52 One of the most violent race riots occured in East St. Louis.
Panel 52 shows a heated clash between whites and blacks, recalling one of the worst race riots in the early 20th century, which took place in East St. Louis, Illinois, in 1917. During this time, in the wake of World War I, the city’s predominantly white community witnessed a major influx of African Americans coming to fill jobs in the industrial plants. Mounting tensions between the black and whites, whose unions grew resentful of the black workers, ignited the horrific St. Louis riot. Panel 52, which follows two panels that address the widespread riots and bombing taking place in many northern centers of the migration, is one of the more violent scenes in the series. While Lawrence chose not to show any gruesome details, the aggressive encounter powerfully evokes the pain and loss of innocent lives during the weeklong struggle: hundreds of African Americans were killed and thousands of blacks fled St. Louis in fear.
The composition’s interlocking planar geometry recalls the Cubist idiom with which Lawrence’s work has been associated. Just a few years prior to painting it, Lawrence could not have missed news of the coming of Pablo Picasso’s powerful painting Guernica to New York after its debut in the Spanish Pavilion of the International Exposition in Paris. After a popular showing at the Valentine Gallery in summer 1937, the painting was the prominent feature of the Museum of Modern Art’s 1939–40 retrospective Picasso: Forty Years of Art, and remained on long-term loan to MoMA until 1981.