2020: The Latest Turbulent Tipping Point in American History?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because some of America’s biggest turning points have been forged in the crucible of violence and protest.
The turmoil and unrest sweeping America in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police is like nothing most of us have witnessed in our lifetimes. But there is good reason to believe that 2020 is but the latest in a series of significant flash points that have helped define American history.
Here are a few of those pivotal moments — ones when larger social and historical tensions boiled to the surface, often violently, and tipped the nation in a new direction. And, like the current unrest, they almost invariably relate to the issues of racism, inequality and economic hardship that have long defined America’s struggle.
1859: The Bloody Raid That Launched the Civil War
Tensions had been rising across America long before a 59-year-old militant abolitionist named John Brown led a band of 21 heavily armed men into Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, on October 16, 1859, in an attempt to take the town’s federal armory and ignite a nationwide uprising. A land of great economic disparity and even greater racial divisions, the United States had grown increasingly polarized on the issue of slavery, but there was still hope of a compromise or a nonviolent political solution. But all of that went out the window after Harpers Ferry, when Brown and his band overran the arsenal, took several hostages and had to be violently quelled by a group of U.S. marines led by Col. Robert E. Lee.
Two months later, Brown was hanged, handing a guard on the gallows a note that read: “I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood.” It would prove uncannily prescient. In the wake of the raid, peaceful reconciliation between the North and South grew untenable, and the nation was launched on a collision course with five years of history-changing bloodshed.
1919: America’s ‘Red Summer’
It was called the “Red Summer,” and it came in the wake of another massive war that changed American society. As World War I veterans poured back into the U.S. labor market, tensions flared across the country. Race riots erupted in 26 cities across America in the summer of 1919 as portions of white America feared that newly empowered Black veterans would take their jobs and demand societal changes. Dozens of Black men were lynched, including several veterans — some in their uniforms.
It was a shocking setback for hundreds of thousands of Black soldiers who had fought for their country on foreign soil and had hoped to see their own lives improve as a result, and it provided a horrific public demonstration that the nation’s racial differences were far from resolved by the Civil War. “It is important to think of the end of [World War I] as a critical moment,” says Chad Williams, a professor of history and African American studies at Brandeis University, “when the United States began to wrestle with its character, its identity and what democracy meant, including for African Americans.”
1932: Breaking Up the ‘Bonus Army’
The economic challenges faced by legions of World War I veterans were made worse when the Great Depression hit. In May 1932, a former cannery worker turned agitator named Walter W. Walters led a band of unemployed veterans calling themselves the “Bonus Expeditionary Forces” into Washington, D.C., demanding that Congress make good on the bonus it had promised them for their service. The group, encamped in the city, grew to include over 20,000 homeless and hungry men. When violence started to erupt between the “Bonus Army” and local authorities, President Herbert Hoover instructed forces led by Army Chief of Staff Douglas MacArthur to clear the area.
Hundreds were injured by gas, clubs and sabers in the resulting skirmishes, a huge fire broke out, and the nation watched as the federal government turned its military might on its own impoverished veterans. Three months later, Hoover lost the presidency to Franklin D. Roosevelt, who would eventually work with Congress to make sure the veterans got their bonus checks and that World War II veterans would be treated much differently, including in the form of the historic GI Bill.
The ‘Long, Hot Summer’ of 1967
With the nation mired in an unpopular war overseas in Vietnam, a wave of unrest and protest swept America back home in the summer of 1967, when Blacks — in response to police misconduct and growing inequality and unemployment — took to the street in more than 150 cities across the country. The unrest often turned violent, especially in Newark, New Jersey, and Detroit.
Tensions rose even further the following year after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., with destructive riots ripping through the nation in April 1968. In Washington, D.C., alone, over 1,000 buildings were burned. In response to the civil strife and rising anti-war movement, Republican Richard Nixon won the presidency in 1968 on a promise to restore “law and order” to the country.