The Deadliest “Race Riot” in American History


One hundred years ago on July 2, 1917 there was a “race riot” in East St. Louis, Illinois. It was the most deadly race riot in the history of the United States of America. The riot shocked the world. It shocked the world because of its brutality. It shocked the world because of the numbers of people that were killed and maimed by beating and stabbing and shooting and burning and lynching. It shocked the world because it happened during World War I when the United States was fighting the war to “free the world for democracy”. It shocked the world because the community that was attacked and burned to the ground was in the land of the free and the home of the brave.

You see, the East St. Louis race riot wasn’t really a race riot at all. It was a massacre of between 100 and 200 Black Americans by a mob of White Americans. It was a massacre of those that were denied the privileges of democracy by those that claimed it. It happened while the defenders of democracy looked on. It was so horrendous that the true number of those killed is not known because at that time society did not value Black Americans as people to be accounted for.

Those that were killed and brutalized were men, women, and children. They were young and they were old. They were Negroes as they were called at the time. They were dragged from public transportation and attacked wherever they were in East St. Louis that day. The reason given for this explosion of mob violence was racial tension over jobs that had built up over time. But the real reason could only have been a basic hatred and disregard for the people by the mob and the police officers and national guardsmen that looked on.

The nation had never reconciled the division it created in order to justify racial slavery. That single fact made the massacre possible. The Great Paradox is that the people who were killed were descendants of the people responsible for the birth, growth and survival of the United States of America. It is a paradox that remains today in that the racial injustices in our nation today are an extension of that same failure. We can do better and we should. We should do better and we can.

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