J.R. Johnson

The 1919 Race Riots in Chicago

(August 1939)

Originally published in Socialist Appeal, 29 August 1939.
Republished in Scott McLemee (ed.), C.L.R. James on the “Negro Question”, Jackson (Miss.) 1996, pp. 111–113.
Transcribed by Daniel Gaido.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Twenty years ago this summer, there took place the notorious Chicago race riots. They are a good example of how necessary it is to turn our backs on whatever the American bourgeoisie says about the Negroes.

What precisely happened in Chicago twenty years ago? Thousands of Negroes will unsuspectingly give you the account given by Congressman Ellender in the debate on the Anti- Lynching Bill. Many revolutionists – including J.R. Johnson – for years accepted it in outline, and it is probable that many still do, thereby subjecting themselves to the American bourgeoisie. Mr. Ellender quotes extensively from the World’s Work for December 1922, whose version runs as follows.

The great exodus of Negroes from the South created problems of adjustment between whites and blacks, and of course the Negroes were the ones who caused the trouble. They were “illiterate,” their manners “uncouth,” their clothes “outlandish and bad-smelling.” When they found themselves sitting side by side with white people in trolley cars, the Negroes did not know how to behave. They “sprawled in their seats.” They insisted on sitting when white women were standing. They went to live in quarters which white immigrants had for years regarded as their own; their children began to mingle in large number with the white children in the schools. But what “caused the greatest ill feeling’’ was the increasing presence of Negro men and women in the public recreation centers. These impudent Negroes sat in considerable numbers on the park benches, played baseball and basketball on the public fields. They appeared in the municipal dance halls, they shared public bathing beaches with the whites, and, the final crime, “the mere fact that they attended band concerts in large numbers added to the ill-feeling.”

Thus was the atmosphere created in which any small incident could and did precipitate a fearful race riot.

Now the natural reaction of a Negro, or a white person who resents white arrogance to Negroes, is to say as follows. If Negroes went to the parks, played baseball and listened to concerts, they were perfectly justified in doing so, and if race riots took place, it was not the Negroes’ fault. A liberal would deplore the sad fact and rush to set up an “inter-racial” commission. A revolutionary who was not on his guard would say that here was another example of white workers being dominated by the reactionary ideas of the bourgeoisie. As a matter of fact, such a revolutionary would be himself dominated by bourgeois ideas on the Negro question. Far from being a demonstration of the difficulties of adjustment between white residents and black immigrants, the Chicago race riots are one of the greatest examples of racial solidarity in the whole history of the American working class.

In 1919 there were some 12,000 Negroes working on the stockyards of Chicago. The Stockyards Labor Council, founded in July 1917, had been struggling to organize the industry. The capitalist bosses countered by introducing an increasing number of plants. They hoped to influence the Negroes against the unions, and playing white against black to defeat unionization. The Stockyards Labor Council repudiated the color-line and made a drive to organize the Negroes, for without them the whites could not win. There were inter-racial socials. A Negro was elected Vice-President of the Council. In June 1919, the Council began to organize street-corner meetings of whites and Negroes. This was death for the meat-packing bosses and they used mounted police to break these meetings up. Against this, the Stockyards Labor Council called a protest strike and won, and to celebrate they called a great parade of white and Negro workers in the Negro neighborhood for July 6.

In come the capitalist police and with brazen impudence proclaim that this parade is going to cause racial conflict! They therefore forbid it. The Council, instead of defying the order, made Negroes and whites parade separately, but the two groups met on the Beutner playground at La Salle and 23rd Street and there was grand demonstration of nearly 30,000 Negroes and whites (despite the fact that many of these Negroes had gone to band concerts). The working-class front of black and whites held firm and the capitalists had to break it. So on July 27 they sent whites with faces blackened to look like Negroes who burned a block of houses where white stockyard workers lived. The police followed up this outrage by sending a large force of militia, police, etc., into the stockyards “to prevent racial strife,” and agents provocateurs were let loose among the white workers to incite them to violence. The Council called a mass meeting of 30,000 white workers which unanimously voted solidarity with the Negroes and demanded that the police withdraw all its armed men from the stockyards. The 4000 Negroes endorsed the vote.

During this period, the riots did take place. Police and their allies, let loose in the Negro district, led the rioting. In their efforts to keep “order,” they killed not one white man, but half the Negroes killed met their death at the hands of the police.

Despite this desperate provocation, the 35,000 whites and Negroes in the union remained solid and would not go back to work until the police and militia were removed from the yards. White and black union men worked together to help the wounded. The whites gave financial aid to the Negroes who came to the headquarters for assistance instead of going to the bosses’ breadlines. Among 35,000 workers there was only one single case of violence.

The workers black and white had caused the police to be withdrawn from the yards. On the day that they went back there wasn’t a single indication of any racial feeling. In one plant, Negroes and Slavs “met as old friends.” Many of the men “put their arms around one another’s necks.” A Negro and a Pole got on a truck and rode all around the plant to show the other workers that a good spirit still existed. Says the official report,

“There was nothing in the contact of the Negro or the Pole or the Slav that would indicate that there had ever been a race riot in Chicago, and there was nothing from the beginning of the race riot to the end that would indicate there was any feeling started in the stockyards or in this industry that led to the race riots.”

That was twenty years ago. The full story was told in the Stalinist press ten years after, and some of it in official reports. But the bourgeois press and bourgeois publicists still circulate their lies about the Chicago race riots, and with their babble about maladjustment, they cleverly obscure one of the most significant events in American working class history. These lies penetrate even into the revolutionary movement, and will continue to penetrate, unless the revolutionary movement dos not merely content itself with saying “No” to the capitalist “Yes” but turns its back completely on whatever the capitalists say about the Negroes.

Last updated on 19.7.2011