White Supremacist Violence Is All Too American

Whenever Black Americans make advances, they face a torrent of racist backlash.

Robert Greene II

Hundreds attended an August 19 march in Pittsburgh, Pa., organized by the Black Brilliance Collective in response to the white supremacist violence in Charlottesville, Va. (Photo by Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)

Real Amer­i­cans under­stand that our nation is built around val­ues,” wrote New York Times colum­nist Paul Krug­man fol­low­ing the dead­ly right-wing vio­lence in Char­lottesville, Va. These days we have a pres­i­dent who is real­ly, tru­ly, deeply un-Amer­i­can, some­one who doesn’t share the val­ues and ideals that made this coun­try special.”

Make no mis­take: The resur­gence of armed white suprema­cist groups is exceed­ing­ly dan­ger­ous. Don­ald Trump’s refusal to unequiv­o­cal­ly con­demn them per­haps even more so. But what does it mean to call these behav­iors un-American?

Study­ing U.S. his­to­ry means com­ing to terms with right-wing ter­ror­ism as a fea­ture, not a fluke, of the Amer­i­can experience.

This vio­lence often surges at moments when Amer­i­can val­ues and ideals are most hot­ly con­test­ed. Con­sid­er an edi­to­r­i­al by Ku Klux Klan (KKK) Impe­r­i­al Wiz­ard Hiram Evans in 1925, when immi­gra­tion and civ­il rights were front-page news. With­in a few years, the Amer­i­ca of our fathers will either be saved or lost,” Evans wrote in the main­stream mag­a­zine The Forum. All who wish to see it saved must work with us.” This echoes the chants of torch-bear­ing marchers in Char­lottesville: You will not replace us.”

Con­verse­ly, the unful­filled promise in the Amer­i­can ide­al of lib­er­ty and jus­tice for all” has giv­en birth to many move­ments deter­mined to win its fullest pos­si­ble expres­sion. For every the­o­reti­cian of race sci­ence” or pro­po­nent of sep­a­rate but equal,” we will find abo­li­tion­ists and civ­il rights activists. These two forces are the yin and yang of the Amer­i­can spir­it. At our core, we are a nation still strug­gling over wild­ly dif­fer­ent inter­pre­ta­tions of Amer­i­can val­ues. Sim­ply stat­ing that the events in Char­lottesville and Trump’s response are un-Amer­i­can” risks the impres­sion that this bat­tle has already been won.

Here, I con­sid­er four key peri­ods when rightwing vio­lence helped derail civ­il rights gains. The les­son is sober­ing: Any suc­cess­ful lib­er­a­tion move­ment is like­ly to encounter right-wing back­lash. The bat­tle between America’s anti-racist ideals and its racist id con­tin­ues. Beyond dis­avow­ing the lat­ter, we must con­tin­ue the fight for the former.

1873: Col­fax Massacre

Fol­low­ing the Civ­il War, African Amer­i­cans mobi­lized rapid­ly to demand full par­tic­i­pa­tion in polit­i­cal and eco­nom­ic life. Aprox­i­mate­ly 2,000 African Amer­i­cans, includ­ing many freed slaves, were elect­ed to pub­lic office.

But the back­lash from south­ern whites was fierce. In Louisiana, the White League” attacked black vot­ers and ran pro-Recon­struc­tion Repub­li­cans out of office. In April 1873, the League was part of a white mob that marched on the coun­ty cour­t­house in Col­fax, La., a town split between most­ly black Repub­li­can and white Demo­c­ra­t­ic vot­ers. An all-black mili­tia assem­bled to defend Repub­li­can offi­cials. The white mob fired a can­non at the cour­t­house and pro­ceed­ed to shoot and lynch at least 60 black peo­ple. Nine white men were charged with vio­lat­ing the Enforce­ment Acts, which for­bade inter­fer­ence with the rights of African Amer­i­cans. Ulti­mate­ly, the Supreme Court ruled that the Acts applied strict­ly to vio­la­tions by the states, not indi­vid­u­als, embold­en­ing white suprema­cist groups and even­tu­al­ly crip­pling Reconstruction.

1919: Elaine Massacre

Many African Amer­i­cans who fought in World War I under the pre­tense of mak­ing the world safe for democ­ra­cy” returned home expect­ing greater free­doms for themselves.

In Arkansas, where white planters had a stran­gle­hold on the local gov­ern­ment and econ­o­my, black share­crop­pers found­ed the Pro­gres­sive Farm­ers and House­hold Union of Amer­i­ca to demand bet­ter wages and work­ing con­di­tions. When planters tried to break up a union meet­ing in Elaine, Ark., in Sep­tem­ber 1919, one attack­er was killed in a fight. In response, local news­pa­pers stoked pan­ic of a black con­spir­a­cy and planters mobi­lized white mili­tias to mur­der union share­crop­pers. More than 230 African Amer­i­cans were killed. No one was ever charged.

The Elaine mas­sacre was the sev­enth inci­dent of anti-black vio­lence dur­ing what became known as the Red Sum­mer” of 1919, a bru­tal reasser­tion of white suprema­cy as civ­il rights orga­ni­za­tions began mount­ing chal­lenges to Jim Crow.

1963: Six­teenth Street Church Bombing

An esti­mat­ed 250,000 peo­ple attend­ed the March on Wash­ing­ton for Jobs and Free­dom in August 1963. A few weeks lat­er, the Ku Klux Klan bombed the Six­teenth St. Church in Birm­ing­ham, Ala., mur­der­ing four black girls.

1979: Greens­boro Massacre

In 1972, Rep. Bar­bara Jor­dan (D‑Texas) and Rep. Andrew Young (D‑Ga.) became the first African Amer­i­cans elect­ed to Con­gress from the Deep South in the 20th cen­tu­ry. Mean­while, in Greens­boro, N.C., left-wing activists grew bold­er in their attempts to orga­nize pre­dom­i­nant­ly black tex­tile work­ers. But the reasser­tion of black eco­nom­ic and polit­i­cal pow­er drew backlash.

On Nov. 3, 1979, the KKK and neo-Nazis showed up to dis­rupt an anti-Klan ral­ly at Morn­ing­side Homes hous­ing project, ulti­mate­ly open­ing fire on the crowd and killing five left-wing activists. No one ever went to prison for the murders.

2017: Con­fronting Charlottesville

The week after a white suprema­cist killed one and injured dozens in Char­lottesville, Va., at least 30 cities host­ed counter-demon­stra­tions. On August 19 in Pitts­burgh, hun­dreds attend­ed a march orga­nized by the Black Bril­liance Col­lec­tive. An antiracist demon­stra­tion in Boston the same day drew 1919 an esti­mat­ed 40,000.

Robert Greene II is a Ph.D. can­di­date in his­to­ry at the Uni­ver­si­ty of South Car­oli­na and the book review edi­tor for the Soci­ety for U.S. Intel­lec­tu­al His­to­ry. His writ­ing has appeared in out­lets includ­ing Dis­sent, Politi­co and Scalawag.
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