A return to normalcy? Extremist violence and the 1920 election

Words: Ben Davies

The US election is looming over us like a toxic cloud. Many on the left are jaded about electoral politics after a series of grinding defeats: we’re faced with a choice between a race-baiting proto-fascist who allowed a virus to kill 200,000, and an inept establishment compromise candidate. The election itself is also under threat from the former, who hasn’t confirmed whether or not he’ll hand power over peacefully if he loses, and has started organising his own ‘election observers’ to oversee polling nationwide. It’s hard to be hopeful for the future. 

In Trump’s alternate reality, something must be done about the ‘radical left’: Homeland Security are desperately seeking to tie the amorphous ‘antifa’ movement to foreign powers. To outsiders, though, it’s clear that the real danger to American society comes from right-wing, white supremacist organisations or lone actors. Often tacitly supported by the police – like Kyle Rittenhouse this August – attacks from these sources are becoming more frequent. The establishment doesn’t see a problem. Instead, Trump urges his far-right ‘Proud Boys’ to ‘stand back and stand by’.

These conditions are not new. If we cast our attention back a century, we can see an alarming number of similarities to the present. The election of 1920 played out during a deep post-war depression that saw unemployment double, and followed on the heels of a global pandemic that left nearly 700,000 dead in the US. Republican Warren G. Harding won with a landslide, taking over 60% of the votes off the back of a promise to ‘return to normalcy’.

For Harding and his supporters, ‘normalcy’ (a nonsense word, Harding later admitted) evoked a nostalgic pre-war isolationist America, and an end to the upheaval that had followed conflict. It’s not difficult to draw comparisons between Biden and Harding, both establishment candidates offering little other than a promise to ‘return to normalcy’.

What also ties these two elections together is a backdrop of right-wing and white supremacist violence that has been ignored or enabled by the government. The 1920 election was bookended by two years of traumatic violence, predominantly carried out by white supremacists against Black people. Fear of Bolshevik-inspired uprisings during the first ‘Red Scare’ overlapped with anti-Black racism, and in 1919, in what came to be known as the ‘Red Summer’, over sixty race riots erupted across the country. Mainstream media outlets ramped up tensions and agitated against the perceived threat of communist aggression, but ignored acts of violent terrorism against Black or immigrant communities. 

In Elaine, Arkansas, Black sharecroppers had created an autonomous organisation, buying farms which drove up prices for white business owners. Tensions grew, and at one meeting violence broke out, prompting a local sheriff to organise a ‘posse’ – aided by federal troops and local KKK members – to ethnically cleanse the town. Hundreds were murdered. Later, the federal government arranged a cover-up, alleging that the black sharecroppers were planning an insurrection. 100 more Black people were arrested and 12 executed. Elaine was just one of many such incidents.

Hysteria about subversive political activity and ‘hyphenated Americans’ was exacerbated by the federal government, particularly by A. Mitchell Palmer, US Attorney General at the time. Working with a young J. Edgar Hoover, Palmer set up the first peace-time mass surveillance system, which saw files kept on over 200,000 suspected left-wing radicals, and organised thousands of raids and deportations (predominantly of Italian and Eastern European immigrants) over the winter of 1919, usually without a warrant. Designed primarily as political theatre, the events sent shockwaves through the country and led to the foundation of the American Civil Liberties Union and the disgrace of Palmer, who at the time harboured presidential ambitions.

Most of the ‘Red Scare’ was hysteria designed to turn the American public against socialism and the organised labour movement, with the small subsection of left-wing violence limited to a series of targeted assassinations and bombings. However, on 16th September 1920, 100 pounds of dynamite was ignited outside the headquarters of JP Morgan on Wall Street. The resulting blast was so intense that windows several blocks away were shattered, and curtains were incinerated 12 storeys up.

38 people were killed, mostly ordinary workers rather than wealthy bankers, and hundreds more were injured. Crews worked through the night to clean blood from the streets and sweep away gore and viscera to allow trading to resume the next day, urging ‘business as usual’. 

In the aftermath of the bombing, it wasn’t clear who had carried out the attack. A bundle of typo-riddled leaflets stuffed into a post office deposit box was found just prior to the explosion, reading: ‘Remember, we will not tolerate any longer. Free the political prisoners, or it will be sure death for all of you’, and signed ‘American Anarchist Fighters’. The subsequent investigation was unable to identify a bomber or secure a conviction, proving that the federal government was adept at carrying out mass arrests without charge, but woefully inept at solving actual crimes – and that it was much more interested in the spectre of left-wing terrorism as a useful tool than in preventing any loss of life. This callousness would lead to catastrophe the following year when a different Wall Street came under attack.

The ensuing investigation proved that the federal government was adept at carrying out mass arrests without charge, but woefully inept at solving actual crimes – and that it was much more interested in the spectre of left-wing terrorism as a useful tool than in preventing any loss of life.

In 1921, Tulsa in Oklahoma was home to a thriving Black community of well over 10,000 people, many of whom had moved there as part of the ‘Great Migration’ which presented a chance to escape some of the harsher racial realities of life in the Deep South. Segregated together in Greenwood (named for Greenwood, Mississippi, host to the brutal massacre of twenty Black people in 1886), Black-owned shops, hotels and theatres were thriving. So prosperous was the area that many took to calling Greenwood ‘Black Wall Street’

That changed on 30th May, when a Black man named Dick Rowland was accused of assaulting Sarah Page, a white woman. Rowland was arrested the next day, but that didn’t stop The Tulsa Tribune from calling for his lynching with inflammatory headlines like ‘Nab Negro for Attacking Girl in Elevator’. Two opposing mobs assembled outside the courthouse, and an unknown person opened fire.

The white mob of at least 2,000 began shooting Black Tulsans on sight. The violence continued through the night into 1st June, with white rioters rampaging through Black Wall Street, murdering Black people with impunity, looting and torching Black-owned businesses as they went. The mob did their utmost to prevent firefighters from putting out the blazes, leaving countless buildings in ash.

Tulsan police and national guardsmen took part in the slaughter, too, murdering their neighbours out of hatred for the successful community they had built. Even the founder of Tulsa, W. Tate Brady (a prominent Klansmen) took part in the massacre. In the very first instance of bombs being dropped on American soil, several privately-owned aircraft circled Greenwood and poured flammable turpentine and nitroglycerine from above, creating a horrific inferno. 

It’s impossible to know exactly how many were killed, but a conservative estimate would be 300, with at least 800 injured and thousands more left homeless. No one was convicted for actions during the massacre, and aside from a few newspaper reports and a condemnation by President Harding, the incident was very quickly covered up. A culture of silence descended. To this day, most Americans are unaware of the Tulsa massacre: Trump’s attempt to hold a rally in Tulsa on Juneteenth this year showed either blatant ignorance or provocation designed to please his white supremacist supporter base.

This year, Human Rights Watch released a report detailing the economic insecurity of Black Tulsans, recommending reparations for the massacre and citing more than $30m in property claims that were denied residents. In order to atone for the horrors of the past, it’s clear that on top of reparations, the memory of Black Wall Street can’t be allowed to fade. The Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission is currently preparing for next year’s centenary, raising awareness of the massacre and opening a historical centre right in the heart of Greenwood. In this, there’s hope that Tulsans can reclaim their town from its horrific past, and show an example to the rest of the world for how the traumas of history need not be repeated by future generations. 

This year’s election is unlikely to satisfy those looking for lasting change. A Biden victory might be preferable to a second Trump term, but it probably won’t mean decisive action against white supremacist violence, or decisive action on much else for that matter. Meaningful change will only come to pass if Biden is pressured to deliver social and economic justice instead of a ‘return to normalcy’ like Harding. The bloodshed surrounding the 1920 election was by no means isolated to that period, and white supremacist violence continues to rear its head in America. The festering relationship between white supremacist violence and the American government will endure unless there is concerted action to eradicate it at every level.

On top of this, ‘red scare’ tactics that would not be out of place in 1919 have been re-deployed by the Trump campaign this year to whip up his supporters against the Democrats. It is a tragedy that American political discourse in 2020 has failed to advance beyond ‘red scare’ hysteria, this time against the spectre of ‘Antifa’ or supposedly ‘radical leftist Democrats’ who want to ‘abolish the suburbs’. More often than not, this tactic results in death. Some Trump supporters view movements like Black Lives Matter as the opening salvo in a coming race war – and they’re preparing for armed struggle regardless of the election result. It’s ever more clear that the politics of fear have to be exorcised from American politics for there to be any kind of consensus that will unite people around a more progressive agenda than ‘being less awful than the other guy‘. Only then will America stand a chance of breaking free from a perpetual cycle of violence that disproportionately destroys the lives of its citizens.

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Ben Davies is a freelance writer based in London with an interest in radical politics, liberation movements and the environment. He studied History at QMUL and Oxford University. Follow him on Twitter.