The First Red Scare & Red Summer

The First Red Scare was a period just after World War 1 in America marked by a widespread fear of far-left extremism, including Bolshevism and anarchism, due to real and imagined events. At its height in 1919–1920, concerns over the effects of radicals in America and the alleged spread of communism and anarchism in the American labor movement fueled a period of tension and fear.

The Scare had its origins in the hyper-nationalism of World War I as well as the Russian Revolution. In 1917, Vladimir Lenin led the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. Communist had existed since the writings of Karl Marx 70 years prior. However, Russia's was the world's first successful communist revolution. Bolsheviks murdered Russia's czar and his entire family and completely reorganized Russia into the new Soviet Union. 

American authorities saw the threat of communist revolution in the actions of organized labor, including such disparate cases as the Seattle General Strike and the Boston Police Strike. In 1919, at least 36 booby trap dynamite-filled bombs were mailed to prominent politicians and appointees, including Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, justice officials, and businessmen like John D. Rockefeller. They were the work of a group of Italian-American anarchists upset about recent immigration restrictions. 

Fueled by labor unrest and the anarchist bombings and then spurred on by Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer's attempt to suppress radical and non-radical labor organizations, the response to the bombings was characterized by exaggerated rhetoric, illegal search and seizures, unwarranted arrests and detentions and the deportation of several hundred suspected radicals and anarchists. 

Palmer, twice targeted by anarchist bombs, organized a nationwide series of police actions known as the Palmer Raids in November 1919 and January 1920. Under suspicion of violating the Espionage Act, the Sedition Act and/or the Immigration Act of 1918, approximately 10,000 people were arrested, of whom 3,500 were held in detention. Of those held in detention, 556 resident aliens were eventually deported.

Racial Violence and the Red Summer

Around the same time, white supremacist terrorism and racial riots took place in more than 30 cities across the United States, as well as in one rural county in Arkansas. The term "Red Summer" was coined by civil rights activist and author James Weldon Johnson, who had been employed as a field secretary by NAACP. In most instances, attacks consisted of White-on-Black violence. However, numerous African Americans also fought back, notably in the Chicago and Washington, D.C. race riots, which resulted in 38 and 15 deaths, respectively, along with even more injuries, and extensive property damage in Chicago. Still, the highest number of fatalities occurred in the rural area around Elaine, Arkansas, where an estimated 100–240 Black people and five White people were killed—an event now known as the Elaine massacre.

The anti-Black riots developed from a variety of post-World War I social tensions, generally related to the Black and White soldiers returning from World War I; an economic slump; and increased competition in the job and housing markets between ethnic European Americans and African Americans. The time would also be marked by labor unrest, for which certain industrialists used Black people as strikebreakers, further garnering the resentment of White workers.

Sacco and Vanzetti

In 1921, two employees of a shoe warehouse in Braintree, Massachusetts, were murdered during a robbery. The police investigating the crime arrested two well-known Italian immigrant anarchists: Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. Sacco and Vanzetti maintained their innocence, but they were found guilty and sentenced to death. Many people protested the verdict, saying the two men were convicted more on political and ethnic prejudice than on the evidence.

A series of appeals followed, based on recanted testimony, conflicting evidence, and a confession by an alleged participant in the robbery. All appeals were denied by the trial judge and the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. Protests on behalf of Sacco and Vanzetti were held in every major city in North America over the next few years as the men sat in jail. All were unsuccessful, however, in getting the men a new trial. In 1927, the men were executed in the electric chair. 

FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover told the nation to prepare for a bloody uprising one May Day and police and militias prepared for the worst, but May Day passed without incident. Soon, public opinion and the courts turned against Palmer, putting an end to his raids and the First Red Scare.

Back
Home
Next