The terminology used to describe an historical event can reflect deep cultural bias. For example, one side of a struggle might refer to freedom fighters; to their opponents, those same people become rebels and insurgents. In writing histories, it has been the victors who decide. Only look to the “American Revolution” to sort out the patriots from the traitors to the Crown. In British parlance, some still mockingly refer to the United States as “the colonies.”
In researching US African American history immediately following World War I, a similar pattern appears. The work of journalist Cameron McWhirter, Red Summer: The Summer of 1919 and the Awakening of Black America (Henry Holt & Co., 2011) covers disturbances such as those in Chicago where Whites battled Blacks for three days, and in Tulsa, Oklahoma when the Black business district was burned to the ground. In discussing the book, one person remarked that in her lifetime spanning sixty years, she had always thought of “riots” as outbursts from Black people. The violence of 1919 erupted when angry Whites, resentful of returning African-American troops, reacted violently to perceived threats to the status quo. In this woman’s mind, rioting referred to the violence of the early to mid-sixties in Harlem, Newark, Gary, Watts in California, and the violence following the assassination of Rev. King in 1968.
Until reading McWhirter, she had never realized that White people in the US certainly have their own history of rioting. McWhirter came as a sobering shock to her. To African-Americans at the same discussion, how could she not know the history of civil unrest among Whites? The answer lies in the language used when two cultures react to the same event. One person’s rebellion becomes another person’s riot.
In fact, that was what 1919 was all about – White riots. They were based upon the fear and resistance of Whites to returning African American soldiers who had fought and lived in Europe. Speaking at Tuskegee Institute, Emmet J. Scott, the highest ranking Black in the Wilson administration and the assistant to War Secretary Newton Baker, said that the Black soldier, “will be anxious to renew and strengthen the friendly relations he left behind, confident that a spirit of justice abides in the land to which he is returning.” (January 29, 1919) However, the question was how Black soldiers returning from the fight for European democracy would react to a system of Jim Crow, segregation, and discrimination back home. Armed with new experiences, would they rebel? Would they challenge the status quo? According to historian John Hope Franklin 1919 was, “the greatest period of interracial strife the nation has ever witnessed.” (Slavery to Freedom, A History of Negro America, Knopf, NY, 1967.) The result was an eruption of riots and lynchings in greater numbers than at any time in US history.
In The Crisis, published by the NAACP, W. E. B. Dubois had campaigned for including Black soldiers in the war. When Black troops returned, anticipating their sentiments, he wrote an essay titled, “Returning Soldiers” in May, 1919:
For America and her highest ideals, we fought in far-off hope; for the dominant southern oligarchy entrenched in Washington, we fought in bitter resignation, For the America that represents and gloats in lynching, disenfranchisement, caste, brutality and devilish insult – for this, in the hateful upturning and mixing of things, we were forced by vindictive fate to fight, also.
But today we return! We return from the slavery of uniform which the World’s madness demanded us to don to the freedom of civil garb. We Stand again to look America squarely in the face and call a spade a spade. We sing: This country of ours, despite all its better souls have done and reamed, is yet a shameful land.
We return. We return from fighting. We return fighting.
Make way for Democracy! We saved it [in] France, and by the Great Jehovah, we will save it in the United States of America, or know the reason why.
Possibly until the mid-20th Century, African Americans were not considered citizens. Maybe only citizens riot; all outbreaks by persons viewed by the majority as non-citizens, unequal, enslaved, oppressed, or non-conforming are rebels and insurrectionists. A comparison of definitions may be a place to start:
• Riot: a violent, wild, or turbulent disturbance of the peace by a crowd
• Rebellion: an act of violent or open resistance to or defiance of an established government, ruler, authority, control or tradition
• Insurrection: a violent uprising against civil authority or a constituted government.
While noting that Bacon’s Rebellion of colonial Virginia also involved Blacks, history lists Shay’s Rebellion in Western Massachusetts and the Dorr Rebellion of Providence, RI as the only three events of civil unrest fomented by Whites that were labeled “rebellions.” However, when African slaves in New York resisted bondage in April 1712, that was described in history as an insurrection. Some may argue that these are subtle differences, but incidents of civil unrest listed in the United States from the 17th to the 20th century follow a noticeable pattern. Any civil disturbances initiated by Blacks are listed as rebellions, revolts, or insurrections. Until the 20th Century, only White people rioted. Native Americans were said to have massacred, raided and warred. It would seem that in order to correctly label the course of civil unrest in the United States, the historian needs to keep a dictionary at hand and cultural differences in mind.