White Mobs and African Americans Historically and Inextricably Tied

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Pro-Trump mob storming the U.S. Capitol, January, 6, 2021

The HistoryMakers

This past Wednesday morning was greeted with exhalation and glee with the announcement that Reverend Dr. Raphael Warnock, Senior Pastor of the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, the home church of Reverend Martin Luther King, Sr. and Jr., had clinched the election as the first African American U.S. Senator elected from Georgia in a hotly contested run off. His election was the result of a huge turnout of Georgia’s African American community masterminded by the Yale-educated, African American lawyer Stacey Abrams. The first African American Senator from the South had been Hiram Rhodes Revels, who was elected 151 years ago during the Reconstruction period by the Mississippi state legislature to finish a term left vacant by Senator Albert G. Brown, who withdrew from the U.S. Senate in 1861 when Mississippi seceded from the Union.

Reverend Dr. Raphael Warnock

Coincidentally, like Senator Warnock, Revels was also a minister having been ordained in the African in the African Methodist Episcopal Church (A.M.E.) in 1853 when he assumed a pastorate in an A.M.E. church in St. Louis where he was imprisoned for preaching to the black community. A graduate of Morehouse College, Warnock, when he was just 35, became the fifth and the youngest person ever to be called to the senior pastorate of the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was pastor from 1960 until his death in 1968. This was 152 years after Revels had pastored his first church. To date, there have only been ten African American U.S. Senators ever in the Senate’s history.

Mississippi Senator Hiram Rhodes Revels

Wednesday morning’s exhalation and glee soon turned to an international focus on the U.S. Capitol as the typically ceremonial counting of electoral votes became a takeover by a mob wielding guns, shields, and an array of flags. More importantly, this mob gathering was spurred on by none other than President Donald J. Trump, who edged on his loyal supporters by continuing to assert that their votes and the election had been stolen. He encouraged their march to the U.S. Capitol Building by saying “you will never take back our country with weakness.” After this rallying cry, the U.S. Capitol, seemingly defenseless, was overrun by an angry mob.

An explosion caused by a police munition during the attack on the Capitol

Everyone watched in disbelief, but for African Americans, the unfolding events captivated their attention both in terms of extreme disparity and haunting familiarity. President elect Joe Biden remarked: “No one can tell me that if it had been a group of Black Lives Matter protesting… they wouldn’t have been treated very, very differently from the mob of thugs that stormed the Capitol. We all know that’s true, and it’s unacceptable. Totally unacceptablethe American people saw it in plain view.”[1] The idea of white privilege is one that the pro-Trump mob would probably reject, but our history shows a double standard where death at the hands of the white mob threaten every day existence.

A much heavier security force at the Lincoln Memorial during a Black Lives Matter demonstration, June 2, 2020

In his interview for The HistoryMakers archives, social commentator Dick Gregory (1932 – 2017) said of the 1863 New York City Draft Riots, when Irish immigrants were being drafted to fight for the north: “The Irish went crazy… they was mad at Lincoln [President Abraham Lincoln]. ‘We don’t wanna lose our lives, to free some niggers,’ and … that night… lynched twenty-nine black folks.”[2] The New York City Draft Riots were both anti-government and anti-black. Tammany Hall, backed by New York Mayor Fernando Wood, called on the New York City’s Board of Aldermen in 1861 to secede from the union and “declare the city’s independence from Albany and from Washington.” He promised that it “would have the whole and united support of the Southern States.”[3] Poor whites, especially Irish immigrants, hated the Conscription Act, because the rich could buy their way out of the draft. They attacked city, state and federal institutions, and officials for nearly five days in lower Manhattan. Metropolitan Police Superintendent John A. Kennedy was chased by the mob into a pond and beaten to an unrecognizable pulp.[4] Blamed for the Civil War, African Americans were hunted and murdered, their bodies hung from lamp posts in Five Points. The Colored Orphan Asylum was burnt to the ground and the pharmacy of Dr. James McCune Smith, the Asylum’s doctor and country’s first black M.D., was also destroyed. Order was only restored by Union troops arriving from the Battle of Gettysburg. The Christian Recorder, an African American newspaper recounted black defense efforts: “In Weeksville and Flatbush, the colored men who had manhood in them armed themselves, and threw out their pickets every day and night, determined to die defending their homes.”[5] The New York City Draft Riots remain the largest and most racially motivated urban disturbance in the history of the United States. The rioters, of course, went unpunished.

Depiction of the burning of the Provost Marshal’s office, New York City Draft Riot, July 1863

The Wilmington Race Riot of 1898 is another example. The 1898 coup capped a months-long White Supremacy Campaign in North Carolina designed to strip black men of the vote and remove them from public office forever. The prime target was Wilmington, then the largest city in the state, where black men served as councilmen, magistrates and police officers with a thriving black middle class and some 65 black doctors, lawyers and educators.[6] Alfred Moore Waddell, a former Confederate officer and white supremacist used an article in Alfred Manly’s Wilmington Daily Record to inflame his base, and on November 10, Waddell accompanied about 2,000 white men to Wilmington’s armory. After heavily arming themselves with rifles and a $1,200 Gatlin gun, they went to the two-story publishing office of The Daily Record, shot it to pieces, and set it on fire. The mob, now confronted by black residents, went to war. Supported by a terrorist militia known as the Red Shirts, they invaded the black community under Waddell’s order “to kill every damn nigger in sight.” Various sources cite anywhere from fourteen to 300 African Americans killed. Waddell forced the mayor out of office at gun point and installed himself, while Wilmington’s News and Observer hailed the putsch as “permanent good government by the party of the White Man.”

Rioters standing in front of the burned publishing office of The Daily Record, Wilmington Race Riot, November 1898

Historian and professor David Levering Lewis told of his family’s experience in the 1906 Atlanta Massacre, where white mobs attacked the African American community for several days, making international news: “The riot took place on their street, ’cause the riot began at Butler [Street; Jesse Hill Jr. Drive] and moved up Auburn [Avenue]. They witnessed it… the family lore is that… the men armed themselves and positioned themselves on the porches waiting to protect their… property… memories that were retailed to me were of courage on the part of men armed and ready and indeed… when the… mob sees the glint of… the barrels, it gives that place a pass… the totality of the riot was, of course, horrendous. And everyone had someone who was roughed up or knew someone who had been killed. And the greatest devastation took place… near the neighborhood where Clark College [Clark-Atlanta University, Atlanta, Georgia] was founded.”[7] Syndicated columnist James Eugene Clingman, Jr. also told of the white mobs that destroyed Greenwood, Oklahoma, which was “flourishing in the early 1900s. Some six hundred black businesses had everything from restaurants… all the way up to an airline. Everything black folks needed, they had it right there in the Greenwood district. In 1921, it was destroyed, burned to the ground… because of an angry white mob came in… and destroyed it. And three hundred people were killed.”[8]

Depiction of the Atlanta Massacre, published by the French magazine Le Petit Journal, October 1906

This type of mob violence kept African Americans living in a constant state of fear. Artist Geraldine McCullough (1917 – 2008) spoke of her grandfather, Jesse C. Duke, who “had a newspaper… and so he was publishing these various articles and discussions with Booker T. Washington… [And] there in Selma [Alabama], they resented what he was writing, and they came after him, the Ku Klux Klan, and… the way my mother tells it (laughter)… they dressed him like a lady and got him out… because the… lynching mob was around. So he did escape and he went to Pine Bluff, Arkansas.”[9] Sociology professor Troy Duster spoke of a similar occurrence with his maternal grandmother, Ida B. Wells: “My grandmother’s career as a journalist really takes off… she begins to write her first searing analyst of the structural issues behind lynching. And what she says is infuriating to the South, she says, you say lynching is about black men raping white women? She says, no. These three men were lynched not because they raped a white woman, but because they were engaged in competitive behavior with white men… Well as you can imagine this produced a lot of anger and she got hate mail and threats, death threats and on one occasion when she was out of town… a lynch mob came… looking for her and couldn’t find her, they burned down the press and said that… if she ever came back to Memphis, that they would kill her.”[10]

Jesse C. Duke
Ida B. Wells

 

 

 

 

 

 

Newspaper columnist and host Vernon Jarrett (1918 – 2004) told of working for the Chicago Defender in 1946: “When two [African American] veterans moved into the [Midway] Airport Homes… Now this was in a lily white neighborhood…you had the mob… I’m almost certain I would have been battered to a pulp… The cab that took us out there, ran off and left us because they [the mob] were chasing the cab… It was awful out here… the cops would be drinking pop, smoking–might even have been having a beer with the mob.”[11] Not long after the Airport Homes incident, Vernon Jarrett recalled: “This was the first time I ever saw Thurgood Marshall. The NAACP had sent him out. And a mob was out there that day in the afternoon. But this night, I went out–and Wayne Miller [a colleague] he told me… ‘Jarrett, I think you better stay in this car.’ We were parked right up on them, but they had their backs turned to us… They burned a cross and they attacked the mayor of the city, Edward Kelly. They referred to him as a ‘communist Jew.’ …And the police estimated ten thousand… Kelly ordered them to make some arrests and not take any more stuff off of this mob, and they began to arrest people after that. But it was only after one woman took a big piece of jagged rock… and hit the police commander of the district. I remember seeing him bleeding…They went berserk… Anybody who didn’t live in the neighborhood, they would assume that you were against them. They attacked white news people, and they had us all jammed up in a… building… incidentally, that the government owned. And they tried to set fire to it.”[12]

A mob overturning a car in response to the Airport Homes incident, Chicago, Illinois, c.1946

Academic administrator Robert Green remembered growing up in Detroit, Michigan: “My parents then moved to 648 Rosedale [Court] between Oakland [Avenue] and Brush [Street]… when we moved in the house, blacks were just beginning to integrate that neighborhood, and we were stoned… I can recall a white mob outside of the house… stoning the house. And one night, my dad slipped out of the house, got to Toledo, Ohio, and obtained his dad’s [Thomas Green] shotgun… And I remember my dad… firing over the head of a mob outside of our house. My brother, Richard [Green], was a baby, and a rock landed in the crib with him, and that’s when dad fired out. After that, we received better police protection.”[13] Lawyer and publisher of the Florida Courier newspaper Charles W. Cherry II, described how the mob violence was so bad in Florida while growing up, that his father “built our home as a bomb shelter… there was a bombing in 1951. Harry T. Moore [Harry Tyson Moore] and his wife Harriette [Vyda Simms] Moore were killed in Mims, Florida which is about an hour… south of Daytona Beach… the house was, was one of these wooden houses that sat on bricks so there was room underneath… some Klansmen with… explosive training essentially roll a bomb underneath the bedroom… and it blew up and killed them both. So my dad… built a house that was concert rebar that had no space underneath it. So it went to bedrock about six feet under and it was custom built.”[14]

Harriette & Harry T. Moore

Basketball player Charles Brown underwent threats of mob violence simply because of the outcome of a game: “Indiana University versus University of Missouri… never will forget this one. Nineteen fifty-five [1955] Columbia, Missouri, six, seven thousand people in the stands. Very close game… white guys jumping on your back, referee don’t call nothing. And you jump on theirs, beep foul… You get a cry, ‘Kill them niggas,’ from six or seven thousand people, people don’t know what fear is. That’s fear… You gotta get a police line. We won the game by one. Get a police line that gets you through to the locker room. You can’t go back to your hotel. They pack your bags for you and send them to the airport where you got a charter plane and you got about two thousand people at the airport waiting for you. And you gotta get a [police] line to go to the plane to get on.”[15] For Frank Smith, founding member of Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and former D.C. City Council member, it was an exchange at a gas station in Georgia: “I am getting ready to put my little $2.00 worth of gas in this thing and some guy pulls up next to me and says, ‘Wait a minute. I need this pump. I got to get out of here,’ and I said ‘Well, I was already getting ready to pump… I paid the folks and I’m getting ready to pump my gas.’ We got in the car and drove off and by the time I got home, somebody had called over here and told my dad that I had a fight with a white man at a service station… and they were scared these guys would go off somewhere and get some kind of a mob… and my old man was mad, he was scared, sweating… he got his shot gun out.”[16]

A member of the Black Panther Party stands guard with a shotgun, December 11, 1969

U.S. Congressman John Lewis (1940 – 2020) described one of the many Civil Rights Movement mob attacks. It was in Montgomery, Alabama when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Reverend Ralph Abernathy hosted a gathering at First Baptist Church on Ripley Street in downtown Montgomery: “That Sunday evening, we gathered at the church… We filled the church before the meeting even started. And while people continued to gather, an angry mob marched on the church and started burning the cars of people. Started throwing stink bombs into the church. And they started knocking on the windows… Dr. Martin Luther King [Jr.] went into the basement of the church and made a telephone call to Robert Kennedy and told him about what was happening there. And the [U.S.] President [John F. Kennedy] and the attorney general dispatched federal marshals… And they started burning the cars of the U.S. marshals and started throwing stones and rocks at them. And Robert Kennedy made contact again with his brother, the president and said, ‘The situation is so dangerous in Montgomery. You got to do more.’ So the city of Montgomery was put under martial law. And the Alabama National Guard were federalized to protect us while we were in that church. We were forced to stay in the church all night that night… more than a thousand… The general of the Alabama National Guard came in, took over the meeting and said ‘No one can leave.’ That it was a very dangerous situation, someone could be hurt or killed. And about three or four o’clock [a.m.] that Monday morning, they placed us all in jeeps and we left in a long motorcade.”[17] Chicago community activist Edward “Buzz” Palmer recalled another incident during the Civil Rights Movement: “During this time when [Reverend Dr.] Martin Luther King [Jr.] came to Chicago [Illinois]… I was a policeman in plainclothes and so unwittingly I mapped out all the marches for King… When he went into Gage Park… I was in an unmarked car and a mob of whites came up to me and they said they were gonna kick my ass.”[18]

National Guardsmen outside of First Baptist Church, Montgomery, Alabama, May 21, 1961

Chemical engineer Jennie Patrick told of the violence they endured integrating a high school in Gadsden, Alabama in 1964: “The school had about 1,500 white kids, and there were about eleven black kids… The first day that we attended the school was really just an incredible experience. We walked towards the school, and there was this huge mob of parents with sticks and bricks and they yelled and they cursed. And there was a line of state troopers that separated the mob from the black students… I’m not afraid. You can’t show fear to these people… and I always say that the troopers themselves looked like they wanted to lynch us… But they were sent there to protect us… it was such an incredibly violent experience. Here you get past the mob with the throwing of the rocks and whatever they’re doing and the cursing. And you get in the school, and there would be children throwing things at you. So it was rather traumatic. By the end of the first semester, only half of the students had survived… many of them could not tolerate the psychological abuse and the physical abuse. Kids were beaten to the point they were hospitalized.”[19]

Protesting school integration, Montgomery, Alabama, 1963

Film director Melvin Van Peebles recalled of his time in the U.S. Air Force: “My mother [Edwin Griffin Peebles]… drove me to my base. She said, ‘Promise me one thing, son… You won’t go off this base.’ I didn’t go off the base, because she said, ‘You won’t live. You’ll be dead.’ Racism was rampant in Texas. And she was right… I was once chased by a lynch mob because I was walking down the street in my uniform and a white soldier came by and he had to salute me because I was an officer. And the townspeople got indignant and started chasing me. The only thing that saved my life was that I was in the Air Force, and there was some [U.S.] Navy artillery or something, and I could see the light from the airport. And so I made a beeline for that, cutting through the brush and everything else… and the other people chasing behind me.”[20]

Melvin Van Peebles as a young man

We know that 2020 was a very difficult year. As we transition to a new presidency in 2021, this week we were reminded of the significant amount of reckoning that needs to be done to reconcile our problems, our divisions, our history, our present and our future as a country. God Bless America.

[1] Eric Bradner and Kate Sullivan CNN, “Biden Assails Different Treatment of Pro-Trump Mob and Black Lives Matter Protesters,” CNN, accessed January 8, 2021, https://www.cnn.com/2021/01/07/politics/biden-merrick-garland-justice-nominees/index.html.

[2] Dick Gregory (The HistoryMakers A2007.220), interviewed by Paul Brock, July 29, 2007, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 9, story 3, Dick Gregory shares his views on the critiques of urban violence.

[3] “The Great Riots of New York 1712 to 1873, by Hon. J.t. Headley,” accessed January 7, 2021, https://www.gutenberg.org/files/6856/6856-h/6856-h.htm.

[4] Ibid.

[5] “Wilmington Race Riot of 1898,” Black Past, accessed January 7, 2021, https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/wilmington-race-riot-1898/.

[6] “Alfred Moore Waddell,” in Wikipedia, November 23, 2020, accessed January 7, 2021. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Alfred_Moore_Waddell&oldid=990143326

[7] David Levering Lewis (The HistoryMakers A2005.061), interviewed by Larry Crowe, March 10, 2005, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 2, story 1, David Levering Lewis shares his family’s experience of the 1906 Atlanta riot.

[8] James Eugene Clingman, Jr. (The HistoryMakers A2005.064), interviewed by Regennia Williams, March 15, 2005, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 4, story 6, James Eugene Clingman, Jr. advocates for African Americans pooling their resources to work towards economic empowerment, pt.2.

[9] Geraldine McCullough (The HistoryMakers A2003.052), interviewed by Larry Crowe, March 20, 2003, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 1, story 3, Geraldine McCullough describes her grandfather, Jesse C. Duke.

[10] Troy Duster (The HistoryMakers A2005.268), interviewed by Shawn Wilson, December 21, 2005, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 1, story 6, Troy Duster recounts his maternal grandmother, activist Ida B. Wells’ journalistic career.

[11] Vernon Jarrett (The HistoryMakers A2000.028), interviewed by Julieanna L. Richardson, June 27, 2000, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 2, tape 5, story 6, Vernon Jordan remembers covering white mob violence against integration of Airport Homes in Chicago, 1946.

[12] Vernon Jarrett (The HistoryMakers A2000.028), interviewed by Julieanna L. Richardson, June 27, 2000, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 2, tape 5, story 6.

[13] Robert Green (The HistoryMakers A2004.095), interviewed by Larry Crowe, September 30, 2004, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 2, tape 2, story 3, Robert Green remembers violence against African Americans integrating neighborhoods of Detroit, Michigan.

[14] Charles W. Cherry II (The HistoryMakers A2014.230), interviewed by Larry Crowe, September 7, 2014, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 3, story 2, Charles W. Cherry II talks about his family being threatened with violence.

[15] Charles Brown (The HistoryMakers A2004.154), interviewed by Larry Crowe, August 31, 2004, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 4, story 6, Charles Brown recalls playing against white teams with hostile fans in high school and college.

[16] Frank Smith (The HistoryMakers A2004.257), interviewed by Racine Tucker Hamilton, December 13, 2004, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 3, story 1, Frank Smith describes his education at Morehouse and his involvement in SNCC.

[17] The Honorable John Lewis (The HistoryMakers A2001.039), interviewed by Julieanna L. Richardson, April 25, 2001, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 4, story 4, John Lewis recalls a mob trapping activists in a Montgomery church.

[18] Edward “Buzz” Palmer (The HistoryMakers A2002.157), interviewed by Larry Crowe, July 26, 2002, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 2, tape 3, story 6, Edward “Buzz” Palmer talks about political activity in Chicago during the 1960s.

[19] Jennie Patrick (The HistoryMakers A2012.210), interviewed by Larry Crowe, December 14, 2012, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 3, story 2, Jennie Patrick describes the integration of schools in Gadsden, Alabama.

[20] Melvin Van Peebles (The HistoryMakers A2006.100), interviewed by Shawn Wilson, September 9, 2006, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 3, story 2, Melvin Van Peebles describes joining the U.S. Air Force in the 1950s.

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