Home > Uncategorized > History shows another way to look at the events of January 6 – posted 3/23/2021

History shows another way to look at the events of January 6 – posted 3/23/2021

After the events of January 6, most media commentary highlighted the uniqueness of an attack on the U.S. Capitol. The War of 1812, when the British attacked Washington DC, was often cited as the best parallel.

I would like to suggest a different way of looking at January 6. In American history, white mob violence has recurred when white supremacists have believed they were losing political control of the government. These mobs have been unwilling to accept multiracial democracy and, in the past, their violence worked successfully to restore white power. This pattern has gone on for over 150 years.

Republicans have tried to downplay January 6 and simply want the public to get over it. Some Republicans argue they did nothing wrong. Many Democrats have seen the January 6 insurrectionists as victims of Trumpian misinformation. Neither of these perspectives offer a clear lens on January 6.

Before January 6, Trump had argued the presidential election was stolen. His claim was that he was a victim of voter fraud. Trump and his lawyers particularly mentioned voter fraud in large metropolitan areas like Philadelphia, Atlanta, and Detroit. These were all big cities in swing states with high concentrations of African-American voters.

The narrative of the former president was that he got legitimate votes and that Biden got votes that were not legitimate. Trump’s inference was that African-American votes should not have been counted or were counted wrongly.

The insurrection was about stopping or delaying certification of Biden’s election as President which was slated to happen on January 6. It is hard to forget the Confederate flags paraded inside the Capitol or the gallows and noose constructed outside.

Trump’s arguments are the exact same arguments white supremacists repeatedly have made since the later part of the 19th century during and after Reconstruction. Preventing African-American votes has been a long-time central goal. While Trump did not win this time, the actions of his supporters were absolutely consistent with the white supremacist use of mob violence to overturn election results.

After the Civil War, Black Americans in the South served both in Congress and in state legislatures. Black Republicans and their white allies formed a fusionist politics that was defeating white supremacists at the polls. Unwilling to accept electoral defeat, white supremacist forces resorted to mob violence.

The Ku Klux Klan first emerged in the late 1860’s to oppose politically active Blacks and their white allies. The Klan was followed by other paramilitary groups like the Red Shirts and the White League. Voter intimidation and making it impossible for Black people to vote was their main project.

White mob violence forced African-Americans and their white allies out of power. The South returned to control by white supremacists and the South came under effective one party totalitarian rule. Black people lost almost all their rights for another 100 years. Poor whites also suffered under the rule of the Southern white power aristocracy.

As noted, the subjugation of African-Americans in the South during and after Reconstruction was extremely violent. In 1876, white supremacists in South Carolina faced a daunting challenge. To quote Benjamin Tillman, a white leader:

“In my state there were 135,000 negro voters or negroes of voting age, and some 90,000 or 95,000 white voters. With a free vote and a fair count, how are you going to beat 135,000 by 95,000? How are you going to do it?”

The solution for the South Carolina white supremacists was seizure of the government through mob violence. A straight-up democratic election was unthinkable as the numbers dictated certain loss.

Near Hamburg, South Carolina, a place of Black political power, whites staged a confrontation with Black soldiers. They went to court to seek a court order to take away the Black soldiers’ guns. When these Black soldiers refused to disarm, a much larger white mob attacked, killing seven Black men. The event became known as the Hamburg massacre. The attack was organized by the Red Shirts, a white supremacist group.

As the 1876 presidential election approached, white terror attacks increased. The white minority in South Carolina stuffed ballot boxes and terrorized Black voters to prevent voting. Democrats took over the state government. The federal government had earlier sent troops into the South to crush the Klan but that willingness declined later in Reconstruction.

Events similar to what happened in Hamburg, South Carolina played out in other parts of the South after the Civil War. In Memphis, Tennessee, Colfax Louisiana, and New Orleans, white mobs rampaged. There was an epidemic of organized raids, lynchings, beatings and burnings.

At the same time, white supremacists organized propaganda campaigns to denigrate Black-led governments in the South. The Black-led governments were labelled corrupt and Blacks were stereotyped as lazy and inept.

The Equal Justice Initiative documented 4075 racial terror lynchings in the Southern states between 1877-1950. Lynching was a widely supported practice used to enforce racial subordination. These events were tolerated by both state and federal authorities. In the period of the late 19th and early 20th century, white mob violence took the form of lynching. Lynchings were often public events where Black people were tortured and murdered in front of picnicking crowds.

All the former Confederate states also instituted poll taxes in the period after the Civil War. Poll taxes were a powerful barrier blocking voting by both African-Americans and poor whites. Poll taxes remained legal until 1964 when the 24th amendment was ratified. In addition, many states instituted literacy tests. Such tests remained legal until 1965 when they were prohibited under the Voting Rights Act.

Until the civil rights movement of the 1960’s, Jim Crow ruled and Blacks were utterly disenfranchised. Since the 1960’s, voter suppression has continued through felon disenfranchisement, voter ID laws, reducing polling places and early voting and making it harder to vote by mail.

The insurrection of January 6 was just one battle in a very long war between the forces of white supremacy and people of all races and nationalities who seek a multiracial democracy. White supremacy largely represented by the Republican Party now remains determined to suppress voting as a means to maintain their minority rule.

According to the Brennan Center, since Trump’s defeat, Republican lawmakers have proposed 250 voter-restriction bills in 43 states. This is modern-day Jim Crow. In addition to voter suppression, they rely on gerrymandering, dark money and control of the courts. In Orwellian fashion, Republicans are calling their efforts to make it harder to vote “voter integrity”.

In his book, Black Reconstruction in America, W.E.B. Dubois wrote, “the slave went free, stood a brief moment in the sun, then moved back again toward slavery”. The insurrectionists of January 6 and the Republican Party are the modern-day forces trying to take away our moment in the sun.

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