Hey, Newt, this is not a “lynch mob”!

Newt Gingrich insists Trayvon Martin protesters were "prepared to be a lynch mob." Here's a little history lesson

Published July 15, 2013 5:28PM (EDT)

Protesters rally in response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman in Times Square in New York, July 14, 2013.          (Reuters/Keith Bedford)
Protesters rally in response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman in Times Square in New York, July 14, 2013. (Reuters/Keith Bedford)

People are saying that the Irish had their problems . . . but that they didn’t turn to civil disobedience.

—Pennsylvania representative Frank Clark, after the 1965 Watts riots

Every day this year brings another 150thanniversary of an epochal Civil War event, some more important than others. A big one that’s getting little attention is the days-long New York City Draft Riots, when hundreds of furious Irish immigrants took to the streets to protest Civil War conscription, which began July 13, 1863. Against the backdrop of mostly peaceful protests against the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the killing of Trayvon Martin, many people are remembering the history of white rage, and white race riots -- Tulsa, Okla., Rosewood, Fla. -- but I've seen no one mention the draft riots, though the Zimmerman verdict came down on the 150th anniversary of their start.

With the ludicrous Newt Gingrich (who claims to be a historian) insisting the peaceful Trayvon Martin protesters were "prepared to be a lynch mob," it's worth remembering that devastating eruption of white mob violence 150 years earlier, when at least 11 black men were actually lynched.

As I was growing up, at the height of the civil rights movement, my father made sure I saw commonalities in the histories of poor Irish immigrants and African-Americans. Yet as my family watched the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles go up in flames on the evening news in August 1965, my civil-rights-liberal father missed a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to point out a direct but little-known parallel between the black and the Irish-immigrant poor: Before Watts, the largest domestic insurrection in American history had been the awful Draft Riots. It’s possible my father didn’t know about them; the Draft Riots are hidden history for most of us. The riots show the Irish their place at the bottom of New York society, with free African-Americans, and the savagery they used to rebel against that oppression. Once you know about the Draft Riots, it’s hard to argue, as some Irish Americans did (and still do), that the urban violence of the 1960s meant that African-Americans were uniquely depraved.

* * *

Over three days, a mostly Irish crowd rampaged through New York, attacking draft board workers, local and federal officials, wealthy Republican industrialists, black New Yorkers, the Irish wives of black men, and even Irish cops and soldiers who tried to stop them. Nominally protesting the nation’s first draft — which mainly hit low-income men; the wealthy could buy their way out of the army for $300 — the draft unrest became much more: a race riot, a labor insurrection, a religious uprising, and proto–class warfare, all in one. There are so many parallels with our political and economic debates 150 years later, if we pay attention.

As the economy lurched from boom to panic in the 1850s, New York featured some of the earliest American debates about dealing with urban poverty and about the “deserving” and “undeserving” poor, an idea that has come to dominate our modern discussions about the economy. In this earlier go-round, Irish Catholics played the role later assigned to African-Americans: a proto-underclass, stigmatized as poor and lazy, unable or unwilling to conform to the mores of the emerging 19th-century industrial society.

Many reformers believed the Irish corrupted the African-Americans who lived beside them in New York’s poorest neighborhoods. An emerging Republican elite blamed Democrats for coddling the slackers and encouraging their immorality and indolence. When Tammany Democratic Mayor Fernando Wood proposed a public works program for the unemployed, Republicans blasted him as a “pseudo-philanthropist” whose indiscriminate aid hurt the poor, rather than helped them, while also making them reliable Democratic voters. Sound familiar?

The new elites of the Union League Club, a rising cadre of industrialists and reformers, particularly loathed Wood’s program. They backed the Protestant charity sponsored by the Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor (AICP), which ministered to New York’s needy but conditioned its aid on good working-class behavior — temperance, monogamy, school attendance for kids, punctuality and, of course, hard work. Those who didn’t comply simply didn’t get help. The AICP turned down three-quarters of the requests for aid it received during the brutal winter of 1857–1858, a time of financial panic marked by soaring unemployment and bread riots. Yet elite New Yorkers began to side with the AICP approach. In 1860, Republicans knocked out Wood and took over City Hall.

Appalled by the apparent depravity of the Irish, those elites were more sympathetic to the black poor and working class, with whom they at least shared a Protestant religion and culture. Union League Club founder Frederick Law Olmsted, the architect known for New York’s Central Park and who inspired San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park[ce1] , urged wealthy New Yorkers “to deal justly and mercifully with the colored people in [their] midst,” whom he praised as having “the virtues and graces of the Christian and the gentleman.” Union League Club officer Jonathan Sturges agreed: “Those who know our colored people of this city, can testify to their being peaceable, industrious people, having their own churches, Sunday-schools, and charitable societies and that as a class they seldom depend upon charity.”

Unlike the Irish.

* * *

In fact, the growing phalanx of missionaries and other do-gooders marching into New York’s slums, most notably the poverty-racked Five Points neighborhood in the Sixth Ward, widely believed the Irish dragged down the black population there. “Where blacks were found by themselves, we generally encountered tidiness, and some sincere attempt at industry and honest self-support,” wrote one reformer quoted in Leslie Harris’ remarkable history "In the Shadow of Slavery: African Americans in New York City, 1626–1863." (Here is the book's chapter on the Draft Riots.) Another missionary observed, “The negroes of the Five Points are fifty per cent in advance of the Irish as to sobriety and decency.”

Some black and white abolitionists worked hard to keep free black workers from forming unions and other alliances with Irish workers. They wanted to make sure the emerging black working class maintained a strong work ethic and good relations with employers and resisted the debauchery of the Irish. When New York’s black and Irish waiters joined together in 1853 to form a fledgling union, black abolitionists tried to form a rival race-based organization. The United Association of Colored Waiters emphasized “the harmony of interest between employers and employees and encouraging black waiters to take pride in moral reform rather than manual labor,” Harris observed. The black waiters rejected the race-based pitch and stuck with the Irish, a rare example of workplace cooperation.

Despite attempts to pit the two groups against each other, there were fascinating pockets of black-Irish community, most notably in the impoverished Sixth Ward. Charles Dickens made Five Points world famous when he visited in 1842 and found blacks and the Irish living and sleeping side by side in filth and poverty. In 1850, George Foster, a reporter for Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune, followed Dickens with New York by Gas-Light, a tour of Irish-black underclass nightlife. Foster’s wanderings commenced after midnight, and he titillated his middle-class readers with tales of poor blacks and Irish living together in the Old Brewery tenement. At a Five Points bar, white women, mostly Irish, danced naked with “shiny buck negroes.” Foster marveled at the frequency of intermarriage between black men and Irish women, who seemed to find their husbands “desirable companions and lovers.” One missionary’s tour of Five Points found an Irishwoman who’d produced an infant by a black man he called just “Sambo.” The black Irish child would have “rum its first medicine, theft its first lesson, a prison its first house, and Potter’s Field its final resting place,” the missionary concluded.

Daylight in the Sixth Ward showed evidence of community: Irish boarders living with black families, blacks in boardinghouses run by the Irish, the two groups starting small businesses side by side. Significantly, during the three days of the Draft Riots in 1863, the Sixth Ward was the only one spared Irish-on-black violence. Irish neighbors protected black businesses and shielded black men and their Irish wives from the mob.

Such stories were rare.

The Draft Riots didn’t start out as an Irish-only affair. On the first day, the disturbance had support from German workers and others who couldn’t afford the $300 it cost to get out of the draft. But once the rioters shut down draft offices and other mechanisms of conscription, most groups drifted away; their work to block the draft was done. Not the Irish. The riots became an uprising against Republicans, industrialists, wealthy Protestant abolitionists and, most savagely, African-Americans. The Irish shut down factories, burned the homes of Republicans, and looted Brooks Brothers. Yet they attacked black homes, churches, businesses and individuals with particular cruelty and intent.

A mob burned down the Colored Orphan Asylum (the children were swept to safety at a nearby police station) and the Aged Colored Women’s Home. They murdered the Irish wife of a black man who tried to save her mixed-race son from the mob (the boy escaped; she did not). The attacks on black men had a particular savagery that can only be described as sexual. Some were castrated; others were burned, then doused in water, in what looked like an unconscious ritual of purification by the sexually and spiritually tortured Irish. Clearly, some in the crowd were inflamed by “amalgamation” between Irish women and black men; they attacked brothels where white prostitutes (most of them Irish) served black customers, as well as white women with black husbands. It’s probably no accident that a writer of Irish descent, David Croly, coined the term miscegenation in 1863, and depicted it as a nefarious abolitionist plot.

The Irish rioters beat their own as well. Police chief John Kennedy was almost killed by rioters the first day; accounts of the conflict find officers named Kiernan and Eagan and Caffrey and O’Brien brutalized by the overwhelmingly Irish mob. A young Irish immigrant named Paddy McCafferty went down in history for helping to save the black children when the Colored Orphan Asylum went up in flames. Irishmen were represented disproportionately among thousands of police officers, National Guardsmen and military who fought the rioters, yet that can’t erase the riot’s ugly ethnic legacy.

Far from making the Irish “white” — the goal that drove them to scorn alliances with blacks in favor of intimidation, according to “How the Irish Became White” and other whiteness studies tomes — the Draft Riots led to a new wave of nativism and a demonization of the Irish as “animals” and “savages.” Many Irish New Yorkers responded to the trauma by becoming flag-waving super-patriots, to live down the shame of their community’s racist and treasonous resistance to the war.

Meanwhile, after the war, some Republicans’ passion for helping the former slaves waned. There’s no better symbol of the transformation of Northern abolitionist sentiment after the Civil War than the work of cartoonist Thomas Nast: The pro-Union Harper’s Weekly artist once graphically depicted the perfidy of Confederates and championed civil rights for slaves. Yet his most famous cartoon, the 1876 "The Ignorant Vote – Honors are Easy," featured Nast's recognizable caricatures of African- and Irish-Americans, two simian creatures labeled "Black" and "White:" Sambo and Paddy, one dragging down the South, the other the North, with ignorance. The Grand Army of the Republic, the leading organization of Union Civil War veterans, excluded both black and Irish soldiers from membership. Still, the two groups mostly failed to make common cause against the elites who despised them.

* * *

Looking at the issue of Life magazine that captured the Watts riot, I was shocked to see the headline on the lead story: "'Get whitey!' The War Cry that Terrorized Los Angeles." I've done a lot of reading about Watts, but to see it depicted so aggressively (and deceptively) as though it was all about killing white people still stunned me. I'm often shocked by the extent of white paranoia that black anger and protest about enduring racial injustice will cascade toward violent retribution against them. What unbelievable self-regard we have, to think the Watts riots were all about us, or to suggest, with the venom of a Newt Gingrich, that the Trayvon Martin protesters "were prepared to be a lynch mob." I can't help but believe at least a few more white people -- or at least white Americans of Irish descent -- would be immune to such insulting fabrications if they knew about the rioting that broke out 150 years before Zimmerman's acquittal, and 102 years before Watts.

Learning about the Draft Riots humbled and shamed me. I have spent time trying to understand them as at least partly the result of discrimination and oppression against poor New York's poor Irish immigrants. But while I don't believe in the concept of collective, inherited guilt -- that's different from white privilege, which endures -- I felt ashamed, to my core. I'm relieved to know that my only known relative who lived in New York at the time, my Irish immigrant great-great-grandfather John Flynn, fought on the Union side in the Civil War. Still, to recognize that my own people could be such ... animals was painful.

All of us are capable of cruelty and kindness. No group has the corner on brutality or compassion. I reject the claim of some "whiteness studies" theorists that the Irish were uniquely culpable for maintaining white supremacy. But the Draft Riots rubbed my nose in their capacity for cruelty; even if I could (partly) explain it, I couldn't excuse or defend it. This history shouldn't be hidden anymore.

With that, I leave on a strangely timed vacation in Ireland. I'll come back with photos of the Frederick Douglass statue in Cork, as well as some from Bruce Springsteen's show there. See you next week.

By Joan Walsh