The 1919 Chicago Race Riot

On Sunday we began a new sermon series, one I’ve been thinking about for a while.  I’ve called this collection of four sermons The Beloved Community, borrowing a phrase made popular by Dr. King.  Beginning on Sunday our church started looking at the beauty of God-intentioned diversity and how quickly it turns towards disparity and division.  In the coming weeks we’ll look at the spiritual realities behind prejudice and racism, the insidious nature of white privilege, and the many practical and seemingly inconsequential steps we can take towards the beloved community.

On Sunday I preached from Genesis and Revelation to show how humanity’s diversity is a reflection of God’s original intention and will remain within God’s restored creation.  Yet we live in a city where it is hard to see beyond disparity and division; Chicago was recently named the third most segregated city in the country.  Roots of racism run deep in this city, perhaps most strongly exemplified by the 1919 Chicago Race Riot which began less than a mile from where our church meets to worship.

The riots began in July after Eugene Williams, a young, African American man who was swimming near 29th Street Beach, was pelted with rocks by a white man and drowned.  Two weeks later – after 53 deaths, hundreds of injuries, and many African Americans made homeless by arson – Chicago’s worst racial violence to date came to an end.  In October Walter White, the assistant executive secretary for the NAACP, showed how the riots were a result of many factors, especially the circumstances under which many African Americans were forced to live in Chicago.

For a long period prior to the riots, organized gangs of white hoodlums had been perpetrating crimes against Negroes for which no arrests had been made. These gangs in many instances masqueraded under the name of “Athletic and Social Clubs” and later direct connection was shown between them and incendiary fires started during the riots. Colored men, women and children had been beaten in the parks, most of them in Jackson and Lincoln Parks. In one case a young colored girl was beaten and thrown into a lagoon. In other cases Negroes were beaten so severely that they had to be taken to hospitals. All of these cases had caused many colored people to wonder if they could expect any protection whatever from the authorities.

Being aware of these ugly sides of Chicago’s history is important for a multi-ethnic church like ours.  First, we must be aware of how pervasive and insidious segregation and division has been within our city.  Ongoing racial and class disparities are rooted in history and our mission and ministry as a church must take seriously the Chicago that was even as we pray and work for something different.  Second, as we become more aware of the scope of injustice in our city we are compelled to turn from our own adrenaline and ideas to the God whose presence has sustained Chicago despite ourselves.

It can seem counter-intuitive, but acknowledging how the sins of history continue to affect us is often a first step towards a more hopeful and just future.

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