The City That Embodies the United States’ Contradictions

The City That Embodies the United States’ Contradictions

Crucible City

The tragedy of St. Louis.


Certain cities in the United States have developed a claim to fame for representing some vital aspect of America. New York City has often been hailed as its financial and cultural capital. Chicago, the “big shoulders” of the nation, has been depicted as its boisterous center of industry. Berkeley, Calif., and Cambridge, Mass., serve as symbols of American liberalism, and Atlanta as the political and economic capital of Black America.

According to historian and native son Walter Johnson, St. Louis can serve as a symbol of US imperial expansion and racial formation, a “crucible of American history…[at] the juncture of empire and anti-Blackness.” Throughout its existence, Johnson argues, St. Louis has been a microcosm of America’s long-standing compulsion to subvert its own high ideals for the sake of white supremacy and imperialism. But as Johnson shows, the story of St. Louis is not just one of catastrophe; it is also one of constant resistance to the worst in American history, led by men and women spurred to dream of a better nation. It has been a site for movements of radical hope and resistance to class injustice. St. Louis is where workers established a commune in 1877 that rivaled the one in Paris, and where organized Black working-class men and women inspired people like the historian C. L. R. James and the journalist Claudia Jones to draw lessons from them.

In his new book, The Broken Heart of America, Johnson sets out to convey this twin narrative—of empire-building and racism and of the people seeking to end those evils and remake the country into a genuine democracy—through St. Louis’s incredible history. The city has been at the forefront of American conquest and at the center of American race relations, serving as both a military base and an industrial powerhouse. At the same time, it has often been an arena for those seeking to resist America’s usual predilections for empire and racism. American communism, Black nationalism, the civil rights movement, and Black Lives Matter all found in St. Louis a critical fulcrum on which American history turned, morphed, and redefined itself. The Gateway to the West, as Johnson shows, is also a gateway to understanding America’s violent, unpredictable, and yet sometimes hopeful past.

The Broken Heart of America begins with the ancient Indigenous city of Cahokia and then turns to the Lewis and Clark expedition, which set out from St. Louis, then a frontier town and military installation, to map the territory gained from the French Empire through the Louisiana Purchase. While the expedition was dedicated to exploring what would become the American West, it also helped chart the rise of the burgeoning city. William Clark was an cartographer and leader of the so-called Corps of Discovery, and his actions during and after the expedition generated “knowledge in the service of empire”—a story that Johnson uses to great effect. After Clark returned from the West, he was appointed superintendent of Indian affairs for the Louisiana Territory, an office based in St. Louis that he held for the rest of his life, with an intervening stint as the first governor of the Missouri territory. Clark soon found himself caught between two worlds, maintaining a diplomatic and trade-based relationship with Indigenous groups while also answering to increasingly land-hungry white settlers. He struggled to balance these competing interests, which reflected two conflicting Missouris: one that belonged to Native Americans and one that was being conquered by a white settler population.

Clark’s balancing act didn’t last long and eventually led to his defeat in the state’s first election for the governorship in 1820. Clark was opposed by white settlers who insisted that he had not been forceful enough against the tribes in the area, including the Osage and Mandan peoples. Not that the tribes would have viewed their relationship with Clark favorably, either: Remaining as superintendent of Indian Affairs until his death in 1838, Clark would add “some 419 million acres to the domain of the United States and remove over 81,000 Indians from their homelands,” Johnson writes. Before the United States had military bases dotting the globe, before American political and military might forced the creation of the Panama Canal and the seizure of various lands in the Caribbean and the Pacific, Clark’s St. Louis would serve as the logistical and material hub of a growing US empire in North America. It was a legacy, Johnson notes, that would continue into the 20th and 21st centuries, as the city became a center of commerce in the Western Hemisphere and a place where the lessons of empire would be implemented at home by local police trying to suppress dissent.

The rise and fall of the slave power in the United States, like the rise of the American empire, was also reflected in the history of St. Louis and Missouri. The state’s request for entry to the union in 1818 precipitated the Missouri Crisis. Members of Congress repeatedly spoke of disunion when describing the potential ill effects of Missouri’s entrance as a slave state. Without a compromise—which was eventually achieved by introducing Maine as a free state—civil war appeared to loom on the horizon.

But Missouri was not only an emblem of the slave power’s increasing hold on the American republic. In the years after achieving statehood, Missouri—and St. Louis in particular—became the site of a growing resistance within the South to slavery and the slave power’s national and international influence. Dred Scott, an enslaved man living in Missouri, sued his master Irene Emerson. Scott and Scott’s wife, Harriet Robinson, had lived for six years in the Illinois and Wisconsin territories while still under the ownership of Emerson and her late husband. Because slavery was illegal in those territories, Scott argued that the time he and Robinson had spent there had made them free. The case was immortalized in 1857, when the Supreme Court ruled against Scott.

Yet the struggle against the slave power continued as St. Louis became home to a large population of German immigrants fleeing their homeland after the failed revolutions of 1848. Their impact on the Civil War and post-Civil War history of St. Louis, and on the country in general, also marked a powerful moment of radicalism in the Atlantic world, as the dreams of European egalitarians merged with those of radicals in the United States.

As a result, Johnson suggests, St. Louis could have followed one of two political paths. The first was blazed by Thomas Hart Benton, the Missouri senator whom Johnson describes as the “prophet” of an imperial United States stretching to the Pacific Ocean and beyond. While serving in the Senate, Benton sponsored several Western expeditions and repeatedly pushed for the construction of military bases throughout the West, to dominate trade with various Indigenous groups, and for a transcontinental railroad. The other was the path supported by Missouri’s radical European immigrants and free Blacks and represented by people like Joseph Weydemeyer, one of the greatest left-wing figures and socialist activists in American history.

Joseph Weydemeyer should be at the top of any list of people in American history whose untimely death provokes the question “What if?” Described by Karl Marx as “one of our best people” in the United States, Weydemeyer arrived in the country in 1851 and pushed activists and intellectuals to forcefully address the problem of slavery. When war finally came in 1861, he and many other German immigrants offered their services to the Union. For Weydemeyer and some of his radical allies, the slave power had to be broken before communism could come to the United States. Weydemeyer ended up serving as a colonel in charge of the defense of St. Louis. Yet his most important contributions were not military in nature, but rather the central role he and his comrades played in the political battles of Civil War–era St. Louis.

Not all of the city’s German residents saw the end of slavery and the victory of the Union as a way to open the nation to more radical dreams. Carl Schurz, who came to the United States in 1852, supported the end of slavery, but after the Union’s victory in 1865, he backed the liberal wing of the Republican Party, which was much less devoted to establishing Black civil and political rights than to enshrining the ideal of free labor across the land—often at the expense of those doing this labor. As Johnson documents, the divisions among Missouri’s Germans over the course of Reconstruction—embodied by the competing visions of Weydemeyer and Schurz—mirrored the divides within the Republican Party and the United States itself. Schurz, like many other Republicans early in the Reconstruction era in 1866 and ‘67, supported political measures that helped enfranchise and empower the newly freed African Americans. But by 1872, he was one of those liberal Republicans who turned away from the racial progress of Reconstruction and saw the plight of Black Americans as something to be solved by the white South.

Weydemeyer, meanwhile, continued as a left-wing beacon. Who knows what would have become of his vision had he not died of cholera in 1866, at age 48. But even after his death, his radical vision lived on—notably in a set of class and labor struggles taking place in St. Louis in the late 1870s. In 1877, the city would be so fundamentally altered by a general strike that, briefly, Americans from New York to California spoke of “the St. Louis commune.”

The labor strife underscored the need for solidarity among white and Black workers, as American capital consolidated and liberal Republicans began to retreat from the egalitarian promise of Reconstruction during the Gilded Age. A key strength of Johnson’s work is his reminder that even as the Great Compromise of 1877 brought Reconstruction to a formal end in the South, class conflict threatened to tear the nation apart again—and as was the case in the Civil War era, St. Louis was at the forefront of this bitter struggle.

The St. Louis general strike of 1877 actually began with strikes in Martinsburg, W.Va., by railway workers angered by, among other things, their terrible working conditions. The strikes soon spread along the rail lines to major cities across the nation. It was in St. Louis, however, that they reached their radical apogee. To achieve this extraordinary moment of radicalized power, Black and white workers joined forces to fight for their rights as laborers. This was revolutionary in itself, considering that many German Americans had already thrown in the towel on the struggle for Black voting rights during the recent Reconstruction period. This historic moment in St. Louis came after years of organizing by German American radicals, abolitionists, and African Americans in the region. Organizations like the Workingmen’s Party led rallies in the city—and yet they too found themselves not radical enough for the moment. Johnson recounts the election of a committee of laborers to meet with the mayor about the crisis; one of them was a Black man known to history only as Wilson. The Workingmen’s Party, Johnson writes, “was being led by the exigency of the moment and the logic of its own rhetoric toward a revolutionary alliance with the Black workers of St. Louis.”

The national media was both appalled by and dismissive of the biracial labor coalition that had formed in St. Louis. Even among some of the strike’s white leaders, Johnson writes, there was surprise at the prominent role their Black comrades played in the movement, creating a rare moment “of interracial working-class solidarity being made plain in the streets.”

Sadly, the eventual collapse of the St. Louis general strike was—like Schurz’s turn to liberal Republicanism and Weydemeyer’s sudden death—a harbinger of the lost opportunities for radicals across the nation. The strike leaders decided to end the outdoor meetings to regain control over the turn of events but found that they had instead “surrendered control of the streets to the police” who then broke up the strike with the Army. Once again, in St. Louis and the country as a whole, a moment for revolutionary change had ended in defeat.

Historians like Heather Cox Richardson, Eric Foner, Richard White, Manisha Sinha, and others have argued for the importance of tying together Reconstruction, westward expansion, and the Gilded Age. After all, they occurred in the same period and were certainly related in the minds the people living at that time. But Johnson reminds us how all three converged in St. Louis—and how they left a lasting imprint on the city.

After the collapse of Reconstruction and the end of the St. Louis commune, the city continued to serve as the central depot for America’s wars against Indigenous people in the West. By the turn of the 20th century, St. Louis’s remained central in American life—geographically, politically, and culturally—even after its periods of radical possibility had passed. At that point, it had already become the capital of ragtime music—“the soundtrack of the emergence of modern African American urban culture,” Johnson writes. Theodore Dreiser used the city to represent the social ills of urban life in a country that was rapidly industrializing and modernizing. And in recognition of its growing cultural significance, St. Louis became the site of the 1904 World’s Fair.

The fair gave the city’s fathers the opportunity to showcase St. Louis to the world. Yet what they showcased was not a city of radical possibility and cultural creativity, but rather one of urban modernity, laced with racism and white supremacy, in all its industrial and technological splendor. Inadvertently, the fair gave the world a view onto modern American capitalism itself. St. Louis’s drive to become a great city—one built on weak government, rampant racism, and deepening class tensions—exemplified the United States at the turn of the 20th century. As Johnson notes, the fair proved to be an ingathering “of professional racists, keepers of human zoos, and Western civilizational luminaries.” A decade before World War I, the technological dreams of Western society were difficult to separate from the racist nightmares being dreamed up by America’s elite—and once again, these converging realities were on ample display in St. Louis.

The fear of interracial solidarity and social democracy was a major presence in the minds of much of America’s elite during the Gilded Age and the early Jim Crow years. The World’s Fair reflected this fear. “There was no room at the fair,” Johnson writes, “for a story about African American racial progress.” The fair’s expositions served as a cultural battleground over the place of racism in American society, with white supremacy almost always winning out. The fairgrounds were filled with segregated restaurants and included a tribute to the enslavement of Black Americans called “the Old Plantation.”

The fair’s racism was a portent of the worsening racial divide in the city and its surrounding area. In 1917, white residents of East St. Louis, a city just across the Illinois border that was becoming an industrial powerhouse in its own right, attacked their Black counterparts in a stunning example of early-20th-century anti-Black violence, one that left anywhere from 39 to over 200 Black Americans dead and drove more than 5,000 from their homes. The events in the summer of 1917 became known as the East St. Louis Massacre. Serving as a prelude to the wave of anti-Black pogroms that would take place in the country in the coming years, the massacre gained international attention—a considerable feat given that World War I was still raging. “This was an attack not just on Black voters or Black workers or Black migrants or Black ‘gun-toters,’ ” Johnson writes; “it was an attack on Black families, on women and children, on the fabric of Black domestic life, on Black houses and bedsteads and photographs and pianos and phonographs and bric-a-brac, on Black wealth as much as Black labor.” The white citizens of East St. Louis did their best to make the Black community feel unwelcome, and they succeeded beyond their wildest, cruelest dreams.

Yet even amid such oppression, the dream of a multiracial industrial and social democracy lingered in the consciousness of the city’s residents. During the bleak years of the Depression, communists worked side by side with Black activists in St. Louis to fight for economic justice—anticipating, as Johnson notes, the broader national context in which the radicals of the ’30s and ’40s laid the foundations for the civil rights movement that emerged in the 1950s. It is no coincidence that Black radicals like C. L. R. James, Claudia Jones, and William H. Patterson went to St. Louis to see this energized freedom movement in person—“not because they thought working-class Black people in the Midwest needed their guidance,” Johnson writes, “but because they wanted to find out what working-class Black people in the Midwest were doing and learn from them.”

Once again, however, the dream of interracial solidarity proved vulnerable to reactionary attack, as the anti-communist backlash forced the movement to go underground in many ways. But another complicating factor was the inability of radicals—Black and white—to truly connect with the city’s Black residents. As Johnson notes, though the communists had some success in organizing Black workers, they struggled to transform these bonds into a movement for radical change.

The failure to create lasting institutions was a problem not just in St. Louis, though a victory there could have made a crucial difference in the fight for industrial democracy and civil rights during the 1930s and ’40s. Homegrown Black communists like Hershel Walker were well aware of this failure. “We should have left them where they were,” he said—meaning that he and his fellow organizers should have focused on the day-to-day experiences and needs of Black workers in St. Louis instead of trying to transform them into communists.

The St. Louis we know today provides a sobering conclusion to the story Johnson tells. The city continues to be riven by racial and class injustice, and Johnson traces these divisions, in part, to all those missed opportunities. With the collapse of the left in the city, the right was emboldened to make its presence felt and to reshape St. Louis in its image. Far-right activist Gerald L. K. Smith published his long-running Christian nationalist magazine, The Cross and the Flag, there from 1942 to 1977. Phyllis Schlafly and Pat Buchanan, two stalwarts of the modern right who often served as a bridge between the far-right beliefs of Smith and his ilk and the more respectable conservatism of the Republican Party, both had their political start in St. Louis.

The use of military equipment and tactics by the police, not to mention their ever-present antagonism toward Black Americans, also have some roots in St. Louis, where the police have long viewed Black residents as the enemy. Starting in the late 1950s, St. Louis cops often referred to the Pruitt-Igoe housing projects, with their predominantly Black residents, as “Korea,” and many of these officers were veterans of that “forgotten war.” The corroded relationship between the police and residents still prevails today. In a 2015 report, the Justice Department under President Obama found “a pattern or practice of unlawful conduct” by the cops in the Greater St. Louis city of Ferguson, including extensive violations of “the First, Fourth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution.” St. Louis began its life as a military installation intended to push Indigenous people from the American West. Today it serves as a continual reminder of the attempts to deprive Black Americans of any and every shred of equal citizenship, often by force.

But as Johnson stresses, the rise of conservative politics in St. Louis was accompanied by a revitalized radicalism. Out of the death of Michael Brown and the organized resistance to the long history of police brutality in Ferguson emerged one of the pillars of the Black Lives Matter movement. This movement brought to the fore a truth that most Americans have refused to deal with in the first two decades of the 21st century: that Black and Indigenous people in the United States, generations after the heyday of the civil rights and Black Power eras, still lag behind everyone else in the country in terms of almost every health and social marker. That the movement has also pushed the American left to think critically about the intersections of race, class, gender, and sexual orientation has been a boon to grassroots activists, who have struggled to make this very point for years.

St. Louis, though it is no longer a city on the rise, remains a mirror of American political life—both its possibilities and its grim realities. A seat of imperial expansion in the 19th century, the city is also rich in radical history, a place where Ferguson activist Cori Bush could win a seat in Congress. St. Louis, as Johnson reminds us, not only represents the worst of American racism; it also remains a beacon illuminating the possibility of a different America. As we begin to grapple with a new age in American politics—one with Joe Biden, not Donald Trump, in the White House—we might look to the example of radical St. Louis for lessons on how to rise above our country’s reactionary and racist heritage.

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