Empire and racial capitalism: the history of St Louis

Issue: 174

John Newsinger

A review of The Broken Heart of America: St Louis and the Violent History of the United States, Walter Johnson (Basic, 2020), £15

The Broken Heart of America is a tremendous book that everyone interested in the history of the United States should read. It focuses on St Louis, a vast metropolis that straddles the border between the Midwestern states of Missouri and Illinois. Walter Johnson has written a powerful history of the city, situating it within the broader story of US imperialism and capitalism, the fight against racism and white supremacy, and the class struggle. The result is a recovering of the city’s “often forgotten radical history”. Indeed, Johnson insists that St Louis “has been the crucible of US history… Much of US history has unfolded from the juncture of empire and anti-blackness in the city of St Louis”.1

Obviously, with over 450 pages, the book covers so much ground that it is impossible here to do more than dip into the riches it contains and the ammunition it provides. Nevertheless, let us start with William Harney, a US army officer, stationed at the Jefferson Barracks in St Louis. As Johnson points out, the city was the military base for the conquest of the West—“Home to the frontline force of the exemplary imperial punishment: annihilation.” Harney was a veteran of the wars against the Arikara and Winnebago peoples and had fought in the Black Hawk War of 1832, marching “with the army that pursued Black Hawk to the mouth of the Bad Ax River and participated in the slaughter there”.2 Then on 26 June 1834, he beat an enslaved woman, Hannah, to death for supposedly hiding his house keys (in fact, he had misplaced them). He was tried for murder in front of the appropriately named Judge Luke Lawless, who promptly transferred the case to a neighbouring court, which he knew would fail to recognise his friend’s killing of a slave as a criminal act. He was acquitted after a trial that lasted a whole day. Soon after, Harney was promoted to lieutenant colonel and despatched to Florida to fight the Seminole people where he consolidated his reputation as a sadistic butcher by hanging prisoners in front of their families. He also served in the 1846 invasion of Mexico, famously hanging some 30 Irish prisoners caught fighting for the Mexican Republic. Later, he campaigned against the Sioux in the 1850s, when his exploits earned him the name “woman killer”. Johnson writes of Harney having a “genocidal vision” and points out that he was a personal friend of Abraham Lincoln, “whose political roots had more to do with the Black Hawk War than with the black freedom struggle”. Although Lincoln was anti-slavery, he was also “white supremacist, imperialist and removalist”.3 Today, there is still a Harney Avenue in St Louis celebrating the man and his bloody record; one must, however, be fair to St Louis and note that he is also commemorated across much of the Western US in the names of parks, lakes, rivers, buildings and streets. At least one town and one county are named after him.

It is worth briefly returning to Judge Lawless, who in 1836 presided over a grand jury in St Louis investigating the lynching of Francis McIntosh, a free black man, who was tied to a tree and burnt alive in front of hundreds of people. According to Lawless, though the lynch mob was not authorised to kill McIntosh and burning him alive was “forbidden by the constitution”, the lynch mob was serving the community and “a higher law”. Acting on his advice, the grand jury decided to bring no charges against McIntosh’s killers. This was a historic decision. At the same time, a newspaper editor who condemned the lynching in the St Louis Observer, Elijah Parish Lovejoy, was forced to flee for safety to the town of Alton across the Mississippi. However, he failed to run far enough; vigilantes followed him from St Louis, destroyed the press he had set up in Alton and shot him dead.

This is a history that continues today. On 9 August 2014, in Ferguson, part of the county of St Louis, a police officer, Darren Wilson, shot dead an unarmed 18 year old black man, Michael Brown, who he had stopped for jaywalking. He was shot six times even though witnesseses stated he had his hands up and pleaded with his killer, “Don’t shoot!” Wilson was never prosecuted. This killing provoked protests—in fact, an uprising—that highlighted “the extraordinary climate of police harassment” and “militarised policing” in Ferguson.4 Black motorists are much more likely to be stopped, searched and arrested than whites—even though “when white people were searched, they proved to be two-thirds more likely to be caught with contraband”. Black people were also more likely to be given tickets for walking in the street improperly. As was later revealed, the source of these issues was an almost all-white police force effectively “revenue-farming” the black community: raising money by punitively fining the poor while “corporate America” was left to enjoy its wealth in an increasingly unequal society. Indeed, by 2013, some 20 percent of Ferguson’s municipal budget came from fines. Meanwhile, just a quarter of a mile down the road from where the murder of Brown took place, the corporate headquarters of Emerson Electric was doing “$25 billion of business a year”. All the media coverage ignored this dramatic display of “structural racism”. Nevertheless, the shooting of Brown “touched off a new period in the history of the United States: the era of Black Lives Matter”. As Johnson explains, the notion of “structural racism” provided a “way to understand the depth of the history that was exploding into plain view across the nation”. His purpose in The Broken Heart of America is to “explore the 200-year history of removal, racism and resistance that flowed through the two minutes of confrontation on August 9, 2014”.5

What about the history of resistance? Among the immigrants arriving in St Louis in the 1850s were German veterans of the 1848 Revolution, including Franz Sigel. He once described socialists as “the Muslims of the modern world” and campaigned and organised against America’s racial capitalism. Sigel’s writings “outline a vision of the world in which revolution, class conflict and the uprising of slaves against their masters were distinct aspects of a single struggle toward human emancipation”.6 When the Southern states attempted to secede in 1861 and the US Civil War broke out, Sigel and his German supporters threw themselves into the struggle, offering sanctuary to escaping slaves and enlisting them in the fight. Sigel served in the Union Army and was eventually promoted to the rank of major-general. One consequence of this is that there is today “a striking 20-foot statue” of Sigel—“a stone-cold communist”—in St Louis’s Forest Park.7 Another German revolutionary socialist in the Union Army in St Louis was Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Weydemeyer, also a veteran of 1848. Weydemeyer had published the first edition of Marx’s The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon in German in his New York-based newspaper Die Revolution (“The Revolution”) in 1852. Marx described Weydemeyer as “one of our best people” in the US.8 After the Civil War, Weydemeyer championed the campaign for the eight-hour day as a way of uniting the black and white workers of St Louis in the struggle for socialism. He died in the 1866 cholera epidemic.

The high point of the class struggle in St Louis was the great general strike of 1877 in which “the intellectual and political heirs of Sigel and Weydemeyer mounted a final battle”. It was “the era’s most compelling example of interracial radicalism—a final flash-lit image of the fading promise of abolition era democracy”. The general strike emerged from the spread of militant strikes against wage cuts on the railways across the country. On 22 July, railway workers met in the railyards in East St Louis and voted to join the strike the following day. The Workingmen’s Party, in which Marxist revolutionaries were heavily involved, played a leading role. Among the speakers addressing a 10,000-strong mass meeting on 24 July was a black docker who described the dockers’ low wages and appalling working conditions, asking the crowd, “Will you stand for us regardless of colour?” “We will. We will.”, the crowd shouted back. The strikers, black and white, took effective control of the city, establishing what the press across the US condemned as “the St Louis Commune”. However, the strike leadership was scared that the strikers were getting out of control and becoming too radical. When the city authorities finally moved to arrest the strike leaders, mobilising the police and a deputised militia, they surrendered without a fight. The victory over the strikers has been celebrated every year since 5 October 1878 with a parade led through the streets by the “veiled prophet” and an exclusive ball for the daughters of the city’s wealthiest inhabitants. The organisation behind it, the Veiled Prophet Organisation, excluded rich black people from membership until 1979. Johnson also describes how federal troops were sent to occupy the city after the strike and came equipped with Gatling guns, fresh from “a tour fighting the punitive, genocidal Modoc War in California”. Once again we find St Louis exemplifying “the generalisation of imperial violence in the service of capitalism and the racial order”, something that “has repeatedly occurred in US history”.9

Johnson goes on to chronicle the May 1900 streetcar strike that saw the police open fire on a demonstration, killing four strikers and seriously wounding eight others. The strike was broken and strikers had to reapply for their jobs with many being victimised. Johnson also details the grim story of the strike that broke out at Aluminium Ore in East St Louis in April 1917 and its aftermath. Scabs were brought in, some black, and this led to a viciously racist campaign to drive every black man, woman and child out of East St Louis. It is important to remember that at this time many unions banned black workers from membership and could hardly be counted among the friends of the black working class. In any case, the strike was broken towards the end of June and the scab workers were kept on, pouring fuel on the already furious racism that consumed many white workers. On 1 July, a carload of racist gunmen drove through a black neighbourhood, firing at random. The following day, black workers were ready for another attack but mistook an unmarked car driven by police officers for the shooters’ vehicle and opened fire, killing both men inside. On 3 July, a full-scale pogrom erupted, perpetrated mainly by white workers gripped by homicidal racism. The violence “was obscene, spectacular, wanton and joyous”, and both white men and women took part.10 The police either stood by and watched or joined in; when the National Guard were deployed, they acted as if they were putting down a black insurrection. By the time the pogrom was over, some 150 black men, women and children had been brutally killed, thousands had fled the city, and over 300 houses had been burnt down. When the authorities came to take legal action, inevitably most of those receiving serious prison time were black people who had fought back against the racist attack. The terrible danger posed by this murderous racism, a white supremacist contagion among white workers that divides the working class against itself and plays into the bosses’ hands, has to be acknowledged in order to be fought—and it was fought.

By the 1930s, there had emerged a very “radical and powerful working-class movement” that seriously threatened “the racial and economic order” in St Louis. Black workers, with working-class black women leading the way, “managed to revive the revolutionary alliance of red and black” from the days of Franz Sigel and the 1877 St Louis Commune. With mass unemployment gripping the whole country, the Communist Party led campaigns for work, relief and an end to evictions. On 8 July 1932, over a thousand workers, black and white, marched on city hall. Three days later they returned, this time numbering over 3,000, and proceeded to occupy the mayor’s office. The police attacked with clubs and tear gas, and four demonstrators had been shot and wounded by the time the protest had been dispersed. One police officer was reported in the press as having sprained his wrist while hitting people. Nevertheless, the city authorities were seriously alarmed and allocated $25,000 to feed the hungry. The following year, women workers, mainly black, at the Funsten Nut plants went on strike. As the chair of the strike committee, Carrie Smith, a black woman worker, put it, “They fought with the Bible in one hand and a brick in the other”. After a nine-day strike, the company capitulated, giving a substantial pay rise that doubled their wages. This tremendous victory began a shift in the balance of class forces in the city, inspiring other workers, black and white, employed and unemployed, to get organised and fight.

One of the key figures in all this was a Communist Party member, William Sentner, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants. He later played an important role in the occupation of Emerson Electric in St Louis on 9 March 1937. Striking workers occupied the plant, but did not just sit-in; they used it as a base for agitating and campaigning throughout the city. There were marches on city hall, which was occupied by demonstrators, and Sentner led an occupation of the offices of the St Louis Relief Administration. Emerson workers reinforced the picket lines of other workers on strike, determined to spread their militancy. The Emerson occupation lasted 53 days, the longest occupation of the sit down strike era, before the management finally capitulated.11

There is not space here to explore The Broken Heart of America further in any detail as Johnson takes us through the years of the Second World War, the post-war era, the civil rights struggle and of the emergence of counter-insurgency policing “in the terrain of an American city” in the 1960s.12 Most incredibly, the mainly black Pruitt-Igoe housing project was not just the target of counter-insurgency policing, but was also used to test the effects of radiological weapons between May 1963 and March 1965 due to its similarity to the Kolpino housing complex in Leningrad. Radioactive materials were released into the air from the roofs of buildings in the project and tests undertaken on the teeth of babies in order to measure increases in rates of strontium 90. Children born after 1963 “had over fifty times the level of strontium 90 in their teeth as those born before 1950”. The data from this testing “is generally credited with leading President Kennedy to sign an international treaty banning the atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons…although the testing in Pruitt-Igoe continued unabated”. The victims of these experiments were, of course, completely unaware of what was being done to them. For Johnson, nothing better “conveys the depth of the militarisation of the landscape of racial control in St Louis in the 1950s and 1960s”.13 People still fought back and, when the St Louis Housing Authority increased rents by 600 percent in 1969, black women organised “one of the first rent strikes in modern US history”.14 Over a thousand Pruitt-Igoe tenants took part and the Housing Authority eventually capitulated. The years of economic decline and of black removal are all covered in painful detail and once again make the book essential reading. Yet, what of today?

On 28 June 2020, Mark and Patricia McCloskey confronted unarmed Black Lives Matter protesters marching by their home in Portland Place, a gated community in St Louis. The couple were armed—the husband with a semi-automatic rifle and the wife with a pistol. They both threatened the protesters, aiming their weapons at them. Mark McCloskey later claimed that he thought the revolution had started and that the protesters intended to storm his house and kill both him and his wife. The demonstrators did not even step on his lawn. Overnight, they became heroes to the Republican right; President Donald Trump contacted them, publicly praising their courage and the example they had set. According to Trump, if they had not taken a stand, they would have “been beat up badly, if they were lucky… The house was going to be totally ransacked, probably burned down, like the way they burn down churches”. Soon after, the couple were the star turn at the 2020 Republican National Convention, warning that the “American way of life” was under attack from “Marxist revolutionaries” who wanted to abolish the suburbs.15 Nonetheless, they were prosecuted for assault and harassment, fined, and had their weapons confiscated. On 3 August 2021, the Republican governor of Missouri, Mike Parsons, pardoned them, and they very publicly bought new guns. Mark McCloskey has made clear that he is going to run for the Senate in 2022, telling Fox News that it was God who had sent the mob to his door to wake him up to the danger America faces. Trump is backing his candidacy. So, the fight goes on—and this book is a useful weapon in that struggle.

John Newsinger is is the author of numerous books, the latest of which is Chosen by God: Donald Trump, the Christian Right and American Capitalism (Bookmarks, 2020).


1 Johnson, 2020, pp4 and 5.

2 Johnson, 2020, p67.

3 Johnson, 2020, pp68 and 161.

4 Johnson, 2020, p418.

5 Johnson, 2020, pp10-12.

6 Johnson, 2020, p122.

7 Johnson, 2020, p123.

8 Johnson, 2020, p134.

9 Johnson, 2020, pp155-159.

10 Johnson, 2020, p236.

11 A detailed account of the sit down strike movement can be found in Newsinger, 2010.

12 Johnson, 2020, p361.

13 Johnson, 2020, pp370 and 372.

14 Johnson, 2020, p373.

15 Johnson, 2020, p446.


Johnson, Walter, 2020, The Broken Heart of America: St Louis and the Violent History of the United States (Basic).

Newsinger, John, 2010, “1937: The Year of the Sitdown”, International Socialism 127 (Summer), http://isj.org.uk/1937-the-year-of-the-sitdown