Let me tell you a story.
My hometown is Belleville, Illinois. The western edge of the town is just about ten miles from East St. Louis, Illinois. East St. Louis has long had the distinction of being the crime capital of the Midwest. At several points during the last four decades, it has had per capita murder rates higher than New York City. But it wasn’t always that way.
A century ago, East St. Louis was a fine, upstanding city with neat homes, excellent businesses and a thriving economy. It had the largest horse, mule, hog and cattle markets in the nation, the second-largest meat-packing center and the second largest railroad shipping yard. It also boasted the largest aluminum ore processor in the world. Even better, the soil of Southern Illinois sat atop some of the richest coal reserves in the country: the whole east side of the river was criss-crossed with mines. Legend has it that at the height of operations, a man could drive a mule underground thirty miles from east of the bluffs all the way west to the river without ever once coming out to see the sunshine.
Trouble in Paradise
But there was trouble in paradise. By the early 1900’s, the men working at these various operations had begun to unionize. Plant owners did not want to deal with their demands, so they came up with a solution: they began encouraging poor black sharecroppers from the South to migrate north across the Mason-Dixon line to work in East. St. Louis factories.
Does any of this sound familiar? Read on.
As factory owners later admitted, this not only got them cheap laborers who were more willing to do dirty jobs than the white men in town were, it also guaranteed that unions would not form, since white men would not mix with black men. Thus, the workers from the South were ideal for business, but created a real problem for the native Illinois working-man.
The white laborers knew these non-union (i.e., undocumented) guest workers from south of the border – the Illinois border, that is - were taking their jobs and preventing them from unionizing the plants. And there were thousands of them. The number of black workers tripled in fourteen years and grew exponentially as the conflict in Europe heated up. Even if East St. Louis had not had a policy of strict segregation, this tidal wave of black workers would have meant inevitable housing and business conflicts. But with such a policy, wherein no one on either side had a chance to know or trust anyone on the other, the conflict was certain to be vicious.
As the number of “guest workers” swelled, the white inhabitants began to complain of a growing crime wave, and the growing black population was held responsible for it. The muttering in the streets, the editorials in the newspapers, grew increasingly vicious. Both sides could see which way this was headed. Both sides began to arm themselves.
Now, according to the laws of the time, blacks were not permitted to own guns. Indeed, blacks from St. Louis, which was just across the Mississippi in Missouri, were routinely searched at the border for weapons. Blacks from the South understood how lynchings worked and had no intention of becoming targets. Consequently, gun-running became the order of the day for the black population.
Does any of this sound familiar? Read on.
The Turning Point
In the summer of 1917, life got dramatically worse. From the end of May throughout June, small riots flared up almost every night. Rumors raced through the white population that blacks were planning a terrorist attack: they were planning to kill the whites in the city on July 4th, as the city celebrations wound down.
By July 1, a black man had shot his white assailant. Whites in automobiles were firing into black homes. A police car dispatched to a disturbance was fired on by a group of blacks who thought the car was filled with more drive-by shooters. Two officers were killed. The mayor called Springfield for troops.
On the morning of July 2, the blood-drenched police car lit the match. The whites held a rally, the speakers harangued the crowd, and the townspeople began a military march towards the south, the black quarter of town. The march quickly exploded into the worst race riot the United States has ever seen.
Blacks were beaten and killed, lynched, burned alive in their own homes or shot as they tried to leave the new-made furnaces. Entire city blocks were incinerated. The troops from Springfield arrived late, and either did nothing or actively took part in the rioting.
By that evening, the flames from the black quarter of town shot so high that inhabitants of the bluff community of Signal Hill said nearby Pittsburgh Lake looked like a sheet of flame from the reflected light. Several of my boyhood friends had great-grandfathers who stood guard at the foot of the bluff with shotguns, making sure no black man, woman or child from East. St. Louis could break through to the road up the bluff into Belleville.
By the time the riot was done, 39 blacks and 9 whites were known to have been killed, but hundreds more were reported killed or missing in the newspapers. Given the massive incineration of the southern half of the city, the reports are not beyond belief. The reports of the riot were immediately classified by the US Government. They were not released until 1986.
The third largest city in Illinois Belleville and East St. Louis have spent the last century reaping the legacy of that hot 1917 summer.
Today, East St. Louis, once the third largest city in Illinois, has no heavy industry at all, and virtually no economy. In the 1980’s, City Hall was confiscated by the courts to pay a city debt. It is 97% black with a median household income of roughly $21,000 and a per capita income of $11,000. 35% of the population is below the poverty line – nearly half of all children are in families below the poverty line.
With numbers like that and a city filled with comparative riches right up the hill, it is not really surprising to find that my hometown, Belleville, eventually began to see a certain number of immigrants itself. Indeed, not too many years ago, the Belleville Police Department had the dubious distinction of being the star of a 60 Minutes broadcast, in which it was alleged to be the most racist police department in America.
The reasons weren’t hard to discover. When eight of ten crime witnesses describe their assailants as black males in their mid-20’s, even the least intelligent police officer will think he begins to see a pattern. Black-on-black crime is rampant in the city near the river and enough black-on-white crime rolls up the bluff to create a fairly racist population in the city on the hill.
I am familiar with the problem of crime created by “illegal immigrants,” i.e., black Southern sharecroppers who moved north to take factory jobs in Illinois. My own father has been robbed twice – once with a gun held to his head, the second time with a knife at his throat. If the second man had not been relatively incompetent - managing to lose his knife during the course of the robbery, and so forced to slit my father’s throat with the torn aluminum from an empty beer can – he would have been successful in ripping through to the jugular vein and so silencing the only witness to the crime.
As it turned out, the cut was as inept as the man who made it, and my father survived. But, though he has been robbed and nearly killed, not once but twice - and by the typical Belleville perpetrator - he has never opined that all blacks should be deported.
As a boy growing up in Belleville, I learned the story of East St. Louis at my parents’ knees. I saw the effects on my own community. I saw the dying city every time we drove out of town.
But I also learned the lessons East St. Louis had to teach. As I said, East St. Louis is dying now, and will soon be dead – the population has decreased every decade since 1917. But with its dying breath, it tells me what I need to know about immigration.
I know poor men come north to find work and earn pay. Most of that pay goes back home to feed children they hold only in photographs, to care for wives who must raise the family alone until Pa has bankrolled enough either to come back or to send for them.
Some of those poor men are violent or turn violent. They primarily victimize their fellows, but the violent ones get the deep pockets when they can, and their fellow immigrants hate them for it. They hate them because they are victimized by these violent men and they hate them because the violent victimization of the white man gives every immigrant a bad name.
I know that borders and searches don’t work. I know that segregating the populations with a street or a fence or even a wide, wide river like the Mississippi doesn’t work. You can’t stop people from wanting to live, and they will hate you if you try. If two groups of people learn to hate each other enough, then they will eventually kill each other.
That’s what I learned.
I’ll be damned if I let July, 1917 happen across the whole American Southwest.
The immigrants are here. We must get used to them and learn to work with them. We must mix our life’s blood together with them in our children and our children’s children or we will mix our life’s blood together with them in pools, as we both lay dying on the street. If you want to keep America, then you must be willing to let go of the America you have today so you can grasp the America that waits in the wings. Look back on the flames of East. St. Louis and learn from her mistakes.