W.E.B. Du Bois: An Encyclopedia

By Gerald Horne; Mary Young | Go to book overview

R

RACE RIOTS

Intermittent periods of active racial unrest mark a tragic pattern in U.S. history. Riots appeared not only in response to numerous antebellum slave conspiracies and insurrections but also in contemporary mob violence against free blacks living in northern cities. Isolated riots persisted during the Reconstruction era, but racially motivated violence upon the individual through lynching became the primary instrument used to perpetuate the mythology of cultural dominance and superiority. During the 1898–1920 era, the incidence of racially motivated mob violence escalated to a level unsurpassed until the civil rights conflagration of the 1960s.

The Great Migration created demographic and economic pressures that fostered racial discontent in the early twentieth century. Pressures of depopulation upon a sharecropping-based South and rapidly expanding migration upon a job-poor North burdened both regions, thus producing economic distress coupled with overt racism. Riots in Wilmington, North Carolina (1898), Statesboro, Georgia (1904), and Atlanta, Georgia (1906) motivated similar occurrences in Springfield, Ohio (1904), Greensburg, Indiana (1906), and Springfield, Illinois (1908). Subsequent race riots occurred in twenty-three northern cities between 1910 and 1920.

The Atlanta Riot of September 22, 1906, influenced the intellectual temper of W.E.B. Du Bois, then professor of history and economics at Adanta University. While conducting research in Lowndes County, Alabama, Du Bois learned that a mob of 10,000 white youths ruled Atlanta's streets, beating and killing blacks at will. Returning by train to protect his home and family, Du Bois became a participant-activist as he sat on his porch with a shotgun and buckshot, defending his wife and daughter. Officials reported that two dozen African Americans died in the rioting, but Du Bois wrote that “the Atlanta

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