The History Of White Supremacist Groups In The U.S.

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White nationalist demonstrators walk into Lee park surrounded by counter demonstrators in Charlottesville, Va., Saturday, Aug. 12, 2017. Gov. (Steve Helber/AP)
White nationalist demonstrators walk into Lee park surrounded by counter demonstrators in Charlottesville, Va., Saturday, Aug. 12, 2017. Gov. (Steve Helber/AP)

The nation is still taking stock Wednesday of President Trump's latest comments on the deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, last weekend.

How does Trump's response to the events in Charlottesville fit into the history of white supremacist activity in the United States? Here & Now's Jeremy Hobson digs into the history with Ed Ayers (@edward_l_ayers) and Nathan Connolly (@ndbconnolly), co-hosts of the podcast BackStory, which is produced at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.

Interview Highlights

On organized white supremacy surging after the Civil War

Ed Ayers: "It begins right after the Civil War. The Ku Klux Klan is born, basically, in the smoking rubble of Confederacy. The idea is that there is lawlessness and that white men are going to restore law, by which they mean complete, unchallenged white supremacy. But that is then crushed during Reconstruction and fades away in the 1880s and 1890s, but makes a surging comeback — as unlikely as this seems — triggered by a movie, 'The Birth of a Nation,' in 1915, and they go to Stone Mountain in Atlanta and burn a cross and rebirth the Ku Klux Klan."

On the next wave in the 1950s

Nathan Connolly: "After the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education of 1954 and the implementation in 1955, you begin to see a push for really overt racial desegregation in America, and that leads to a moment that many know as the era of 'massive resistance.' And massive resistance is kind of a crossroads in that you have earlier articulations of Klan and kind of pro-Confederate imagery matched with a much more genteel, shirt-and-tie kind of racism that is invested in property rights and school boundaries, and kind of the technical stuff of urban politics."

EA: "You know, it's interesting to think that Virginia was the leading state that followed this kind of genteel resistance, and Charlottesville was one of the cities in Virginia that shut down its schools rather than integrate them. So there is this tension that we saw this last weekend has been sort of reverberating here for a long time."

On how past presidents have responded to expressions of white supremacy

NC: "There's always been a kind of tension between these high national offices and these hate groups. And it's never really been the case that American presidents have been able to fully embrace them, including their willingness to act extralegally and including some of their more overt public statements that many consider, rightfully, I suppose, to be anti-democratic. I think it's also important to bear in mind, though, that many politicians became very good at knowing how to offer a kind of wink and a nod to members of the electorate that might have believed themselves to be more in line with some of these white supremacist groups. So, just as one concrete example, President Ronald Reagan in the launching of his campaign in the early 1980s, really late 1970s, began campaigning at the Neshoba County fairgrounds, and Neshoba County was famously the site of where Freedom Summer activists were killed in the mid-1960s. And Reagan knew that he could reach into the South and kind of mobilize white working-class sentiment there by basically saying that he was in favor of states' rights with that kind of launching.

"Again, famously in the late 1980s and early '90s, Republican party politics were also, again, dog-whistling on race, sometimes winking and nodding to overt racial groups, but never really stepping into a formal acceptance or even soft condemnation of those groups. Most statements from the White House tended to at least be condemning of Klan and neo-Nazi chapters, if not necessarily other kinds of white nationalism."

"Charlottesville was one of the cities in Virginia that shut down its schools rather than integrate them. So there is this tension that we saw this last weekend has been sort of reverberating here for a long time."

Ed Ayers

On how Trump's first comments regarding Charlottesville compare to the historical examples

NC: "The thing about Trump's speech, as well, I mean, is he took a lot of heat for his remark about things being kind of violent or volatile on many sides, the 'on many sides' phrase. In that remark alone, there was a lot that was similar to early presidential utterances that tended to believe that, you know, black nationalism and white nationalism were, for instance, equally out of bounds. That anybody who was part of the radical left, as it was perceived to be, was just as dangerous as people perceived to be on the radical right. So even in a moment where it was clear that outrage was one-sided, Trump's use of somewhat equivocal language seemed to put him out of bounds."

On anti-Semitism and U.S. white supremacism

EA: "You know, we've been talking about sort of the tangled roots of the manifestations of white supremacy that we saw in Charlottesville. Here's a case where the roots are deeply entangled on both sides. The Ku Klux Klan identified Jews and Catholics as enemies of the nation, and in the 1920s you would've seen anti-Catholicism being as prominently featured in some places as anti-African American language. But anti-Semitism has been sort of a steady beat through all of this, and obviously the neo-Nazis were picking up on the themes coming out of Germany. So I'd see the recent events as a convergence of two traditions."

NC: "The kind of taint of anti-Semitism was really bound to, at many turns, an anti-immigrant sentiment, an anti-black sentiment, and, you know, it's not unlikely, or not surprising, I should say, to see now this very strange collapsing that Ed is pointing to, where you have Klan imagery, which is from an earlier period, neo-Nazi imagery, which is from a later period, basically becoming part of this mashup of white nationalist symbolism in a place like Charlottesville. There's also, though, a fourth tradition that people tend to forget about, which is that of the old White Citizens' Council. Those are elite whites who, in the South, didn't really don hoods, but they were much more concerned with low taxes and property rights, and they used a kind of genteel political form in order to keep African Americans in confined spaces. And that politic, too, I would argue, is on display in a place like Charlottesville, where you had a number of people who were very elite and well-educated who were part of this overt demonstration of white nationalism."

On statues and monuments honoring the Confederacy

EA: "The statues that we see today largely grew up between 1890 and 1920. That was the heyday, and it was also the heyday of statue-building in the North, as well, partly because veterans are dying and people want to memorialize them. But it was also the time when the South, firmly in control of the voting system, of segregation, is free to put up monuments to whatever it wants to, and it puts up monuments to what it considers the glorious, lost cause of the Confederacy, and which, it's called the 'lost cause' because they were up against such large odds, they said, they could not have won, so they must've been fighting for some high ideal.

"And, so, the statue in Charlottesville is actually a little bit out of the ordinary. It's put up in 1924 after being commissioned in 1917, but, across the South, you would see these statues that had basically been put up 35, 40, even 50 years after the Civil War to kind of stake out the territory as being under the control of the former Confederates."

On controversy surrounding the monuments and when calls to take them down began

EA: "That's actually quite recently, in the sense of being publicly controversial. They've always been seen as symbols of white supremacy by African Americans. And, you can go back and look at quotations in the newspapers when, say, they were first put up and the editorials say, 'We know what these are, and we think it's a travesty to be using public land and public monies to put these up.'"

This article was originally published on August 16, 2017.

This segment aired on August 16, 2017.



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