“Racism,” the President droned in a teleprompter speech, “is evil … white supremacists and other hate groups are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans.” Just days earlier, an anti-racist protestor was murdered at the hands of a white nationalist in Charlottesville, Virginia, and Donald Trump had condemned violence “on many sides.” After a backlash, he was playing clean up. But Trump’s remarks were so transparently disingenuous, and his affect so listless, that no one would be in danger of thinking he was invested in denouncing the white supremacists who make up a sizable portion of his base. Rather, they revealed the language of tolerance as first and foremost a script from which even our most blatantly anti-black politicians are obliged to read. He repudiated his own repudiation the very next day.
The Civil Rights movement made outright, avowed beliefs in white supremacy socially unacceptable. But racist mob violence has a long and robust history in the U.S., both before the 1960s and after. It forms a part of America’s political sediment, a foundation upon which our contemporary politics are built. Understanding what happened in Charlottesville requires that we contextualize the Unite the Right rally in a genealogy of post-Civil War racist violence intended to intimidate anyone who challenges white supremacy’s logic.
After the Civil War, the Union placed the South under military occupation and instituted the process known as Reconstruction. As Eric Foner narrates in his landmark history Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, Reconstruction was a radical re-envisioning of the American state, a series of programs that carved out space for black political power and sought to address slavery’s traumatic legacy. Programs like the Freedman’s Bureau, which was established in 1865, established a network of public schools to educate recently freed slaves, and provided refugees with the essentials they would need for their new lives as citizens. African Americans joined forces with President Ulysses S. Grant, along with a political faction called the Radical Republicans in Congress and the reconstituted Southern legislatures, to achieve political power. Soon, blacks held about 15% of the elected offices in the South.
Black political progress incited enormous antipathy among Southern whites, some factions of whom sought to reassert white supremacy as the law of the land. The Ku Klux Klan arose to terrorize African Americans, launching an anti-equality insurgency against the Radical Republican agenda. By 1874, these insurgents were openly staging coups against state and local governments in order to suppress black progress.
In Louisiana, a racist paramilitary organization known as the Crescent City White League occupied New Orleans in an attempt to eject Louisiana’s Radical Republican state government. That conflict dated back to Louisiana’s disputed 1872 gubernatorial election, the results of which were deeply divisive. Though the Republican candidate, William Kellogg, who claimed mass black support, was declared the victor, his Democratic rival, John McEnery, refused to concede. McEnery had been accused of violence and intimidation against black voters during the election, and in 1874 he led the White League in open rebellion. White supremacists set up a parallel government in New Orleans, and were only dislodged from power after pro-federal forces defeated them in the Battle of Liberty Place. Louisiana’s racist uprising failed, but President Grant had to send federal troops into New Orleans to ensure that the democratically elected Kellogg maintained power.
Other such governments were not so lucky. Well after Reconstruction had ended and white supremacy reigned once again in the South, racists freely harassed Fusionist governments—Republican-affiliated state-level populist parties that represented black interests in tandem with those of working class whites. In 1898, racist forces in Wilmington, North Carolina fomented a riot to dislodge a biracial Republican city council. White supremacists aligned with the Democratic Party sought to uproot not only the Republican council, but also Wilmington’s African-Americans; at the time, the city was home to a prominent middle class black community, including the only black-owned newspaper in North Carolina. A militia of over 1,000 men drove Fusionists from the city, and imposed martial law on the African Americans who remained.
This was only the beginning. Wilmington was a trial run for the types of Jim Crow policies and tactics that wouldn’t be overturned until the Civil Rights Movement nearly a century later. Once African Americans began to agitate for the right to vote and attend integrated public schools, segregationists responded with vicious acts of terrorism, including bombings of black churches. When the federal government forcibly integrated Southern institutions, segregationists staged protests that often involved violence against federal troops and the African Americans those troops were charged with protecting. On September 30, 1962, federal forces enforced Brown v. Board of Education by escorting James Meredith as he attempted to enroll at the University of Mississippi. Meredith and his escort were met by an unruly mob of thousands of white demonstrators, eager to continue segregation by force. Acting with Mississippi governor Ross Barnett’s implicit support, the protestors injured federal servicemen, killed a journalist, and descended into a riot that lasted fifteen hours. The events forced President John Kennedy to order reinforcements into Oxford to quell the violence.
Trump’s remarks providing cover for violent racist agitators aren’t even the first time white supremacy has found sanction within the post-Civil War White House. Rutherford B. Hayes ended Reconstruction in exchange for electoral victory in the Compromise of 1877, which saw the federal government withdraw troops from the South, abandoning African Americans to Jim Crow’s barbarism. In the early 20th century, Woodrow Wilson, a white supremacist who detested Reconstruction, occupied the White House. He screened Birth of a Nation in the residence.
American politics since the Civil War can be viewed as a ferocious struggle over the question of whether or not our nation will embrace equality or deny black humanity and doom a sizable number of its citizens to misery. History shows us that African Americans have been under sustained, armed threat ever since the notion of racial equality emerged as a feasible political position. Contemporary expressions of sympathy for the Confederacy are a continuation of this assault. It’s no wonder that the protests this spring over the removal of the Liberty Place Monument in New Orleans—protests that were in some cases attended by armed, would-be insurgents—sought to maintain a statue that commemorates not the Confederate war dead, but the 1874 insurrection against Reconstruction.
Charlottesville joins the ranks of violent uprisings meant to forestall any attempt to make equality the law of the land. It’s in this light that we must perceive the neo-Nazis who marched near the University of Virginia. They sought not only to advance a racist agenda, but also to invoke their predecessors’ history of racist barbarity. We can’t combat this threat by neatly declaring white supremacy antithetical to American ideals. Rather, we need to confront and uproot that ideology’s lingering legacy in our contemporary political culture—a legacy that persists not just at alt-right rallies, but in the halls of Congress, our schools, and the nation’s criminal justice policies as well.