Red Summer


Red Summer

The Summer of 1919
and the Awakening of Black America

A narrative history of America’s deadliest episode of race riots and lynchings

After World War One, black Americans fervently hoped for a new epoch of peace, prosperity, and equality. Black soldiers believed their participation in the fight to make the world safe for democracy finally earned them rights they had been promised since the close of the Civil War.
Instead, an unprecedented wave of antiblack riots and lynchings swept the country. From April to November of 1919, the racial unrest rolled across the South into the North and the Midwest, even to the nation’s capital. Millions of lives were disrupted, and hundreds of lives were lost. Blacks responded by fighting back with an intensity and determination never seen before.
Red Summer is the first narrative history written about this epic encounter. Focusing on the worst riots and lynchings—including those in Chicago, Washington, D.C., Charleston, Omaha and Knoxville—Cameron McWhirter chronicles the mayhem, while also exploring the first stirrings of a civil rights movement that would transform American society forty years later.

Map of the Major Red Summer Riots and Lynchings

Praise for Red Summer

From a review by Wendy Smith, Los Angeles Times:
“McWhirter makes clear in his carefully researched, briskly narrated account of this difficult period in our national history, African Americans were increasingly disinclined to take advice from even well-meaning whites. The NAACP, founded in 1909 by a primarily white group of Northern liberals, was transformed by the events of 1919 into America’s premier civil rights organization, led by African Americans from the South.”

From a review by Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post:
“That it is one of the most shameful periods in our history is beyond question. Yet McWhirter is right to insist that during this same time, forgotten though it may be, ‘Black America awakened politically, socially, and artistically [as] never before.’ The first stirrings of what became the Harlem Renaissance were felt, and seeds were planted that bore fruit in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s. As McWhirter says, if you explore the whole story of those troubled months, you are left not thinking of America’s bald and cruel failings, but of its astounding and elastic resilience. ‘The Red Summer’ is a story of destruction, but it is also a story of the beginning of a freedom movement.”

From a review by Ken Armstrong, The Seattle Times:
“In ‘Red Summer,’ Wall Street Journal reporter Cameron McWhirter skillfully reconstructs this bloody and unsettling period, a pivotal stretch from April to October that produced ripple effects extending to our time….McWhirter’s insistence on attaching names — to the dead and, when possible, to those responsible for the violence — provides the book with a cumulative power and a sense of historical accountability.”

From a review by Joseph Williams, The Minneapolis Star Tribune:
“In unflinching, just-the-facts style bolstered with copious footnotes, McWhirter describes how the entrenched white power structure — small-town police, elected officials, businessmen and even newspapers — were bent on preserving the social order in uncertain economic times. But African-Americans, some of whom had fought with valor in World War I, were chafing under Jim Crow rule and discrimination in the open marketplace.”

From Booklist:
Starred review by Vanessa Bush. “From April to November 1919, a cataclysm of racial tension gripped America as black GIs returning from WWI bridled against increasing efforts to hold them in second-class status. Hundreds died, and millions of lives were disrupted as race riots broke out across the nation. McWhirter chronicles the lynchings and riots, the building tensions on both sides of the racial divide, in cities from Charleston, South Carolina, to Chicago and from Knoxville, Tennessee, to Washington, D.C., as the country came to grips with its troubled racial past and present….McWhirter recounts the roles of the NAACP in galvanizing racial justice campaigns and the black press in spreading the word about racial atrocities and efforts to resist. A riveting account of the summer that transformed American race relations.”

From Kirkus Reviews:
“Masterly examination of the widespread outbreak of racially motivated mob violence in the summer of 1919. In his debut, Wall Street Journal staff reporter McWhirter describes in gripping detail a wave of incidents of mob violence that erupted across America in the summer following the end of World War I. … Throughout the book, the author writes with professional detachment, permitting his subjects’ words and deeds to speak eloquently for themselves, amplified by liberal quotation from the vibrant black press of the period. An unsettling reminder of the cruelty and hatred that can lie beneath the surface of a nation formally committed to equal justice for all, but also a monument to the suffering and perseverance of a people at last determined to demand rights promised but too long denied.”

From Publishers Weekly:
“The author brings a journalist’s diligent digging and skillful storytelling to this historical account; behind the names of towns, he takes the reader into the lives of victims who suffered, perpetrators who destroyed, enablers who dawdled, and politicians who profited, as well as those who fought back. … McWhirter’s valuable study, in chronologically examining the outbreaks of violence, may well qualify as ‘the first narrative history of America’s deadliest episode of race riots and lynchings.’ ”

From Library Journal:
“McWhirter’s narrative style will engage general readers unfamiliar with events during America’s early 20th-century civil rights struggle. Professional historians will appreciate the extensive, well-sourced newspaper and archival research.”

From a review in the Chicago Sun-Times:
“McWhirter makes a persuasive case that the summer of 1919 served as a turning point unlike any before or since….The book is fresh in its examination for three reasons: the depth of McWhirter’s research on one year; the theme that African Americans began to shake off their shackles in that year because of their proud but largely unacknowledged service to their country during World War I; and the lucid explanation about why the saga of American race relations makes sense to tell using 1919 as the centerpiece.”

From Milt Rosenberg, host of “Extension 720,” WGN, Chicago:
Red Summer “is very important, extremely interesting and very well wrought.”

From David Levering Lewis, author of King: A Biography and W.E.B. Du Bois: Biography of a Race, 1868-1919:
“The old boast is that everything is bigger and better in America. Cameron McWhirter’s comprehensive history of the terrible Red Summer of 1919 reminds us that, because our failures at democracy are also very big, we have to be even better at understanding why.”

Selected talks and interviews about Red Summer


March 26, 2015: My talk at the GeorgiaTech TEDx Conference. Watch here.

Aug. 3, 2011: Book TV broadcast of my talk at the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library. Watch here.

July 18, 2011: Diane Rehm Show. NPR and WAMU. Click listen in top left corner.

July 19, 2011: Enoch Pratt Free Library, Baltimore. Listen here.