“These people are not from here,” Rep. Thomas Garrett affirmed in the wake of an American Nazi and Klan rally that descended into smoke and violence in his Virginia congressional district on Saturday. “It blows my mind that this many racist bigots actually exist in this country.” White supremacists, he continued, do not reflect “who we are as Americans.”
It’s a little surprising that Garrett is surprised. Even as he spoke, a photograph circulated of the congressman meeting recently with Jason Kessler, a white supremacist from Charlottesville who organized the rally. The purpose of the meeting, Garrett’s office insisted, was unrelated to yesterday’s rally; the two men discussed a range of issues, including President Donald Trump’s anti-terrorism and immigration restriction initiatives.
To be fair, Garrett might not perceive the tight spectrum that runs between between racialist policies and white supremacist violence. He may also genuinely believe that aggrieved white men marching in lockstep by torchlight do not reflect “who we are as Americans.” Indeed, many public figures on both the left and right—people like Sally Yates, Tim Kaine and Ana Navarro, whose anti-racist and anti-fascist credentials are unimpeachable—echoed this well-meaning sentiment.
But as the historian and New Yorker staff writer Jelani Cobb observed, “The biggest indictment of the way we teach American history is that people can look at #Charlottesville and say ‘This is not who we are.’” It is part of the myth of American Exceptionalism that blood and soil movements like Nazism are foreign to the United States—that jackbooted fascism of the variety that infects democratic institutions is an invasive weed that can be easily plucked out of our national garden.
To affirm that this is not who we are, one has to erase the history of American race relations from our very recent, collective past.
Politicians and pundits often invoke the idea of American Exceptionalism with little understanding of its origins. A woolly concept with roots that extend back to the era of colonial settlement, it views the United States as somehow immune from the forces of history. The term assumed prominence in the middle part of the 20th century, as social scientists working in the aftermath of two world wars attempted to understand why endemic social, economic and political divisions that drove a century of combat, ethnic cleansing and genocide in Europe were seemingly non-operative in the United States. Was it because America lacked a feudal past? Because it was a land with greater material bounty? Was it the leveling influence of the frontier that made us different?
The entire debate was an exercise in national innocence. In retrospect, it’s remarkable that some of the country’s best minds even stopped to ponder the question. To believe that the United States had been immune to the forces that produced blood-and-soil fascism, they had to write off a great deal of recent history.
By a conservative estimate, from 1890 to 1917 white Southerners lynched roughly three black people each week. “Back in those days, to kill a Negro was nothing,” a black man from Mississippi later recalled. “It was like killing a chicken or killing a snake.”
Many of these murders took place under cover of darkness, but many didn’t. So-called spectacle lynchings—like the execution of Sam Hose, who was burned alive by a large white mob in Georgia in 1898, or Luther Holdbert and his wife, whose fingers were chopped off one by one, and whose eyes were torn from their sockets in front of an admiring crowd of 1,000 of their white neighbors before their death—were premeditated and well-attended acts of public amusement. They were announced in advance by newspaper advertisement. Day laborers and middle-class professionals traveled by specially chartered trains just to participate or bear witness.
“Some ladies were present,” a newspaper observed of a typical lynching in Mississippi in 1909. “A few were nursing infants who tugged at the mother’s breasts, while the mother kept her eyes on the gallows. She didn’t want to lose any part of the program she had come miles to see, and to tell the neighbors at home.”
This wasn’t just a story of Southern terror. It’s also the story of race riots that befell over three dozen cities, north and south, in 1919, usually triggered by organized white mob violence against black citizens, some of them fresh from military service in World War I and still donning uniforms.
In the same way that midcentury scholars ignored the homespun violence so prevalent in their recent history, today, well-meaning people on the left and right have glossed over resurgent American tendencies on display yesterday in Charlottesville. The pathetic specter of suburban white men donning camouflage uniforms and bearing long guns and clubs may conjure images of Berlin in 1932, but it should also invoke memories of the United States in the 1920s.
During the 1920s, roughly 5 million men, and 500,000 women, were at one time dues-paying members of the second Ku Klux Klan, an informal fraternal organization that also functioned in many communities as an extralegal citizens’ militia. Though many of its local chapters bore closer resemblance to the American Legion than to the shadowy band of vigilantes who terrorized the Southern countryside a half-century before, others were unusually violent—particularly the Texas Klan, headed by Hiram Evans, a former Dallas dentist with a burning hatred of the organization’s usual roster of victims: Jews, Catholics and African-Americans. As early as 1921, a damning expose in the New York World chronicled a nationwide KKK terror campaign that included four murders, 41 beatings and 27 tar-and-feather parties.
The second Ku Klux Klan drew many—perhaps most—of its members from cities and metropolitan areas. Its rosters included a fairly even mix of small-business men, professionals and manual workers. While all Klansmen were white Protestants, many attended mainline churches. Unlike the original Klan, which was a Southern phenomenon, the new organization drew from a cross-section of white Protestant America and was especially influential in Midwestern states like Indiana.
Like their predecessors of the 1860s, Klansmen were primarily concerned about maintaining white Protestant supremacy, but they also fashioned themselves as great moralists, often calling for more vigorous enforcement of Prohibition laws. In some cases, they stepped in to fill the void left by local police, as when they conducted highly publicized raids on private stills in Oklahoma and “arrested” 140 violators of anti-liquor laws.
Above all, they feared the corrosive effects of modern culture on traditional family values. An apparent rise in illicit sex and marital infidelity drove the Klan to undertake a bizarre, often sadistic, campaign of vigilante justice against men and women who most conspicuously flouted 19th-century social conventions. In Texas, Klansmen beat a man from Timpson who had separated from his wife and a lawyer from Houston who “annoyed” local girls. In Tenaha, they stripped, flogged and tarred and feathered a woman who stood accused of remarrying before filing for a proper divorce. In Grove Creek, Klan riders broke into the home of a recently divorced woman who was convalescing from an illness; they dragged her from bed, chopped off her hair and beat her male visitor senseless with a flail.
Naturally, the Klan particularly reviled “the revolting spectacle of a white woman clinging in the arms of a colored man.” But more pedestrian violations of Victorian propriety also vexed members of the order. In Evansville, Indiana, William Wilson, the teenage son of the local Democratic congressman, remembered that Klan riders ruthlessly patrolled back roads in search of teenagers embroiled in petting parties or improper embraces. Armed with their National Horse Thief Detective Association badges—emblems of a 19th-century vigilante organization—the KKK “entered homes without search warrants” and “flogged errant husbands and wives. They tarred and feathered drunks. They caught couples in parked cars.” In an almost pornographic ceremony that was repeated dozens if not hundreds of times, Klan members hauled “fallen women” to remote locations, stripped them naked and flogged them.
Above all, the Klan’s advocacy of “100 percent Americanism,” racial purity and moral order were different but compatible parts of the same crusade against the most unsettling features of modern culture and society. At a parade in Texarkana, Arkansas, Klansmen carried various signs that spoke to the unity of the organization’s otherwise diverse interests:
LAW AND ORDER MUST PREVAIL.
COHABITATION BETWEEN WHITES AND BLACKS MUST STOP
BOOTLEGGERS, PIMPS, HANGERS-ON, GET RIGHT OR GET OUT.
WIFE-BEATERS, FAMILY-DESERTERS, HOME-WRECKERS, WE HAVE NO ROOM FOR YOU
LAW VIOLATORS, WE ARE WATCHING YOU. BEWARE.
GO JOY RIDING WITH YOUR OWN WIFE.
WE STAND FOR OLD GLORY AND 100% AMERICANISM
The ugliness on display in Charlottesville in 2017 is not foreign to American tradition. Neither are the interconnected grievances of would-be militiamen who entangle their racial resentments with morbid fears of same-sex marriage and transgender bathroom laws. They’re an absolutely American story. They’re part of who we’ve always been.
Violence in the service of preserving white Protestant supremacy is woven firmly into the fabric of our national history. In this sense, the violence in Charlottesville is an entirely American phenomenon. So is the steady unraveling of democratic norms, civilities and institutions—the rise of fake news, the flagrant mendacity of White House spokespeople, political attacks on public education and universities, degradation of civic discourse and parliamentary procedure—that concerns so many opponents of the Trump administration. These phenomena, too, are of a piece with what happened yesterday in Virginia. In our not-so-distant past, the United States has willingly torched its democratic traditions in the service of enforcing white supremacy.
In Mississippi in the 1950s—the “Magnolia Jungle,” as a liberal newspaperman called it at the time—democracy was effectively non-operational. It’s not just the story of Emmett Till, a young black boy from Illinois, who, while visiting relatives, was brutally lynched. It’s the story of the White Citizens' Councils, which claimed over 25,000 middle-class businessmen and professionals as members. Preferring methods of nonviolent coercion, they besieged civil rights activists, black parents who attempted to enroll their children in all-white schools, and a small number of white clergymen and educators who opposed Jim Crow. Targets suddenly found their mortgages or business loans called in, insurance policies canceled, teaching jobs revoked.
For many white Mississippians, preserving racial privilege took precedent over enforcing democracy. A grand jury in Jones County demanded that the state screen library books to weed out those with subversive, pro-civil rights messages. The state chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution demanded censorship of school curricula and materials. The Citizens' Council worked actively to ban an educational film, The High Wall, that the Anti-Defamation League had produced. (The film didn’t concern race relations, strictly speaking; it highlighted prejudice against a white ethnic family in a predominately Protestant town. No matter: It was dangerous enough.)
White Mississippians also walled themselves off from real news. When Thurgood Marshall appeared on the Today Show in September 1955, the local NBC affiliate pulled the plug in midinterview. The episode established a powerful precedent. In the coming years, national television newscasts frequently went dark. “Sorry, Cable Trouble,” became a familiar screen filler.
Decades before Fox News, Sinclair Broadcast Group and Breitbart were accused as functioning as state media outlets for the Trump administration, the Hederman brothers—Robert and Thomas—operated the only two statewide daily newspapers in Mississippi. With a combined circulation of 90,000—formidable given the place and time—their outlets were heavy on white grievance and light on fact. “To read the Hederman press day after day,” wrote one contemporary, “is to understand what the people of the state believe and are prepared to defend.”
It wasn’t just Mississippi that traded civilization for white supremacy. In Virginia, the scene of Saturday’s riot, the Legislature repealed the state’s mandatory school law in 1959 rather than comply with court-ordered desegregation. Several jurisdictions, including Norfolk, Charlottesville, Warren County and Prince Edward County shuttered their elementary and high schools and handed out vouchers that white parents could use at private institutions. These private subsidies helped spur the rapid growth of segregated Christian schools that became a training ground for the newly awakened Religious Right.
If it’s historically inaccurate to claim this is not who we are, or who we have been, it’s essential to believe that this is not who we should be.
The white supremacy on display in Charlottesville is not a betrayal of American history. It is a return to our darker past. It’s crudely revanchist, it threatens the very core of our democracy and for the first time in a long time, it enjoys safe harbor and nurture in the highest corridors of power.
After the attack, our quick-thumbed president, never shy about denouncing enemies both real and imagined, couldn’t bring himself to denounce white supremacy. Couldn’t bring himself to denounce the Klan. Couldn’t even be moved to denounce Nazis. On Sunday, the White House released a statement denouncing white supremacists, but Trump himself still remains silent. He knows his base. And as long as Steve Bannon, Stephen Miller, Julia Hahn and Sebastian Gorka—all of whom have actively promoted and endorsed racialist ideology and policies—work in the West Wing, this is not a fringe movement. It is mainstream. It represents the governing philosophy of the governing party—the Republican Party.
The country, and especially the GOP—which controls 34 governorships and majorities in both houses of Congress—stand at a crossroads. One road leads forward, and the other winds backward. We can return to being the kind of country we were in 1925 or 1955—the kind of country that knowingly sacrificed democratic norms and institutions to enforce white supremacy, often through violence and force—or we can join other advanced, civilized nations in embracing the future. Many of these nations, particularly in Europe, are also contending with the rise of right-wing populist movements. But they are deeply aware of their past—a past that includes ethnic cleansing, genocide and race laws—and arguably better positioned to deal with their present.
Part of making an informed decision is understanding our history.
Joshua Zeitz, a Politico Magazine contributing editor, has taught American history and politics at Cambridge University and Princeton University and is the author of Lincoln’s Boys: John Hay, John Nicolay, and the War for Lincoln's Image. He is currently writing a book on the making of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. Follow him @joshuamzeitz.
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