In 1919, as soldiers returned from the first world war, many white Americans saw African American men in military uniforms for the first time. That sight, and the challenge it posed to the political, social and economic order, was deeply threatening to them. Groups of armed white men hunted down and slaughtered hundreds of black Americans across the country. The wave of lynchings and race riots came to be known as the Red Summer.
The black community did its best to fight back, without protection from the state. In some cases, police actively participated in the lynchings. The US attorney general, A. Mitchell Palmer, claimed that leftwing radicals were behind the uprisings – a false charge and one that further endangered African American lives. Palmer worked for President Woodrow Wilson, an ardent segregationist who screened Birth of a Nation in the White House and praised the Ku Klux Klan even as it deployed terrorism to keep blacks away from the voting booth. Wilson had been silent while whites slaughtered African Americans in East St Louis in 1917, and he did little to nothing in 1919 when they again attacked and killed black people, this time on an even more horrific and grisly scale.