a1 Eastern Illinois University
The 1919 Chicago race riot sparked a contentious debate among African Americans over the future of antiracist politics. Previous scholars have argued that the actions of “New Negroes” who took up arms in the riot represent a rejection of the politics of respectability dominant among black elites in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century. This article argues that African American actions in the riot are more complex than previously understood. African Americans participated in the riot in a myriad of ways, and events were fluid and unpredictable. Violent acts spanned a continuum from spontaneous responses to more organized interventions. Moreover, African Americans not only committed aggressive violence, but also fought among themselves about the boundaries of legitimate violence. Based on their divergent interpretations of the events of the riot, black leaders found ample support for different and even contradictory political programs. Black radicals argued that armed defense exposed the irrelevance of established black leaders. Chicago's black elite, however, used riot narratives to create a new vision of respectable politics, in which the willingness to use force both defined and demonstrated manhood and equal citizenship.
Jonathan S. Coit is an assistant professor of history at Eastern Illinois University. This article is drawn from his book project on African Americans and the legal aftermath of the 1919 Chicago riot.
1 Thanks are due, and gladly given, to Paul Young, Gregory Mixon, Charles Lumpkins, David Krugler, Delia Melis, and the anonymous readers for the Journal for their perceptive readings and helpful critiques of this article and to John Rasel, Amanda Paszek, and Ian Nelk for their work as graduate assistants. I am deeply grateful to Sace Elder, Kathryn Oberdeck, James Barrett, Vernon Burton, Mark Hubbard, Martin Hardeman, Debra Reid, Matthew Nicely, Joshua Birk, and Minkah Makalani for the feedback, encouragement, and motivation necessary to see this into print.