The Christchurch Massacre and the threat of white supremacy

The death toll in Christchurch now stands at forty-nine souls massacred in highly organized and coordinated attacks on two mosques. Because the shooter live-streamed his action and publicized a manifesto, the usual cautions to wait and investigate before labeling the act one of terrorism do not apply. It’s a clear act of white supremacist terror in which the perpetrator has labeled himself a fascist and racist. It joins a growing list of such deadly attacks, which includes (but is not limited to) the massacre of twelve at the Tree of Life synagogue in June 2018, the slaying of six Muslims in a Quebec City mosque in 2017, the murder of nine black Christians in Charleston in 2015, and the mass shooting resulting in the deaths of six Sikhs in Oak Creek, Wisconsin in 2012.

Undoubtedly many national security officers worldwide today are grappling much more seriously with the threat of white supremacist terror. It is with great sadness and horror that we acknowledge New Zealand’s entrance into the club that no one wants to join. As Americans, we need to recognize as well the unfortunately important role that American supremacists have played in developing and disseminating supremacist rhetoric, and in encouraging supremacist violence. The Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center, both of which track hate groups and their influence, confirm that supremacy is on the rise, and it has gone global. The federal government must take the threat of white supremacist violence seriously, investigate the connection between ideology and violence, and dismantle the infrastructure of hate that has grown all too quietly and explosively in the last several years. Our government is failing in this critical task, endangering our own residents as well as innocent people worldwide. We have some lessons to remember from the past in this endeavor.

The rise of the Klan

As the Civil War ended, six Tennessee Confederates founded a social fraternal organization and named it the Ku Klux Klan. While the Klan did not begin with the intent of engaging in structural repressive violence to restore white supremacy, it grew rapidly through grass-roots dissemination and independent identification with its trappings and customs. Rather than Facebook, Instagram, Reddit, and the like, newspapers performed a critical function by publishing missives and manifestos that others adopted and assimilated. The group’s growth across the south marched hand in hand with its radicalization and turn to violence.

Mass violence quickly became a hallmark of the Klan and related groups. In 1866, mass attacks on blacks in Memphis and New Orleans took dozens of lives in each city. By 1868, the Klan was widespread, with Confederate General (and architect of the wartime Fort Pillow massacre of black Union soldiers) Nathan Bedford Forrest as its leader.

Federal recognition and intervention

The federal government’s motivations for acknowledging the problem were not entirely pure. Ulysses Grant and the Republicans needed black votes to maintain Republican dominance, and one of the Klan’s main objectives was to force blacks out of the political sphere. Nevertheless, both the President and Congress made organized supremacist violence a campaign issue and pledged to address it. The election itself steeled their will as Klan supremacists in Kansas, Georgia, and Louisiana murdered and terrorized blacks and Republicans with abandon.

Cautious steps taken in 1869 did little, so in 1870 and 1871, Congress moved much more assertively. A federal grand jury in 1869 declared the Klan to be a terrorist organization, and Congress responded. Three acts, collectively known as the Enforcement Acts, targeted the Klan and related organizations for destruction. Congressional hearings held in 1871 detailed the scope of Klan violence, providing a public platform for individual stories of terror, injury, and death. With the Enforcement Acts in place, the federal government had the legal framework it needed to develop and exercise new capacities.

The first Enforcement Act criminalized the assembling of people in disguise to travel together publicly or to invade private premises to violate citizens’ constitutional rights. The second Act placed the administration of national elections under federal control and empowered federal judges and marshals to supervise voting. The third empowered the President to use military force against “those who conspired to deny equal protection of the laws” and to suspend habeas corpus if necessary.

Suppressing the Klan

As historian Lou Falkner Williams has detailed, federal investigators and prosecutors went to South Carolina, the heart of Klan violence and activism. Armed with the capacity to suspend habeas corpus, conduct undercover investigations, and bring prosecutions, they got to work. Their goals were lofty – they wanted to create the groundwork for national recognition of black civil and political rights, and they knew that creating this new world of equality would require breaking the back of the Klan. Federal District Attorney David Corbin and Attorney General Amos Akerman collaborated, and Akerman ensured that Corbin’s needs were a top federal priority. While the Klan’s activities were private, the federal government’s attorneys reasoned that the domestic violence they were fomenting was a threat to civil rights and civic membership, which justified strong measures.

Under Akerman’s leadership and through the relentless work of federal DAs in South Carolina and elsewhere, six hundred Klansmen were arrested, tried, and convicted. By the end of 1872, the Klan no longer existed as a functional supremacist organization, and supremacist violence was temporarily checked. The Klan itself did not re-emerge until the 1910s.

What can we learn from the past?

The end of this story is not so positive. Federal will to enforce black rights crumbled and Republicans became less committed to continuing the battle to enforce black political empowerment. The new prosecutorial capacity eventually became diverted to address a different and less controversially identified evil among white policymakers: that of Mormon polygamy. After federal troops withdrew and the prosecutions stopped, supremacist violence resumed. Nonetheless, during the time that the federal government was taking white supremacist violence seriously, individual actors were able to make a difference.

The ideology of white supremacy, now as then, is ugly, violent, and a threat to democracy. It is also persistent, with deep roots in American culture that aren’t easily extricated even when its visible elements are attacked. Concerted and coordinated efforts undertaken with an eye toward the long run, however, can change the game. To be effective, these efforts require full collaboration among all branches of the federal government: the creation of necessary tools and capacity by Congress, the mobilization and exercise of this capacity by the executive branch, and the courts’ engagement to support full criminal and civil accountability.

The specific tools created for the Reconstruction version of white supremacy probably aren’t the right ones now (aside, perhaps, from a twenty-first century effort to remove supremacists’ digital masks). Like the Radical Republicans, our current national officers need to take alarm and let that alarm spur creative action. But other tools created for other purposes since then, like those for addressing criminal conspiracies as federal crimes as just one example, could also help.

I’m well aware that this call for action seems quixotic at best, given the tenor of our national politics. But to continue to deflect, ignore, and minimalize the problem is both irresponsible and reprehensible. It is quickly becoming – dare I say – more than a national emergency.

1 thought on “The Christchurch Massacre and the threat of white supremacy

  1. Excellent piece on the past prelude to our current problem. I would add one additional element to the causes of the ultimate failure of the federal government to enforce civil rights and keep the lid on racist violence: the sad, critical role of the Supreme Court in gutting the Enforcement Acts (and important elements of the 14th Amendment) in its 1876 CRUIKSHANK decision. And now, in a similar moment of crisis, the country is again faced with a SCOTUS whose members have demonstrated antipathy towards the civil and political rights (and needs) of minorities and individuals.

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