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Never Been a Time: The 1917 Race Riot That Sparked the Civil Rights Movement Hardcover – June 24, 2008

4.6 out of 5 stars 16 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

With this account of the East St. Louis, Ill., race riot, the deadliest of a series of devastating racial battles that swept through American cities in the World War I era, Barnes (Blue Monday) chronicles one of the devastating assaults on African- American communities across the nation that culminated in the Red Summer of 1919. Barnes's account of the 1917 riot is a tale of labor unrest as blacks were used as strikebreakers, of the power of rumor, of corrupt local politics, of the ineffective (when not complicit) response of police power (local and military) and of sickening savagery. Barnes is attentive to the role of the press, citing both the national and black press, but he focuses most sharply upon two St. LouisPost-Dispatch figures, Paul Y. Anderson and Carlos Hurd. Between their dispatches and the military and congressional hearings in the aftermath of the riot, Barnes offers a nearly block-by-block, minute-by-minute account, solid in reportage, pedestrian in the telling, useful to students of American and African-American history and accessible to the general reader. (July)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From School Library Journal

Adult/High School—Barnes does a fabulous job of providing the broad cultural context of the violence that took place in East St. Louis, IL, in 1917, exploring both what led up to it and how it became a symbolic rallying cry for civil rights activists. The city was one of the main migration points for Southern blacks searching for jobs and equality during an era when labor unions were organizing and workers were striking for employee rights; many companies took advantage of African Americans willing to work for less money by using them to cross picket lines. Spurred by job loss and old racism, the white population blamed the black residents for their problems, both real and imagined. Violence erupted between the two groups, culminating in coordinated lynching that ended with the murder of at least 150 black residents. It becomes clear, however, that racism was not just a local issue, as evidenced by the strong anti-black coverage in leading newspapers, actions by leaders as high up as Woodrow Wilson, and other riots across the nation. Key features of the volume include photographs of the major political players of the time and a detailed bibliography. Based on key academic sources and original research, this is a work of strong scholarship. But just as important, Barnes's journalistic style brings this nearly forgotten tragedy of U.S. history to a wide audience in an accessible and meaningful way.—Matthew L. Moffett, Pohick Regional Library, Burke, VA
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Walker Books; First Edition edition (June 24, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0802715753
  • ISBN-13: 978-0802715753
  • Product Dimensions: 6.8 x 1.1 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.8 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (16 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,293,060 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
Despite growing up just 60 miles away in mostly white Southern Illinois, I had never heard of the 1917 race riot in East St. Louis until this past year when I read Dennis Lehane's historically detailed story of the 1919 Boston police strike, The Given Day: A Novel. White resentment and fear against thousands of recent black migrants from the Deep South exploded into a two-day riot as whites reacted to the shooting of two police officers by killing blacks and burning down a large part of the black area of the city. The police and National Guard were at best criminally negligent and inept and at worst, actively supported the rioters. The riots were ended only when a new officer took charge of the guard.

The riot took place in one of the most corrupt and wide open cities in America. Corrupt politicians ruled the streets in cahoots with corrupt businessmen and directed a corrupt police force. White-run corporations encouraged the migration of blacks specifically to East St. Louis with false promises of easy jobs at good wages. Instead, the black workers were used as strikeworkers to break several strikes. East St. Louis also had an undue number of low-life violent, thugs, drunks, and pimps who were among the leaders in the riot. At least 100 blacks (possibly many more) and nine whites died.

Harper Barnes, a veteran writer and editor at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, is not a professional historian and at times it shows. Barnes's personal knowledge and commitment to the area is a strength of the book. Barnes's demonstrates his devotion to his fellow journalists by giving several reporters deservedly key roles in telling the story.
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Format: Hardcover
This is a well-done, workmanlike monograph on the East St. Louis riots of 1919. If there weren't already a couple out there (American Pogrom: The East St. Louis Race Riot and Black Politics (Law Society & Politics in the Midwest) and Race Riot at East St. Louis, July 2, 1917 (Blacks in the New World)), I might have given this one higher marks, as the riot was a real turning point in American race relations. (I'm afraid I haven't read the others, so really can't compare this one to them.)

Though this a monograph, Barnes does an excellent job of putting this event in context. In fact, he really doesn't talk about East St. Louis in any detail until about 50 pages in. For someone like me, who's read a ton of this stuff, this made it pretty slow going at first, but it should be very helpful for readers with more of a local interest.

I'm not sure I'd recommend it to readers who are new to the whole subject however. What was lacking, for me, is the emotion that's typically involved in anything that touches on subjects like this. The incidents he relates are truly horrible, but I always felt I was seeing it all at one remove. I found that impossible to do in other books like The Day Freedom Died: The Colfax Massacre, the Supreme Court, and the Betrayal of Reconstruction,
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Format: Hardcover
American history is chock full of "incidents", swept under the rug of polite society as it puts the tragedy behind and moves on. The result is a convenient amnesia and an unwillingness to acknowledge suppressed tensions and passions until they erupt yet again, leaving victims and bystanders to wonder once more how it could have happened here. The truth is that Americans have a long history of doing things that Americans "don't do." The 1917 pogrom in East St. Louis was one of many.

Although the riot seemed unprecedented, the racial violence of Reconstruction was still within living memory. More recently, the ethnic cleansing of blacks (commonly termed "bulldozing") out of whole communities and counties - especially where most vulnerable, in the upper South and lower Midwest - had been a recurring phenomenon since the 1890s. What made it especially galling was such "southern" behavior in the Land of Lincoln; yet even this is no real contradiction, when one recalls that Lincoln was a Kentucky migrant and southern Illinois a hotbed of pro-Confederate opinion.

Layered onto this heritage was the labor crisis of early 20th century America. The status of blacks as perennial outcasts made them a perfect corps of strikebreakers - a "scab race", as Barnes notes - gulled by promises of high wages in wartime industry, abetted by black leaders in collusion with white businessmen. The result was not only race war in American cities of the period, of which East St. Louis was the first and worst. US labor was ruptured, with the union movement conveniently discredited as a breeding ground of crime and violence: a nest of grafters, bomb-throwers and killers of black babies whom all respectable folk should shun.
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