Today is Halloween but tomorrow is Dia de Los Muertos, so in that vein, it is reasonable to understand something terrifying and to remember why certain efforts were made. In the book 1919: The Year of Racial Violence, David Krugler provides information about why it was so atrocious that the Emmett Till Anti-Lynching Law took so long to pass. Contextually, this was not only a year of racial violence, but the era in which Black soldiers were returning fighting from World War I having supposedly fought against fascism. I came across this book through a recommendation from Black lecturers, and because it is not written by a Black author, there are several references to multiple Black authors, including Ida B. Wells, best known known for her work, The Red Record. Throughout the book 1919, it becomes explicitly clear that people will stop at nothing to maintain hierarchy and that attempting to assimilate to the dominant narrative will only lead to further violence.
The beginning details the animosity stirred up from “emancipation,” especially that Black people were being used for labor instead of white workers based on the demand to exploit Black labor. Suddenly, people–mostly men–who were used to being able to fall into work were having to compete with people who were known for getting hours of various types of labor completed while receiving mostly nothing. Unions were also coming into fruition, and even though unions were segregated, Black people were being portrayed as both union organizers and union busters, making it impossible to exist on such a binary. Additionally, the military was reluctant to even train Black soldiers because it would involve our immediate access to weaponry, even though more soldiers were needed for World War I. Lynching had already become normalized in the South based on the combination of all these tensions, but make no mistake: even after using Black soldiers to fight the Civil War, there was little safety to be found in the North.
On the other side, Black people had struggled to form independent communities, but kept running into terrorists burning down the towns and attacking us. Despite efforts to maintain land and disengage from a society that hated us, we were thwarted into participation based on an economic system founded on our labor and inhumanity. However, what is interesting about this history is that readers are able to see Black people running presses, thereby creating a publicly available narrative for the first significant time; Black resistance based on training and access to weaponry; and how economic terrorism, such as share cropping and debt peonage, was forced on communities of people doing the level best to exist in piece. Throughout the chronology, Black people kept showing up in the relentless fight for autonomy without interference, and people were determined not to make that happen. No matter how small the population or how non-threatening Black people tried to be, there was no escaping the need to remind us how little we mattered.
Because this book was published in 2014, it is disconcerting that the information from 1919 is so similar to the escalating racial violence from different points forwards in United States history. Most crucially, there was a constant “fear” of Black terrorism despite that actual execution of anti-Black terrorism, so much so that there have been repeated calls for another Civil War. Most people were being conditioned to accept “rough justice,” which was sanctioned by the government on multiple levels, just like the refusal to acknowledge what January 6, 2021 actually meant for the direction of the United States. There was a concerted effort to disarm Black people, and only Black people, while teaching white people to get armed for protection against us–after all, we are not confused by who the guns are seen as “protecting.” Even more astonishingly, there was report in Chicago, compiled from interviews, research, and first-person accounts, that concluded that Black people just wanted to be left alone, which was very similar to the Kerner Commission Report compiled after Black protests in the 1960s.
Living in the world as a target changes how one perceives a system purported to protect. At a party one time, people were talking about gun ownership, which is not strange to anyone who lives in Texas. People were talking about the types of guns they would get, and kept pressing me to describe the kind of gun I would purchase. I kept deflecting the question, but when they continued pressing, I said, “I have never been a particular fan of guns because people generally get guns to shoot people who look like me.” The reason why hierarchies should never be established is because people will generally resort to violence to maintain said hierarchies. After all, it is difficult to be viewed as equal to those whom one used to rule.
* The image of Emmett Till was produced by Getty Images, and can be found at this link.