and shot down in the street, "the base of the

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