BY WALTER OPINDE
The East St. Louis, Illinois, race riot, which erupted on 2nd July, 1917, was arguably one of the worst race riots of the early 20th century. At least 100 African-Americans died (some sources put the figure at nearly 200), and over 6,000 were left homeless. By comparison, eight whites died. In a pattern of urban racial violence that persisted into the 1960s, the violence involved mobs of whites attacking the African-American community, while the police either stood by or arrested African-Americans.
Racial tensions had increasingly begun in February, 1917, when 470 African-American workers were hired to replace white workers who had gone on strike against the Aluminum Ore Company. The violence started on May 28th, 1917, shortly after a city council meeting was called. Angry white workers lodged formal complaints against black migrations to the Mayor of East St. Louis. After the meeting, news of an attempted robbery of a white man by an armed black man began to circulate through the city. As a result of this news, white mobs formed and rampaged through downtown, beating all African-Americans who were found along their paths. The mobs also stopped trolleys and streetcars, pulling black passengers out and beating them on the streets and sidewalks.
Illinois Governor, Frank Lowden, eventually called in the National Guard to control the violence, and the mobs slowly dispersed. The May 28th disturbances were only an introduction to the violence that would later erupt on 2nd July, 1917. After the May 28th riots, little was done to prevent any further problems. No precautions were taken to ensure white job security or to grant union recognition. This further increased the already-high level of hostilities towards African-Americans. No reforms were made in the police force which did little to quell the violence in May. Governor Lowden then ordered the National Guard out of the city on 10th June, leaving residents of East St. Louis in an uneasy state of high racial tension.
On 2nd July, 1917, the violence resumed. Men, women, and children were beaten and shot to death. Around 6 o’ clock that evening, white mobs began to set fire to the homes of black residents. Residents had to choose between burning alive in their homes, or run out of the burning houses, only to be met by gunfire.
In other parts of the city, white mobs began to lynch African-Americans against the backdrop of burning buildings. As darkness arrived and the National Guard returned, the violence began to decrease but did not come to a complete stop.
The racial violence provoked national outrage among both African-Americans and whites. The NAACP organized a silent protest march down Fifth Avenue in New York City on 29th July, 1917. A number of prominent whites, including former President Theodore Roosevelt and former Supreme Court Justice Charles Evans Hughes, denounced the racist violence and demanded that President Woodrow Wilson takes action to prevent further violence. Preoccupied with World War I, Wilson took no action on racial violence at the time and did not issue a statement condemning mob violence until a year later, on 26th July, 1918.
Harper Barnes, Never Been a Time: The 1917 Race Riot That Sparked the Civil Rights Movement (2008).
Elliott Rudwick, Race Riot at East St. Louis, July 2, 1917 (1964).