The deadliest riots in American history

That’s the subject of my weekend column over at RealClearHistory. The riots are all, by far, due to racism and nativism, but for some strange reason labor’s riots in the late 19th century get the lion’s share of the spotlight in history textbooks.

An excerpt:

6. Memphis, May 1-3, 1866. Another post-Civil War riot, the Memphis unrest was more violent and more organized than the brawl in New Orleans. Like N’awlins, Memphis was a Southern city long under Union occupation, but unlike the port city, Memphis had a large immigrant population of Irishmen who were in direct economic, political, and social competition with recently freed blacks. The Irish had such a large population in Memphis that they were able to take control of many levers of local government once Union troops banned native whites from holding office (for being Confederates), and the new group on the block was none too kind to the recently freed black population. Forty-eight people lost their lives, but the burning of homes (often with black families still inside of them) and churches, the raping of black women, and the fact that no prosecutions were carried out meant that Memphis would remain a hotbed of white supremacy for another century. (The riot enraged much of the Union, however, and led to a sweeping victory for Republicans later that year. The GOP quickly passed the First Reconstruction Act in 1867.)

Please, read the whole thing.

I’ve never been to Memphis, but it’s a city with good hip-hop music and good BBQ. Someday I’ll get up there for a long weekend or something.

2 thoughts on “The deadliest riots in American history

  1. We were to spend a day exploring Memphis back in December, but our plane couldn’t land due to storms, so we ended up in Jackson, MS. Maybe some other time!

    I wrote about the Detroit riot that was featured in the 2017 documentary on my blog after seeing the film this past March. What struck me most was that it really was a great deal of self-inflicted pain in the black community.

    • Thanks Eilene,

      The big paradox of today’s riots, which are hardly violent at all relative to the past, is the self-inflected pain. In the old days, riots were more deadly but there was also less self-inflicted pain. If there was a riot against a targeted group, that target would definitely feel some financial pain (to go along with the physical pain).

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