Museum of America in the Pandemic Year, 2020

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Jul 18: The World Health Organization reports a new record in daily global coronavirus cases for the second consecutive day, tallying 259,848 infections in a 24-hour period that also saw 7,360 new deaths. News outlets report that Joe Biden is holding a 15 point lead over Trump in polls. Thousands sign a petition to rename the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, in honor of the civil rights icon, John Lewis.

From the Cutting Room Floor ...

In the summer of 1919, the United States experienced what Cameron McWhirter and many other scholars have described as the “worst spate of race riots and lynchings” in its history.[1] A ragtag gathering of a dozen men started the “movement” when they gathered around a burning cross on Stone Mountain, Georgia in 1915. They were motivated by films like D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, which supposedly told the “true” story of American history after the Civil War. It painted a picture of the American South overrun by radical Republicans, hell bent on imposing Black rule and social equality. The film portrayed Black men as animals driven to marry white women. In response, it provided a justification for white Southerners forming the Ku Klux Klan in order to defend their women. In the words of Melvyn Stokes, “gallant Klansmen eventually managed to subdue the aggressive Southern blacks, and white supremacy was restored.”[2] The film was a huge success, shot on elaborate sets with a massive budget. It was the first film to be screened in the White House and the first modern blockbuster. For whites across America, the movie provided an attractive historical narrative for white Protestants who needed a grievance to nurse and a moral crusade to wage. By 1919, thousands had joined the “benevolent society” of the KKK under the leadership of William J. Simmons.

The whole world was heading back home after four years of catastrophic war. In those years, populations that had previously been relegated to the outskirts of power, Black people and women in particular, had found ways to participate in society like never before. Women had left home to work in armaments factories and around 380,000 Black soldiers had served in the European theatre. While many were forced into manual labor exclusively, not least of which because their white supremacist president wanted it that way, Black units like 369th Infantry Regiment of the 93rd Division, the “Harlem Hellfighters” distinguished themselves repeatedly on the French battlefield.[3] Returning home in uniforms pinned with medals created a problem, however. In a nation that prided itself on venerating its soldiers and degrading the Black man, the image of a Black war hero was incompatible with the established social order. 

Granted, white violence against strong Black people defending their rights was regular even before the First World War. Self-defense by Black families against white rabble rousers could turn into pogroms, like the one in East St. Louis in the summer of 1917 when 250 African Americans were murdered by white mobs. But the return of uniformed African Americans set off a paroxysm of white rage that ricocheted from large cities to rural communities across the country. Whites began their reign of terror immediately after troops started arriving home, with hooded men lynching Private Charles Lewis still in uniform on December 16, 1918. It was, as one Louisiana newspaper put it, an attempt to “Nip It in the Bud”—to show African American servicemen than their sacrifice for the country meant less than their permanent relegation to an inferior caste.[4] And, as Isabel Wilkerson has shown, it was a caste system that was written in stone and reinforced through violence.[5] What did Black veterans find upon their return to America, the land that they bled for? As W. E. B. Dubois, who initially prodded African Americans to enlist in 1917 admitted two years later, “This country of ours, despite all its better souls have done and dreamed, is yet a shameful land.

“It lynches.”[6]

Over fifty documented cases of anti-Black violence engulfed the United States over the next year, killing hundreds. Ω White mobs committed at least a dozen of those killings against returning Black war veterans. Some occurred in rural Southern areas. But some of the most destructive both in money and lives occurred in Connecticut, New York City, Philadelphia, Detroit, Washington D.C., and Chicago—where white mobs set whole neighborhoods on fire after a Black teenager floated onto a whites-only beach on Lake Michigan.[7] And though most of the mobs were not explicitly Klan-affiliated, “masked” or “hooded” men participated in much of the violence.[8] James Weldon Johnson, field secretary of the NAACP and author of “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” dubbed 1919 the “Red Summer” for all the blood of Black men that flowed through American streets.[9]

2020 doesn’t have the same version of coordinated anti-Black mob violence as 1919. But Americans are marching in the streets for racial justice now, just as then.[10] They are witness to mass violence against Black and Brown bodies now, as they were then. In 1919, white supremacists raised monuments and statues honoring the Lost Confederate Cause. Now, in 2020, while some of those monuments are coming down, others are being defended by whites hell bent on returning to DW Griffith’s version of “American Greatness.”Ω And, as in 1919, disease still stalks the land. Coronavirus exploits the same lines of discrimination that were set up in northern American cities beginning that year.

Whites rolled back whatever gains African Americans had made during the Great War. In what is perhaps the most pernicious parallel between 2020 and 1919, politicians and police connected the reaction against anti-Black mob violence to “red” communist and socialist agitation.


[1] Cameron McWhirter, Red Summer: The Summer of 1919 and the Awakening of Black America (Henry Holt and Company, 2011), 15.

[2] Melvyn Stokes, D.W. Griffith’s the Birth of a Nation: A History of the Most Controversial Motion Picture of All Time (Oxford University Press, USA, 2007), 6.

[3] Michael E. Ruane, “African American World War I Soldiers Served at a Time Racism Was Rampant in the U.S.,” Washington Post, July 22, 2017,

[4] Equal Justice Initiative, “Lynching in America: Targeting Black Veterans” (Montgomery, AL: Equal Justice Initiative, October 2017),

[5] Isabel Wilkerson, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents (New York: Random House, 2020).

[6] BlackPast, “(1919) W.E.B. Du Bois, ‘Returning Soldiers,’ Editorial from The Crisis,” April 7, 2019,

[7] Eric Arnesen, “‘Red Summer: The Summer of 1919 and the Awakening of Black America’ by Cameron McWhirter,” Chicago Tribune, November 18, 2011,

[8] “FOR ACTION ON RACE RIOT PERIL; Radical Propaganda Among Negroes Growing and Increase of Mob Violence Set Out in Senate Brief for Federal Inquiry,” The New York Times, October 5, 1919, sec. Archives,

[9] Matthew Wills, “The Mob Violence of the Red Summer,” JSTOR Daily, May 14, 2019,

[10] Olivia B. Waxman, “The Forgotten March That Started the National Civil Rights Movement Took Place 100 Years Ago,” Time, July 28, 2017,

Read more

Lee, Ella. “Fact Check: What’s True and What’s False about Face Masks?” USA TODAY, July 18, 2020.


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Arnesen, Eric. “‘Red Summer: The Summer of 1919 and the Awakening of Black America’ by Cameron McWhirter.” Chicago Tribune, November 18, 2011.
BlackPast. “(1919) W.E.B. Du Bois, ‘Returning Soldiers,’ Editorial from The Crisis,” April 7, 2019.
Dwyer, Colin. “C.T. Vivian, Civil Rights Leader And Champion Of Nonviolent Action, Dies At 95.”, July 17, 2020.
Waxman, Olivia B. “The Forgotten March That Started the National Civil Rights Movement Took Place 100 Years Ago.” Time, July 28, 2017.
Wills, Matthew. “The Mob Violence of the Red Summer.” JSTOR Daily, May 14, 2019.
Trejo, Shane. “Michigan Liberty Group That Organized Capitol Rally Launches Statewide Grassroots Operation.” Michigan Sentry, July 9, 2020.
Duvall, Tessa, and Darcy Costello. “Breonna Taylor Was Briefly Alive after Police Shot Her. But No One Tried to Treat Her.” The Louiville Courier-Journal, July 17, 2020.
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* Timeline summaries at the top of the page come from a variety of sources:, including The American Journal of Managed Care COVID-19 Timeline (, the Just Security Group at the NYU School of Law (, the “10 Things,” daily entries from The Week (, as well as a variety of newspapers and television programs.