Theodore Roosevelt and the East Saint Louis Race Riot of 1917


On July 2, 1917, the nation was rocked by one of the worst race riots in its history.  Black men, women and children were slain in East Saint Louis, estimates of the killed ranging from 40 to 200.  President Wilson said almost nothing about this atrocity.  Former President Theodore Roosevelt on July 6, 1917, at a mass meeting in Carnegie Hall to welcome the representatives of the new, and fated to be short-lived, democratic Russian government, in his remarks spoke about the riot:

“Before we speak of justice for others it behooves us to do justice within our own household. Within the week there has been an appalling outbreak of savagery in a race riot in East Saint Louis, a race riot for which, as far as we can see, there was no real provocation, and which, whether there was provocation of not, was waged with such an excess of appalling brutality as to leave a stain on the American name.

Now, friends, the longer I live the more I grow to abhor rhetoric that isn’t based on facts, words that are not translated into deeds. And when we applaud the birth of democracy in another people, the spirit which insists on treating each man on the basis of his right as a man , refusing to deny the humblest the rights that are his, when we present such a greeting to the representatives of a foreign nation, it behooves us to express our deep condemnation of acts that give the lie to our words within our own country.”

Samuel Gompers, President of the American Federation of Labor, spoke next and in this remarks attempted to place the blame for the race riot on employers importing cheap black labor from this South.  This attempt to justify the riot outraged Roosevelt who spoke again:

“I am not willing that a meeting to commemorate the birth of democracy and justice in Russia shall seem to have given any approval of or apology for the infamous brutalities that have been committed on negroes at East St. Louis. Justice with me is not a mere phrase or form of words. How can we praise the people of Russia for doing justice to the men within their boundaries if we in any way apologize for murder committed on the helpless? In the past I have listened to the same form of excuse advanced on behalf of the Russian autocracy for pogroms of Jews. Not for a moment shall I acquiesce in any apology for the murder of women and children in our own country. I am a democrat of democrats. I will do anything for laboring man except what is wrong.”

Standing in front of Gompers, Roosevelt took him directly to task:

“I don’t care a snap of my finger for any telegram from the head of the strongest labor union in Illinois. This took place in a Northern State, where the whites outrank the negroes twenty to one. And if in that State the white men cannot protect their rights by their votes against an insignificant minority, and have to protect them by the murder of women and children, then the people of the State which sent Abraham Lincoln to the Presidency must bow their heads.

I’d put down the murderers first and investigate afterwards. I will go to any extreme necessary to bring justice to the laboring man to insure him his economic place, but when there is murder I’ll put it down and I’ll never surrender. Oh, friends, we have gathered to greet the men and women of new Russia, a republic founded on the principles of justice to all, equity to all. On such an evening never will I sit motionless while directly or indirectly apology is made for the murder of the helpless.”

Gompers had a lot of supporters at the event, and Roosevelt received as many boos as cheers for his remarks, which deterred him not a whit.  Roosevelt was a very great man, and on July 6, 1917 he demonstrated that fact yet again.


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