If we must die is a poem by Claude McKay, written in 1919, in response to the Red Summer.
If we must die, let it not be like hogs Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot, While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs, Making their mock at our accursèd lot.
If we must die, O let us nobly die, So that our precious blood may not be shed In vain; then even the monsters we defy Shall be constrained to honor us though dead!
O, kinsmen! we must meet the common foe! Though far outnumbered let us show us brave, And for their thousand blows deal one death-blow! What though before us lies the open grave?
Like men, we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack, Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!
Start of Harlem Renaissance
As this article noted, “In the summer of 1919, race riots spread throughout the United States, spurred by the end of World War I. Returning soldiers of all races were looking for employment and tension rose as the number of applicants far exceeded the number of jobs available. The press mixed these racial issues with the concurrent First Red Scare, and soon the conditions were ripe for violence.
“At the time the riots occurred, poet Claude McKay was working as a waiter on a Pennsylvania Railroad dining car. Through his travels on the railroad, he was able to see the violence spread from city to city, constantly aware that he and his fellow black railroad men might be the white mob’s next targets. As McKay himself has written: ‘But its [WWI] end was a signal for the outbreak of little wars between labor and capital and, like a plague breaking out in sore places, between colored folk and white… It was during those days that the sonnet If We Must Die exploded out of me.”
Putting this in a broader context: “The Hundreds of writers and artists lived in Harlem in the 1920s and 1930s and were part of a vibrant, creative community that found its voice in what came to be called the ‘Harlem Renaissance.’ Alain Locke’s 1925 collection The New Negro — a compilation of literature by and essays about ‘New Negro’ artists and black culture — became a ‘manifesto’ of the movement… The work of these artists drew upon the African-American experience and expressed a new pride in black racial identity and heritage.”
With all the talk about Juneteenth 1865, it’s important to note how awful the NEXT century was for black Americans. I would posit that the century (1865-1965) was arguably worse.
My view is certainly affected by white compatriots in the 1970s and later. They would say, often genuinely, “Why are black people doing so poorly? Slavery ended over a century ago!” As though there was a light switch from enslavement to freedom. As though it were suddenly a level playing field. Here are some of the factors. Of course, they naturally overlap.
The 13th Amendment, ratified in December 1865. “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction. This provision is why one should watch Thirteenth.
Black codes: their primary purpose was to restrict blacks’ labor and activity, including “strict vagrancy and labor contract laws… Blacks who broke labor contracts were subject to arrest, beating, and forced labor… Passed by a political system in which blacks effectively had no voice, [they] were enforced by all-white police and state militia forces—often made up of Confederate veterans of the Civil War—across the South.” The federal government turned a blind eye.
You can never get out from under
Peonage, also called debt slavery or debt servitude: a system where an employer compels a worker to pay off a debt with work. Those hundreds of White men, were hired by several southern states as police officers.
“Their primary responsibility was to search out and arrest Blacks who were in violation of Black Codes. Once arrested, these men, women, and children would be leased to plantations where they would harvest cotton, tobacco, sugar cane. Or they would be leased to work at coal mines or railroad companies. The owners of these businesses would pay the state for every prisoner who worked for them; prison labor.” In other words, it was…
Slavery by Another Name: Douglas A. Blackmon’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, made into a documentary. “Tens of thousands of African Americans were arbitrarily arrested, hit with outrageous fines, and charged for the costs of their own arrests. With no means to pay these ostensible ‘debts,’ prisoners were sold as forced laborers…" [Compare this with the current discussion on bail reform.] Thousands of other African Americans were simply seized by southern landowners and compelled into years of involuntary servitude.”
A couple of examples: “In Louisiana, it was illegal for a Black man to preach to Black congregations without special permission in writing from the president of the police. If caught, he could be arrested and fined. If he could not pay the fines, which were unbelievably high, he would be forced to work for an individual or go to jail or prison where he would work until his debt was paid off.
“In South Carolina, if the parent of a Black child was considered vagrant, the judicial system allowed the police and/or other government agencies to ‘apprentice’ the child to an ’employer’. Males could be held until the age of 21, and females could be held until they were 18. Their owner had the legal right to inflict punishment on the child for disobedience and to recapture them if they ran away."
“It is believed that after the passing of the 13th Amendment, more than 800,000 Blacks were part of the system of peonage, or re-enslavement through the prison system. Peonage didn’t end until after World War II.” And unlike a slave, who was considered property, the prisoner, if they died, could just be replaced by another prisoner to work in the factory.
The end of Reconstruction: the federal response to Reconstruction, often spotty, ended with the compromise that made Rutherford B. Hayes President.
The Ku Klux Klan: a terrorist organization of vigilantes designed “to intimidate Southern blacks – and any whites who would help them.”
Jim Crow Laws – a collection of state and local statutes that legalized racial segregation. They were meant to marginalize African Americans by denying them the right to vote, hold jobs, get an education, or other opportunities. Those who attempted to defy Jim Crow laws often faced arrest, fines, jail sentences, violence, and death.” It was codified by the Supreme Court decision in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896). This was the period when those hated Confederate statues were being built in large numbers.
In the small town of Elaine, Arkansas, racial tensions turned brutally violent after African-American sharecroppers tried to unionize. A staggering 237 people were estimated to be hunted down and killed in what is now known as the Elaine Massacre. The bloodbath made its way all the way up to the United States Supreme Court.
Birth of a Nation: “D. W. Griffith’s disgustingly racist yet titanically original 1915 feature film.” It and the presence of returning black WWI vets inspired both The Red Summer and a resurgence of the KKK.
Federal wealth theft
Redlining: In 1933, “faced with a housing shortage, the federal government began a program explicitly designed to increase — and segregate — America’s housing stock.” Richard Rothstein’s book, “The Color of Law, examines the local, state, and federal housing policies that mandated segregation. He notes that the Federal Housing Administration, which was established in 1934, furthered the segregation efforts by refusing to insure mortgages in and near African-American neighborhoods.”
The G.I. Bill. It “provided financial support in the form of cash stipends for schooling, low-interest mortgages, job skills training, low-interest loans, and unemployment benefits. But many African Americans who served in World War II never saw these benefits.” And not just in the South. This lost potential for creating wealth had generational implications.
This is a very cursory view of 1865-1965. I left off the last 15 years, the “classic” Civil Rights era of Emmett Till, Medgar Evers, et al. In any case, it should be clear that the century after the Civil War, black people were hardly “free.”