A Failure Of Official Leadership

William Rees

This article was written and published in 2013

During 37 years in Duluth I have noted some here seem to consider the area intellectually and morally superior to spots in the South, including my native Kentucky. I first questioned such assumptions when I learned of the Duluth lynchings. I had never before heard of a lynch mob taking a suspect away from police custody.
So I did a little research and learned things the Duluth police certainly must have known the night of the lynchings 93 years ago this month, things I do not recall reading in Michael Fedo’s excellent book, “The Lynchings in Duluth.”
Duluth’s lynchings in 1920 came during an era of great change. About 370,000 black men served in the armed forces during World War I, more than half of them in France, and their experiences greatly widened their horizons. There was a tremendous migration of blacks from the South to the North who displaced some whites from jobs and housing.
The summer of 1919 was supposedly the period of the greatest racial violence the country ever saw. One book called it the “Red Summer” after 26 major race riots. Of the seven most serious, five were north of the Mason-Dixon Line. There were 76 known lynchings of blacks, perhaps the most of any year on record.
In Duluth in June 1920 a white girl claimed rape by black workers from a traveling circus. Three young black men were arrested on suspicion and jailed. A mob formed. There was a rumor the girl died. The mob grew violent. The police officers defending the jail lacked leadership and did not resist the mob, which took the suspects out and hanged them. That the three men were innocent was utterly irrelevant to the responsibilities of the police.
During the siege, the police took inventory of the ammunition available to resist the mob (150 rounds). As they counted, I feel sure they thought of a similar event almost exactly three months earlier in Kentucky. In Lexington on Feb. 12, 1920, a black man was on trial for killing a 10-year-old white girl, something he confessed doing. A large mob formed, and armed Kentucky National Guard troops guarded the courthouse while the trial was in progress. The guardsmen even set up a machine gun. The mob nevertheless charged the courthouse, causing the troops to open fire. At least six were killed and 50 injured. About 500 shots were fired.
The mob retreated but then began to raid sporting goods stores to arm themselves. Martial law was declared, and federal troops were brought in as reinforcements, ending the problem. The defendant was convicted and taken away with a large military guard. He was legally executed a few months later.
What an amazing contrast to what happened in Duluth.
The Duluth authorities had to be aware of the “Red Summer” of the previous year and related events. And they had to be aware of the events in Lexington. Even so, they seemed utterly unprepared, physically and, more importantly, mentally. Why?  My guess is they thought, “Duluth is special; it can’t happen here.”
I have since concluded there was both a racial element and a professional failure in Duluth’s police response. One officer supposedly said, “Well, we couldn’t fire on our own kind,” meaning on whites. But he missed the more important point that a mob is not of the same kind as an officer of the law sworn on honor to defend the law at risk of his own life if necessary. A mob is like a family dog loved for years by kids and adults alike that gets rabies and becomes mad and a mortal threat. Where I come from a mad dog is destroyed by whoever has the first opportunity, without the slightest question about its motives.
I am convinced the Duluth lynchings resulted more from a failure of official leadership than from the mob.
There is a superb example of real leadership from Kentucky history.
In 1916 in southern Kentucky a black suspect was endangered by a mob. The local judge ordered the sheriff to take the suspect out of town, so the mob abducted the judge and threatened to hang him if he did not order the suspect returned. He did, but somebody informed the governor. He had no troops because the Kentucky National Guard was chasing Pancho Villa in Mexico, so he dealt with the problem himself. He took a special train overnight to the county seat and made a short speech on the courthouse steps. The gist of the speech was, “Before you hang the judge or anybody else, you are going to have to hang the governor of the State of Kentucky.” The mob quickly dissolved.  That was real political leadership.
It may comfort Duluthians to know that in the document, “The Negro Holocaust: Lynching and Race Riots in the United States, 1880-1950,” by the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute, the Duluth lynchings are not even mentioned.
It also should be understood that race was only one element in all this turmoil. There was also competition for jobs and housing, basically the essentials for living, which, I think, always has been the case. Any identifiable group that threatens the necessities of another will always risk conflict, regardless of race.