Dr. Edmund F. Wehrle

Chicago Race Riot 1919
On July 27, 1919, a young black man named Eugene Williams swam past an invisible line of segregation at a popular public beach on Lake Michigan, Chicago. He was stoned by several white bystanders, knocked unconscious and drowned, and his death set off one of the bloodiest riots in Chicago’s history. The Chicago race riot was not the result of the incident alone. Several factors, including the economic, social and political differences between blacks and whites, the post-war atmosphere and the thinking of race relations in 1919, combined to make Chicago a prime target for this event. Although the riot was a catalyst for several short-term solutions to the racial tensions, it did little to improve race relations in the long run. It was many years before the nation truly addressed the underlying conflicts that sparked the riot of 1919.
There is some history that explains why the incident on that Chicago beach escalated to the point where 23 blacks and 15 whites were killed, 500 more were injured and 1,000 blacks were left homeless. When the local police were summoned to the scene, they refused to arrest the white man identified as the one who instigated the attack. It was generally acknowledged that the state should “look the other way” as long as private violence stayed at a low level. This police indifference, viewed by most blacks as racial bias, played a major role in enraging the black population. In the wake of the Chicago riot, several efforts were made to strengthen Chicago’s police power to effectively suppress future riots, make police power more neutral between the races, and allow the Federal government to acquire police powers by way of an anti-lynching law. The aim was to bring a more powerful and neutral force into local situations, but the effect was to concentrate the emphasis on maintaining law and order rather than correcting the conditions that caused the riot. Many Americans felt it was more important to ensure that violence on the scale of the Chicago riot never recur rather than deal with the root causes of racial conflict.

The violence of the 1919 riot shocked and divided many Americans. There were those who believed it was necessary to eliminate racial inequalities in order to prevent racial conflicts and those who believed it was necessary to create or maintain a racial ladder in which each race would know and accept its place. It was the latter group that sought rules against the use of violence and focused on the accommodation of society to immediate conflicts rather than long-term solutions, such as restructuring society to reduce the level of racial tension. In the United States, the historical pattern of interracial violence, fear and distrust is a result of a class system which recognized white dominance and black inferiority and subordination. This social system was frustrating to the blacks who wished to rise from their subservient status while the white man had to employ force in order to maintain his position of social superiority. Add to this frustration what sociologists refer to as “social distance”, where fear, hate and ignorance block people from getting to know each other, and it is no surprise that racial tensions were high prior to the riot in Chicago.

One of the most frightening aspects of the Chicago riot in the eyes of the white population was the fact that rather than accept the invisible line in Lake Michigan or police indifference, blacks actually fought back. For white Americans who had become accustomed to Negro complacency, this posed a tremendous threat. It was an important moment in black history. These heightened mixed-race fears and suspicions went beyond the personal level. Following the Chicago riot, many Americans came to believe that democracy itself was becoming endangered by black militancy. They believed that a challenge to white supremacy was a radical opposition to the government. Following the riot, white supremacists jumped to the conclusion that radical influences had encouraged Negroes to take up arms.

Mayor William Hale Thompson, often accused of being a “nigger lover”, refused to draw the color line and consequently could claim the Black Belt as his area of strongest support in the city. There may