American Pogrom: The East St. Louis Race Riot and Black Politics

By Cha-Jua, Sundiata | The Journal of African American History, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

American Pogrom: The East St. Louis Race Riot and Black Politics


Cha-Jua, Sundiata, The Journal of African American History


Charles L. Lumpkins, American Pogrom: The East St. Louis Race Riot and Black Politics. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2008. Pp. 360. Cloth $55.00. Paper $24.95.

Charles Lumpkins provides an important reinterpretation of the 1917 East St. Louis race riot. In American Pogrom Lumpkins challenges Elliott Rudwick's classic civil rights-era account. Writing before the advent of the Black Power movement, Rudwick interpreted the murderous foray through the lens of a then-trendy sociological concept, "social strain theory," and viewed the race riot as the result of white workers responding to racist demagoguery and the job competition coming from black migrant strikebreakers. And influenced by the nonviolent character of many civil rights campaigns and earlier interpretations of African Americans' responses to racial terrorism, Rudwick depicted African Americans as passive victims who were "terrified" into "inactivity" during the riot.

Reflecting a generational paradigm shift in historical scholarship, Lumpkins respectfully repudiates Rudwick's interpretation. Lumpkins abandons the "race riot" terminology, replacing it with the concept pogrom. This shift in nomenclature is not trivial; it evidences a profound reinterpretation of the events of 2-3 July 1917. As the title indicates, Lumpkins views these events more as an effort at "ethnic cleansing," or in this case "racial cleansing," that reflected whites' desire to transform East St. Louis into a "sundown town," rather than simply a mob action by a "majority group" against a "minority group." Thus the "East St. Louis pogrom" resulted primarily from the ongoing conflicts in the relations between real estate capitalist-politicians and African American politicians and community leaders over African Americans' attempts to forge an autonomous political organization. Thus Lumpkins's corollary thesis is that local white capitalists bore primary responsibility for creating the climate and sparking the pogrom, not white workers, as Rudwick had argued. And whereas Rudwick found passivity and ineffectiveness in the African American response to the violence, Lumpkins, like Malcolm McLaughlin in Power, Community, and Racial Killing in East St. Louis (2005), found militant action. As did McLaughlin, Lumpkins found that all-black or black majority neighborhoods on the city's south side escaped unscathed because African Americans armed and protected themselves. Thus, Lumpkins places African American resistance and agency at the center of his analysis.

To effect this reconceptualization. Lumpkins situated the pogrom within the context of the long history of the African American experience in East St. Louis, and substituted Richard W. Thomas's model for the "community-building process," for Rudwick's use of social strain theory. The community-building framework focuses attention on African American self-activity, on the construction of an autonomous black civil society, and the corresponding building of a black counterpublic, made up of a network of movement activists, organizations, and news publications. Thomas's framework is exceedingly broad, perhaps too all-encompassing to constitute a rigorous methodological approach for studying African American communities. Nevertheless, the framework encouraged Lumpkins to ferret out African Americans' efforts "to survive and progress ... and to create and sustain a genuine and creative communal presence"; the framework also facilitated his search for connections among black social institutions, social networks, organizations, black resistance during the pogrom, and the renewal of their struggle for freedom, justice, and power afterwards.

Lumpkins lacks the sources to sustain a thorough treatment of specific associations or activists; therefore, he provides snapshots of the activities of several organizations and individuals before the pogrom. Lumpkins mentions the East St. Louis Chapter of the Afro-American Protective League of Illinois. …

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