Academic journal article African American Review

From News to History: Robert Abbott and Carl Sandburg Read the 1919 Chicago Riot

Academic journal article African American Review

From News to History: Robert Abbott and Carl Sandburg Read the 1919 Chicago Riot

Article excerpt

The Irish middle passage, for but one example, was as foul as my own, and as dishonorable on the part of those responsible for it. But the Irish became white when they got here and began rising in the world, whereas I became black and began sinking.

Determining a relationship between news and its subsequent privileging as history seems urgent in the context of the spring 1992 riot in Los Angeles. Familiar headlines declare "VANDALS ROAM CITY" and a news story, generic in its observations, unfolds: "Social order broke down today across a broad area of the nation's second-largest city as vandals and looters roamed the streets, carloads of young men attacked pedestrians and uncounted fires burned out of control" (New York Times 1 May 1992: 1). Once again a president expresses shock, fear, and bewilderment, and he forms a commission to investigate the causes of socially directed violence. The lack of an ongoing public dialogue concerning riots stems from what Cornel West sees in the case of the Los Angeles riot: "The narrow framework of the dominant liberal and conservative views of race in America, with its worn-out vocabulary, leaves us intellectually debilitated, morally disempowered and personally depressed" (24).The tension between privilege and disempowerment pervades the polarized discourse evoked by public violence. As Dr. Kenneth Clark reflected in late 1968 on the history of all such riot commissions for the Kerner Commission:

I read that report ... of the 1919 riot in Chicago, and it is as if I were reading the report of the investigating committee of the Harlem riot of '35, the report of the McCone Commission on the Watts riot. I must again in candor say to you members of this Commission - it is a kind of Alice in Wonderland - with the same moving picture shown over and over again, with the same analysis, the same recommendations, and the same inaction. (Report 483)

Read individually these reports bear traces of exhaustive scholarship, active citizenship, and remorse. Unfortunately, as Clark suggests, when read in succession, they inadvertently expose how decisively African Americans have been left to sink in twentieth-century urban America.

To escape the "same moving picture" syndrome, I will examine not the official story (The Chicago Commission on Race Relations, The Negro in Chicago [1922]) but two partisan accounts of Clark's earliest example: the 1919 Chicago riot. Like most eruptions of social violence, the 1919 riot was occasioned by a random, cruel event. By the spring of 1919 the postwar labor, class, and race tensions in Chicago were at an all-time high. Black laborers were in high demand, but tensions at the neighborhood level exacerbated a long-held animosity between the Irish and the black workers. Continental expectations of social and economic opportunity carried home by African American veterans brought pressures to bear in the workplace and in the neighborhood. Soldiers who had fought for freedom in Europe were certain to fight for their liberties at home. It was a "critical year," as Arthur Waskow explains, when Americans had to rethink their "attitudes toward the public and private use of violence in dealing with intense social conflicts" (1).

Nationally, the spring had brought racial violence. Riots from Arkansas to Washington, DC, erupted from years of discontent. Journalists had warned Chicago that the un-addressed addressed issues of unemployment and poor housing would surely lead to violence. In fact, Carl Sandburg's "riot report," actually a series of articles commissioned by the Chicago Daily News (a paper often cited by the Chicago Defender's Robert Abbott as the only evenhanded daily in Chicago), was written just before the riot, and warned of social unrest. On Sunday, July 27, riot came to Chicago. All morning, groups of whites and blacks had been vying for the territory between the 26th and 29th Street beaches. Unofficially segregated, the turf broke along racial lines. …

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