Tuesday, November 25, 2014

SPECIAL : Race Riots in East St. Louis, 1917

Note: I had originally planned to post something else today.  But the events in Ferguson, Missouri made me  decide to post this - a very brief account of the race riots which occurred in nearby East St. Louis, right across the Mississippi River from St. Louis, Missouri, in the state of Illinois. I feel that history is a living, breathing light into the past which can shine a light back on us in the present, and possibly inform us to do better this time.  So even though these events happened in the summer of 1917, not November, I am posting this now to show that history is relevant to the present.

The Influx of a New Labor Force Causes Friction

In the Spring of 1917, the United States had entered into World War I. Much of the available man power had gone into the armed forces to, as President Woodrow Wilson put it "make the world safe for democracy". This left a lot of  jobs available and in part brought about the Great Migration out of the south towards the industrial centers of the north. Many of those migrating were black men with their families who were looking for a better life.  Blacks were arriving in St. Louis at a rate of 2,000 per week.  This caused friction with the mostly white labor unions which were seeking to protect their jobs against this encroachment by new workers.  Marcus Garvey, a civil rights leader became aware of this, that Louisiana farmers were losing much of their labor force and sought the help of East St. Louis Mayor Mollman in discouraging this migration during the later weeks of May, 1917. Nevertheless, with many African Americans getting jobs at the Aluminum Ore Company and the American Steel Company in East St. Louis, many white workers feared for their job and wage security versus this new and culturally rural and thus very different labor force.

Tensions Boil Over During the Summer

It was in this charged and tense atmosphere that things boiled over.  In May, three thousand white men assembled in downtown East St. Louis and as a mob began attacking blacks beating them and destroying
buildings. The Illinois governor called in the National Guard to stop the riots. There were rumors of organized retribution by black men, but the tensions eased for a few weeks. Then on July 2, a car occupied by white males drove through a black area of the city and fired several shots into a standing group. An hour later, a car with four white people in it including a journalist and a pair of police detectives was passing through the same section.  Some of the black residents, apparently assuming that this was a car with the original shooters, opened fire on the car instantly killing one of the officers and fatally wounding another.

Later in that day, some thousands of white spectators who had assembled viewing the car as it had wound up, bloodied from the wounds of the policemen, went berserk and marched into black sections of town, conducting what amounted to an open season on
black citizens and all kinds of property. Rioters cut the water hoses of the Fire Department, and burnt entire sections of the town, in some cases, shooting inhabitants as they ran out of the buildings.  Crying that "Southern negros deserved a genuine lynching!" the violent mob did indeed lynch several black men.  National Guardsmen were called to the scene, but there are some accounts saying that some of these Guardsmen joined in the riots rather than stopping them.  One account in the New York Times said that: "Ten or fifteen young girls about 18 years old, chased a negro woman at the Relay Depot at about 5 o'clock. The girls were brandishing clubs and calling upon the men to kill the woman."

The Aftermath: Further Anger and Radicalization

The riots went on for nearly a week, causing property damage estimated at close to $400,000. Over 6,000 black citizens, left East St. Louis altogether in fear for their lives. The city's death toll estimates varied quite a lot, with the city estimating about 100 black men had been killed, and the NAACP putting the total at 200.  A congressional investigating committee would later conclude that 9 white and 39  
black men had been killed. The number of black dead can only be guessed at as many of the black corpses were never recovered. But due to the property damage, over 6,000 black citizens were left homeless. The deadly viciousness of the attacks during these riots lead to the radicalization of many blacks throughout the country. Marcus Garvey voiced this sentiment saying that this riot was "one of the bloodiest outrages against mankind" and a "wholesale massacre of our people." Garvey went on to say that "This is no time for fine words, but a time to lift one's voice against the savagery of a people who claim to be the dispensers of democracy." The cartoon above summed up the feelings of many. The caption, echoing the rousing war-time slogan of President Wilson, had the woman saying: "Mr. President, why not make America safe for Democracy?"

What if anything does this account tell us about the events of today in Ferguson, Missouri? That is something that you - my readers - will have to draw what lessons you can yourselves.  But here we have a number of similar elements... the actions of the Governor and the Mayor, the presence of outside influences (Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, & Marcus Garvey), and the use of National Guard troops. Those events - the rioting and looting of Summer, 1917 - were clearly a case of angry
white men attacking black citizens.  The current events - the riots and looting of last night - are angry black citizens attacking a power structure which too many of them see as being biased against them. They may very well be right about that.  But the rioting can only hurt their city and themselves.  I have a friend, an older black woman who said to me: "This isn't the fault of the police.. you can have all the police out there, and all of those people marching for good reasons, but it only takes one man, or a few men to mess it all up for everyone... then one thing just leads to the other."




"Race Rioters Fire East St. Louis and Shoot or Hang Many Negroes"New York Times, July 3, 1917.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

NOVEMBER 20 = Sniper Attack on Tarawa


"Another young Marine walked briskly along the beach. He grinned at a pal who was sitting next to me. Again there was a shot. The Marine spun all the way around and fell to the ground, dead. "

This was the recollection of Robert Sherrod (left), an American journalist, editor and author. Sherrod covered the war in the Pacific as a war correspondent for Time and Life magazines. He was embedded with  United States Marine Corps units during combat on  Attu, Tarawa, Saipan, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa. Sherrod wrote  five books on World War II, one of which was "Tarawa - the Story of a Battle" (1944)  In the following short excerpt written on today's date of  November 20, in 1943, he gives a slice of what life could be like in a Marine Amphibious operation, and how the dividing line between life and death in such a setting could be so very thin both for the hunter and for the hunted and how the end for each could be not only macabre but terrible.

"Somebody go get the son-of-a-bitch!"

"From where he lay, a few feet away, he looked up at us. Because he had been shot squarely through the temple his eyes bulged out wide, as in horrible surprise at what had happened to him, though it was impossible that he could ever have known what hit him.

'Somebody go get the son-of-a-bitch,' yelled Major Crowe. 'He's right back of us here, just waiting for somebody to pass by.' That Jap sniper, we knew from the crack of his rifle, was very close.

A Marine jumped over the sea wall and began throwing blocks of fused TNT into a coconut-log pillbox about fifteen feet back of the sea wall against which we sat. Two more Marines scaled the sea wall, one of them carrying a twin-cylindered tank strapped to his shoulders, the other holding the nozzle of the flame-thrower. As another charge of TNT boomed inside the pillbox, causing smoke and dust to billow out, a khaki-clad figure ran out of the side entrance. The flame-thrower, waiting for him, caught him in its withering stream of intense fire. As soon as it touched him, the Jap flared up like a piece of celluloid. He was dead instantly but the bullets in his cartridge belt exploded for a full sixty seconds after had been charred almost to nothingness."

Tarawa, the largest of the Gilbert Islands was eventually taken by the United States Marine Corps by November 23, 1943.  But the price had been terrible.  Nobody had expected the Japanese to put up such resistance for Tarawa.  But the landing craft were caught on the coral reef surrounding the island, and the defenders had managed to withstand a full week of bombing, and several hours of naval bombardment in their sand-covered concrete bunkers.  The result was 911 Marines were killed and over 2300 were wounded.  But vital lessons had been learned in the taking of Tarawa. The length of bombardment was increased to two MONTHS, for example, and the right type of landing craft were used. Thus, when the Marines invaded Kwajalein, northwest of Tarawa in February, the casualties among Marines were 1/3 of what they had been on Tarawa.

Out of more than 3500 Japanese defending Tarawa, one officer and 16 soldiers survived.


"Eyewitness to History"  Edited by John Carey, Avon Books, New York, 1987

"The American Heritage Picture History of World War II" by C.L. Sulzberger. American Heritage Publishing Co. Inc., 1966


Saturday, November 8, 2014

NOVEMBER 8 = Lincoln is Re-Elected

"The Momentous Day

The day has come--the day of fate. Before this morning's sun sets, the destinies of this republic, so far as depends on human agency, are to be settled for weal or for woe. An inevitable choice is this day to be made by the American people, between a policy carrying salvation or a policy carrying ruin to the nation. On the one hand is war, tremendous and terrible, yet ushering in at the end every national security and glory. On the other is the mocking shadow of a peace, tempting us to quit these sacrifices, and sink again into indulgence, and yet sure to rob us of our birthright, and to entail upon our children a dissevered Union and ceaseless strife. "

So wrote the New York Times on today's date, November 8, 1864 about the stark choices facing the voters that day. It was not only the personal choice facing the voters about which the Times spoke.  That was between President Abraham Lincoln for the Republicans and George McClellan for the Democrats.  It was between continued vigorous prosecution of the war against the Confederate States of America, including the ultimate goal of an end to slavery on the one hand, and on the other hand, a quick pursuit of peace negotiations to end that war as proposed by the Democratic platform written for and endorsed by McClellan.  It was quite literally between one or two countries.

Lincoln's Chances Looked Bleak

As late as the Summer of 1864, things did not look good at all for Lincoln. 1863 had the twin triumphs of Gettysburg, and Vicksburg.  But with U.S. Grant now in charge of the Army of the Potomac and bogged down in a seemingly endless siege of Petersburg, he looked like a
butcher.  And William T. Sherman had attacked boldly, but was now also bogged down in protracted fighting near Atlanta, unable to break through.  During the first week in August, Thurlow Weed (left), a leading Republican politician, traveled to Washington and told Lincoln "that his re-election was an impossibility." There were reports of peace feelers being sent by Jefferson Davis, and  of these being rebuffed by Lincoln, because he insisted on abolition of slavery. "It seems entirely probable that this Administration will not be re-elected.."  he admitted in a private memo. Nevertheless he insisted that the election be held, and not cancelled because of the war, as many counseled him to do.

Then the News From the Battle Front Improves...

But in late August, the picture on the battle field began to improve.  First, there was the victory of Admiral Farragut in shutting down Mobile Bay, Alabama news of which hit northern newspapers
 on August 15.  Then, on August 31 the armies of Gen. William Tecumseh
Sherman (right) attacked the Confederate army under General John Bell Hood south of Atlanta, and finally were able to break through.  "Atlanta is our's and fairly won!" Sherman crowed in a telegram to Secretary of War Stanton.  On that very day of August 31, the Democratic Party, meeting in Chicago nominated the strutting boob George McClellan as its candidate for President.  The party's platform said that "After four years of failure to restore the Union by the experiment off war... (it was time to) demand that immediate efforts be made for a cessation of hostilities."

Lincoln Goes on to WIIIIIIN!!

After Farragut's victory in Mobile Bay, and Sherman's taking of Atlanta, northern defeatism which  had been so prevalent up to that time was wiped out. But the news from the battle front only got better.  General Philip Sheridan, who had been assigned the task of bringing General Jubal Early's army to heel, and to shut down the Confederate "bread basket" that had been the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia was attacked by Early on the morning of October 18 at Cedar Creek.
Sheridan had been some miles from the battlefield, Upon hearing the gunfire, Sheridan mounted his horse and arrived at the battle in time to rally his troops and win the battle.  He then began burning every farm, and slaughtering every farm animal they could lay their hands on, thus shutting down this source of supply to the South for good.  After that the Union and its victory at the polls seemed assured. And sure enough, on November 8, the voters gave Lincoln a resounding vote of confidence.  55% to 45% of the popular vote, with Lincoln carrying all but three states, Kentucky, Delaware, and New Jersey for an electoral landslide of 212 to 21.  Most gratifying of all to Lincoln was the fact that the soldiers voting absentee wnt for him, and against their old commander by a margin of 80% to 20%.

"I give thanks to the almighty for this evidence off the people's resolution.  This contest has demonstrated to the world that a people's government can sustain a national election in the midst of a great Civil War." - Abraham Lincoln.



"A Team of Rivals - The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln" by Doris Kearns Goodwin, Simon and Schuster, New York, 2005.

"The Civil War". Episode 7, "Most Hallowed Ground", Dir. by Ken Burns, PBS, 1990

Friday, November 7, 2014

NOVEMBER 7 = 100 Years Ago - The Bolsheviks Take Over in Russia

On today's date, November 7 in 1917 - 100 Years Ago - the Bolshevik Party of Vladimir Lenin (left) took over power in Russia by means of a nearly bloodless coup d'etat in the Russian city of Petrograd (St. Petersburg).  The coup was against the Provisional Government of Alexander Kerensky, which had been set up when the government of the Czar, Nicholas II had been deposed in March of 1917.  Kerensky's government had been able to garner only limited support to begin with, and his insistence on keeping Russia involved in World War I had doomed his regime from the start.  The Bolsheviks had promised "Peace, land and Bread" to a peasant population who were war-weary, starving, and wanted their own land to work.  Here are a few different view points of that momentous day when Russia was taken into the iron grip of the Communists.

November 7, 1917 - John Reed (below)

Wednesday 7 November, I rose very late.  The noon cannon boomed from Peter-Paul (Fortress) as I went down the Nevsky. It was a raw, chill day.  In front of the State Bank some soldiers with fixed bayonets were standing at the closed gates.  

'What side do you belong to?' I asked.  'The Government?'
'No more government,' one answered with a grin.  'Slava Bogu! Glory to God!' That was all I could get out of him.  The street cars were running on the Nevsky, men, women, and small boys hanging on every projection.  Shops were open, and there seemed to be less uneasiness among the street crowds than there had been the day before..."

The "relative bloodlessness..." - W.H. Chamberlin  

The Bolsheviks had placed armed detachments at all of the major pulse points of Petrograd: The Power stations, the Train Stations, the State Bank and the Central Telephone Exchange. Thus with only a few thousand dedicated followers in arms, they were able to take over the government of Russia from a weak Provisional Government with ease.

"The most striking thing about the Bolshevik overturn in Petrograd was it relative bloodlessness.  Both the March Revolution and the July disturbances cost far more lives.  At first sight it seems amazing that the decisive act, the seizure of power in the capital... should have been accomplished with so little resistance.  There was a noteworthy absence of rioting and looting; theaters and moving picture houses remained open as usual."

Not much looting, but at the Winter Palace...

John Reed was with a crowd of soldiers later that day, when they surged into the Winter Palace wherein the Provisional Government had been seated. All of it's members were arrested.  Kerensky himself had escaped in an unsuccessful attempt to rouse support among the troops for his regime. He found none.  Meanwhile in Petrograd Reed found himself in the middle of a riotous scene:
"Carried along by the eager wave of men we were swept into... a great bare vaulted room. A number of huge packing cases stood about, and upon these the Red Guard and the soldiers fell furiously, battering them open with the butts of their rifles, and pulling out carpets, curtains, linen, porcelain, plates, glassware... one man went strutting around with a brass clock perched on his shoulder. Another found a plume of Ostrich feathers, which he stuck in his hat."

Meanwhile, Lenin....

According to Chamberlin, Lenin himself remained in the background...

"While Congress rolled on its course, the master strategist of the victorious uprising, Lenin remained in the background, saving his strength for the next night, when the decisive decrees on land and peace would be promulgated, perhaps resting from the 'giddiness,' which, as he once told Trotsky (left), the sudden leap to power inspired in him.  For a short time Lenin and Trotsky lay side by side on covers and cushions in a little room..."


"Ten Days That Shook the World" by John Reed, Penguin Books, New York, 1977

"The Russian Revolution" by William Henry Chamberlin, Vol. 1, Grosset & Dunlap, New York, 1965

"Eyewitness to History" Ed. by John Carey, Avon Books, New York, 1987