One hundred years ago, on July 27, 1919, a 17-year-old Black boy named Eugene Williams went to the 27th Street Beach in Chicago on a hot summer day to cool off with his friends. They were playing, laughing, and joking on a raft floating in the lake when they unintentionally crossed the line into the 29th Street Beach, unofficially designated for whites only. Young white men started throwing rocks at Eugene and his friends, and one man named George Stauber struck Eugene on his head. Eugene lost his grip on his raft, slid into the water, and drowned. What started as a day of summer fun ended in death. Tragically, there was more to come.
Some Black citizens had been trying to integrate the “white beach” that day and had been chased away several times by the white beachgoers. Once Eugene was killed, the Black citizens who were at the 29th Street Beach rightly expected that the police would arrest the young white man who had thrown the rock. When they did not, unrest in the crowd grew until one Black man shot a gun into a crowd of police officers who fired back and killed him. The white crowd became agitated and began to grow larger as others came to see what was happening. Some of the whites formed a mob, arming themselves and marching down 35th Street, through the middle of the city’s Black neighborhoods. They attacked people on the street and terrorized the Black community, and over the next week this violence continued and worsened to include arson. Some Black citizens, especially military veterans who had just returned from World War I, armed themselves and responded, demonstrating a growing Black conviction to fight back against white supremacy, with violence if necessary. In total, 38 people (23 Black and 15 white) died, 537 people were injured, and more than 1000 Black families lost their homes in just over a week, part of a string of racially motivated violence across the country in the summer of 1919, which became known as the Red Summer.
Today, we may look back at those events of a century ago and express relief at how far we have come. And I do believe we have made some progress. There is no longer violently enforced segregation at Chicago beaches or in other public spaces. Through the massive undertaking of the civil rights movement, Black citizens gained some voting and housing rights. But we can also easily go too far in praising the progress we have made. People (mostly white) have extolled our supposedly “post-racial” society. In fact, de facto segregation does exist to varying degrees in Chicago’s public spaces… you only have to go to 63rd Street Beach (largely used by Black people) and then to North Avenue Beach (mostly white) to see that. Voting rights for people of color are being curtailed through “color-blind” voter ID laws and the penalties of mass incarceration. Black citizens regularly feel the impact of police killings of young Black men, most notably Laquan McDonald in recent years. We have made progress, but we are far from where we need to be.
After the violence of the 1919 riots had abated, the Chicago Commission on Race Relations produced a report on the conditions that led to the riots, called The Negro in Chicago: A study of race relations and a race riot. In this report, the Commission wrote, “There is evidence that the riot aroused many citizens of both races to a quickened sense of the suffering and disgrace which had come and might again come to the city, and developed a determination to prevent a recurrence of so disastrous an outbreak of race hatred.” Just as we did back then, today we see race hatred when it is perpetrated all at once in a concentrated fashion, as it was in the white supremacist march in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2018. But we struggle to see race hatred when it is diluted, spread over our city and country and over the course of time. We see race hatred in a riot, but not in the conditions we have perpetrated on our Black and Brown citizens over many years, and continue to do so today. We struggle to see it in our immigration system and treatment of Native peoples. We struggle to see it in the conditions that have led to huge income gaps and even larger wealth gaps between white and Black people.
And so we must take up the fight for racial justice on behalf of the victims of sudden and clear racial violence, people such as Eugene Williams and Laquan McDonald. But we also must take up this fight on behalf of all our siblings of color who are denied access to good schools, quality health care, and well-funded communities. We must take up this fight for the people who are caged at the border for the “crime” of seeking a better life for their families. We must take up this fight for those who can not, and alongside those who can.
We must hold the police accountable when they commit crimes. We must overfund the schools we have traditionally underfunded. We must provide universal health care, as they do in almost every developed country. We must treat people who immigrate here humanely, including allowing asylum for people fleeing their home countries. We must provide a universal basic income. We must invest in Black and Brown communities to support people of color in accumulating wealth. These are all policies that will help address the systemic racism that lies at the root of the basic unfairness in our society. As a white person, I can advocate these policies by calling and visiting my elected representatives, attending demonstrations, supporting advocates of color through my words and donations, and speaking out to my own friends and family. Through all of these actions, I can express my “quickened sense of the suffering and disgrace” at the diffuse yet still pervasive racism that colors the lives of people of color in this country. In these small but significant ways, I can stand for Eugene, Laquan, and all the others who need me to do so.
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