Drawn by employment opportunities in wartime industries, between 10,000 and 12,000 African American people left the south for East St. Louis, Illinois in 1916 and 1917 as part of the Great Migration. Many white citizens of East St. Louis, which had previously been largely white, were disturbed by this movement, and by the increase in employment of black people in the city’s industrial plants.
On July 1, 1917, a rumor spread claiming that a white man had been killed by a black man, and tensions boiled over. The next day, the city of East St. Louis exploded in the worst racial rioting the country had ever seen. Most of the violence — drive-by shootings, beatings, and arson — targeted the African American community. The riots raged for nearly a week, leaving nine whites and hundreds of African Americans dead, and property damage estimated at close to $400,000. More than six thousand black citizens, fearing for their lives, fled the city.
The carnage was all the more shocking because it occurred only shortly after American’s entry into World War I. According to historian Winston James, “You have black troops going off to fight to make the world safe for democracy in April and in July you have black people being murdered in the most wanton and barbaric manner in East St. Louis; children being thrown back into flaming houses, people being boarded up in their houses before they’re torched so that they couldn’t escape. So even by American standards, East St. Louis was a horror.”
At the end of a July 8 meeting in Harlem to discuss the violence, Marcus Garvey, recently returned from a year-long speaking tour of the country, asked to say a few words. The crowd stood breathless as Garvey thundered condemnation. “Millions of our people in slavery gave their lives that America might live,” he said. “From the labors of these people the country grew in power, until her wealth today is computed above that of any two nations. With all the service that the Negro gave he is still a despised creature in the eyes of white people, for if he were not to them despised, the whites of this country would never allow such outrages as the East St. Louis massacre. …This is a massacre that will go down in history as one of the bloodiest outrages against mankind for which any class of people could be held guilty.” Garvey’s speech, and a reprint entitled “The Conspiracy of the East St. Louis Riots,” would propel Garvey onto the national stage.
It was also a key moment in Garvey’s life. According to historian Robert Hill, “It is that speech that marks the turning point of Garvey away from Jamaica, away from a preoccupation with matters related to the West Indies and now he’s not looking for support for what he is hoping to accomplish in the West Indies, but, rather, he is now sucked into the vortex of American race relations.” Similar race riots occurred across the country during this period, due principally to racialized competition for housing and employment. In some cities, clashes were sparked by the sight of black troops in uniform. In September 1917, for instance, black soldiers clashed with white civilians in Houston, Texas, and in 1919, during a prolonged period of civil unrest now known as the “Red Summer,” 26 race riots occurred in cities across the United States.