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American Pogrom: The East St. Louis Race Riot and Black Politics (review)

From: Ohio History
Volume 117, 2010
pp. 141-143 | 10.1353/ohh.2010.0009

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Reviewed by
American Pogrom: The East St. Louis Race Riot and Black Politics. By Charles L. Lumpkins. (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2008. xiv, 312 pp. Cloth $55.00, ISBN 978-0-8214-1802-4, Paper $24.95, ISBN 978-0-8214-1803-1.)

Just before July 4, 1917, the white residents of East St. Louis, Illinois, unleashed a torrent of violence against African Americans. Over two days, the mob terrorized black men, women, and children, sadistically torturing and killing at least thirty-nine, injuring hundreds, and driving thousands more to seek refuge outside the city. Charles L. Lumpkins retells the story of the [End Page 141] first instance of mass racial violence of the World War I era, placing it in the context of black East St. Louisians' decades-long political struggle to secure freedom and equality. The analysis he presents in American Pogrom provides a significant reorientation of the literature on the racial attacks that all too often afflicted midwestern cities.

Lumpkins rejects the argument that social strain, created by competition over industrial jobs, motivated the white attackers in East St. Louis. Although he concurs with contemporaries and other historians that the Great Migration of African Americans to northern cities influenced the outbreak, he focuses not on employment, but on political power. (See especially Elliott M. Rudwick, Race Riot at East St. Louis, July 2, 1917 [Carbondale: Southern Illinois Univ. Press, 1963] and Malcolm McLaughlin, Power, Community, and Racial Killing in East St. Louis [New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005].) American Pogrom argues that black political organizations threatened local white leaders at a moment of political realignment. Lumpkins maintains that politicians representing real estate interests played an important role. Hostile to the prospect of racial equality, "White machine politicians, through their proxies, unleashed murderous antiblack violence to terrorize African Americans into leaving the city en masse" (7). The violence of July 1917 thus becomes a pogrom, "an assault, condoned by officials, to destroy a community defined by ethnicity [or] race" (xi).

In part, Lumpkins builds his case through a careful reconstruction of East St. Louis politics from the nineteenth century to the end of the Second World War. He relies heavily on the East St. Louis Daily Journal to chronicle African Americans' ongoing attempts to participate in municipal government and to substantiate his claim that in 1917 many whites feared African Americans held the balance of power and wanted a return to the prewar status quo.

Lumpkins minimizes the role of industrial strife. He acknowledges that organized labor inflamed working-class racism during World War I, but that was nothing new. Few of the leaders of the 1917 mobs were industrial workers. Instead, Lumpkins ties the instigators to local political bosses and the city's notorious underworld. Most of the connections are only indirect. Some of the perpetrators organized attacks from a hotel owned by a prominent player in local real estate, and city police protected the white assailants. Yet Lumpkins's painstaking research of manuscript sources, congressional and Illinois state investigations, and personal interviews certainly allows him to recast the spate of murderous hostility as a "profoundly political event" (110).

American Pogrom deserves a wide audience among historians, although some readers may find themselves overwhelmed by the machinations of East St. Louis politics. Focusing on these details also leaves Lumpkins little time to pursue the tantalizing suggestion in his title. If these midwestern attacks constituted [End Page 142] a pogrom, how do they compare to racial violence outside the United States? Lumpkins's insights should intrigue and inspire other scholars.

Alison Clark Efford
Marquette University