America is not a “civilized country.”
While, compared to most countries, we have an abundance of toilets, street lights and wifi hotspots, the so-called “United” States also boasts more intentional homicides, gun violence and is more politically unstable than most of the developed world (or as one slightly jaundiced geopolitical expert calls them— the “shithole countries”).
The prospect of civil unrest and violence over the 2020 election is real. And, according to the Justice Department, the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security Independent studies and state and local law enforcement agencies, the violence is likely to come from far-right extremist groups. Militia groups have said as much. We have already seen it happening.
And then there’s history.
White Americans suppressing, terrorizing, threatening and killing non-white people because of their votes is more commonplace in America than free and fair elections (To be fair, Black people are still waiting for the first free and fair American election.) But because our social studies curriculum teaches us about cherry tree-chopping, “states rights” and other forms of American exceptionalism, we are left with an inability to contextualize this current political climate.
No, my friends, America is not “better than this.”
Here is an incomplete history of white America’s historical responses to the threat of Black people participating in democracy.
October 1, 1742: In a not-so-rare incidence of white-on-white violence, city and county officials in Philadelphia beg residents not to bring weapons to the polls on Election Day. But during a dispute over who will serve as voting inspectors, sailors with clubs and sticks attack the local crowd and Anglican vs. Quaker violence ensues.
No oatmeal was harmed in Philadelphia’s “Bloody” Election Riot of 1742.
June 14, 1788: America’s first presidential election almost didn’t happen because America almost didn’t happen. Concerned that free Black Americans would join the new federal army and instigate a national slave revolt, Virginia’s powerful elite refuses to ratify James Madison’s proposed Constitution unless he addresses their concerns. Madison concedes to the slaveowners’ demands by amending the Constitution with one sentence that will serve as gasoline for future sparks for centuries to come:
“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”
July 11, 1804: Alexander Hamilton breaks the 1800 Electoral College deadlock, making Thomas Jefferson the third president of the United States and angering first runner-up Aaron Burr in the process. Convinced that Jefferson would drop him from the ticket in 1804, Burr runs for governor of New York instead. When Hamilton campaigns against Burr for the second time, the two decide to take their dispute to the streets. Burr kills Hamilton in the ensuing duel.
Someone should write a movie about this. Or at least a musical.
November 1854-1860: To sway a referendum on whether Kansas would become a free state or a slave state, thousands of pro-slavery “Border Ruffians” invade the Kansas territory, inciting a series of armed attacks that would last until the Civil War. During the six-year debate over slavery, pro-slavery Congressman Preston Brooks takes a cane and beats anti-slavery Sen. Charles Sumner to a bloody pulp on the Senate floor.
July 20, 1866: Shortly after they win the right to vote, Black Louisianans attend their state’s Republican convention. Of course, Black people in New Orleans can’t just walk anywhere. They parade to the meeting at the Mechanics’ Institute with bands, music and dancing. New Orleans’ white ex-Confederates witness this display of unbridled Black joy and...
You know what? I’ll just let historian Rob Chernow describe the New Orleans Massacre as he did in his book, Grant:
The whites stomped, kicked, and clubbed the black marchers mercilessly. Policemen smashed the institute’s windows and fired into it indiscriminately until the floor grew slick with blood. They emptied their revolvers on the convention delegates, who desperately sought to escape. Some leaped from windows and were shot dead when they landed. Those lying wounded on the ground were stabbed repeatedly, their skulls bashed in with brickbats. The sadism was so wanton that men who kneeled and prayed for mercy were killed instantly, while dead bodies were stabbed and mutilated.
September 19, 1868: Georgia’s Black voters elect three Black state senators and 30 state representatives, called the “Original 33.” White supremacists flock to Georgia, expel the Black elected officials and engaged in a brutal campaign to kill them. During a peaceful protest, whites ambush the Black marchers in Camilla, Ga., and open fire. The incident was so egregious that Georgia’s admission to the Union was revoked, making Georgia the first and only state to be kicked out of America twice for being too racist.
One-quarter of the Original 33 were killed by racial violence.
September 28, 1868: The White Knights of the Camelia (not related to the previous racists) slaughter at least 200 Black people in St. Landry Parish, La., for trying to join a political party in a neighboring town. The Opelousas Massacre lasted for a month and Klan members traveled from across the country to join in on the “nigger hunt.”
No one was ever convicted.
December 1870: When Black North Carolinians joined white Republicans to elect William Woods Holden governor in 1870, the Ku Klux Klan raised a militia with the express purpose of overthrowing the Democratically elected governor. The white supremacists arrest Holden, take over the government and install their own governor.
The Kirk-Holden War will not be the last time white supremacists overthrew a state government.
October 25, 1870: In Eutaw, Ala.’s 1868 election, Black citizens overwhelmingly support Republican candidate Ulysses Grant, catapulting him to a 2,000 vote margin in the county. Days before the 1870 midterm election, Klansmen opened fire at a rally of 2,800 Black people, killing many and causing hundreds to stay home on Election Day.
The Republican governor wins the county by 43 votes.
April 13, 1873: Black people in Colfax, La., knew that white racists would kill them to keep them from voting so they literally occupied the courthouse. On Easter Sunday, Knights of the White Camelia, Klansmen and Confederate sympathizers surround the courthouse force the African American occupiers to surrender. Still not satisfied, the white supremacists open fire, burn the victims’ bodies and throw the corpses in a nearby river.
“The bloodiest single instance of racial carnage in the Reconstruction era, the Colfax massacre taught many lessons,” writes historian Eric Foner. “Including the lengths to which some opponents of Reconstruction would go to regain their accustomed authority.”
September 14, 1874: 5,000 or so members of the Crescent City White League, a white supremacist organization in New Orleans, successfully organizes a coup d’etat of the local government. They installed John McEnery and Dafute Penn as governor and lt. governor, murdering dozens of Black citizens in the process. The Battle of Liberty place was commemorated with a monument that reads:
McEnery and Penn having been elected governor and lieutenant-governor by the white people, were duly installed by this overthrow of carpetbag government, ousting the usurpers, Governor Kellogg (white) and Lieutenant-Governor Antoine (colored). United States troops took over the state government and reinstated the usurpers but the national election of November 1876 recognized white supremacy in the South and gave us our state.
December 7, 1874: Mississippi’s White League demands the resignation of Peter Crosby, Vicksburg, Miss.’s first Black sheriff. When even the governor can’t quell the white rioters, Black people stream into Vicksburg to protect the county. Whites travel to Mississippi from nearby states and attack the Black town’s defenders. Unable to stop themselves, the whites eventually massacre about 300 Black people in the area.
Compromise of 1877: States rights advocates refuse to count Black votes in the 1876 election while other states simply appoint electors who will go along with the will of the white citizens. To settle the disputed presidential election, 14 white men agree to hand the presidency to Rutherford B. Hayes in exchange for allowing Southern states to do whatever they want to their Black citizens.
“Whatever they want” becomes known as the “Jim Crow era.”
February 22, 1898: William McKinley keeps one of his campaign promises after the 1896 election by appointing Black postal workers, including Lake City, S.C.’s Frazier B. Baker. Soon after he took his post, a white mob burns Baker’s house to the ground. Frazier’s wife Lavinia and four of their children escape with gunshot wounds.
Frazier Baker and his infant daughter are burned and shot to death.
November 8, 1898: White men attack Thomas Tolbert as he collects affidavits from disenfranchised Black citizens in Greenwood, S.C., who want to vote. Then they attacked the Black voters. Then they just attacked Black people in general.
No one is ever charged with a crime.
November 10, 1898: Poor white farmers band with African-American residents to form the “Fusion Party” in majority-Black Wilmington, N.C. After a yearlong political campaign literally called the “White Supremacy Campaign,” racist Red Shirts lose and the Fusion Party remains in power. Angered by the loss, Congressmen William Kitchin declares: “Before we allow the Negroes to control this state as they do now, we will kill enough of them that there will not be enough left to bury them.”
Whites form an armed mob and run the Black people out of town, turning Wilmington N.C., into a majority-white city forever.
Kitchin eventually becomes governor.
May 12, 1906: 1,000 citizens of Omaha, Neb., surround the courthouse and demand that two Democratic City Councilmen be seated. The Democratic councilmembers had won fair-and-square...
After they threw out all of the Black votes.
July 1919: To prevent a large population of Black voters from swaying the election, Alabama redraws the city limits of Oxford, Ala., to exclude the Black part of town. Years later, the all-Black town is incorporated as Hobson, Ala., but when Hobson elects Newman Oneal, a Black man, as mayor, Oneal receives an anonymous letter from the white supremacist “Black Hand” threatening his life. After numerous assaults, Oneal leaves town and spends the rest of his life in exile.
The acting mayor receives the same letter
November 2, 1920: The day after the presidential election, a white mob in Ocoee, Fla., killed a man who they thought was housing Mose Norman, a Black man who had tried to vote. They hung his body from a light post and the police helped the mob kill 50-60 more Black people just to make their point.
Mose Norman and every single Black resident flee the city, transforming Ocoee into an all-white town for the next 50 years.
June 21, 1964: Neshoba County law enforcement officers, the Ku Klux Klan, the White Citizens’ Council and Mississippi’s State Sovereignty Commission conspire to murder activists James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner for registering Black Mississippians to vote. Klan organizer Edgar Ray Killen was eventually convicted for the three deaths...
Forty-one years later.
February 18, 1965: Perry County, Ala., officers arrest James “Shackdaddy” Orange on charges of contributing to the delinquency of minors by organizing them for voter registration drives and having them sing freedom songs. Convinced that he will be lynched, civil rights volunteers march to the jail to visit Orange when the street lights suddenly go dark. As state troopers open fire, 23-year-old Jimmie Lee Jackson drapes himself over his mother and grandfather to protect them and is shot and killed by Corporal James Bonard Fowler
Three weeks later, residents plan to march from Selma to Montgomery and confront segregationist governor George Wallace to ask if he ordered the street lights turned out but Alabama state troopers show up again as the marchers cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
The event becomes known as “Bloody Sunday.”
August 5, 1965: After becoming one of the first Black women to pass Kentucky’s bar exam, Alberta Odell Jones begins renting voting machines to teach Black Kentuckians how to vote. Shortly after a newly elected district attorney appoints her Jefferson County’s first female prosecutor, she is beaten to death with a brick and her body is thrown into the Ohio River.
Her murder remains unsolved.
November 10, 1966: Dallas County Sheriff Jim Clark—who was curiously on the scene for Jimmie Lee Jackson’s death (even though it was out of his jurisdiction) and ordered his officers to attack protesters on Bloody Sunday—shows up to the polls to intimidate voters at the first election after the passage of the Voting Rights Act. After he loses, Clark manages to get 1,600 votes thrown out due to “irregularities.”
A court order restores the votes, ousting Clark from law enforcement forever.
1968: After riots erupted in American cities over the death of Martin Luther King Jr., former Vice President Richard Nixon invokes “law and order” for his 1968 presidential campaign while third-party candidate George Wallace invokes outright racism. Meanwhile, a pandemic some called the “Hong Kong flu” killed 100,000 Americans. The Democratic convention is marred by violence from the Youth International Party, a counterculture movement that resembles today’s antifascist movement in many ways.
August 3, 1980: Republican presidential nominee Ronald Reagan becomes the first national political candidate to speak at the Neshoba County State Fair. His speech is filled with dog-whistles on states’ rights, government interference and local sovereignty.
Most political experts believe it was no coincidence that Reagan’s choice of location is just a stone’s throw from the Philadelphia, Miss., site where James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner were murdered in cold blood for registering Black Mississippians to vote.
November 1, 1982: The Republican National Committee agrees to stop deploying intimidating poll watchers after the party launched the Ballot Security Task Force in 1981. The Republican Party paid armed, off-duty police law enforcement officers who “challenged and questioned voters at the polls and blocked the way of some prospective voters” in Black and Hispanic neighborhoods.
In 2018, the RNC convinced a federal judge to let the consent decree expire, making the 2020 election the first presidential race since 1980 that the GOP will be allowed to again conduct “poll security” activities.
April 29, 1983: Chicago elects Harold Washington, the city’s first Black mayor. Chicago’s white residents protest, declaring they want a new mayor. Hate crimes surge in Chicago’s whitest neighborhoods and rapidly diversifying Marquette Park becomes a regular site for violent Klan rallies.
November 6, 1990: Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) wins a fourth term by defeating Charlotte’s Black mayor, Harvey Gantt. Two years later, Helms signs a consent decree with the Department of Justice acknowledging that his 1990 campaign sent 125,000 “official” postcards telling voters that they would be thrown in jail if they voted. 97 percent of the fliers were sent to Black voters. Thomas Farr, the lawyer who spearheaded the racist campaign, would spend decades targeting Black voters with what a federal court called “surgical precision.”
Donald Trump has unsuccessfully nominated Thomas Farr for a federal judgeship twice.
November 22, 2000: Rep. John E. Sweeney (R-N.Y.) and hundreds of paid Republican operatives attack election officials and law enforcement officers in an effort to delay, obstruct and eventually stop Miami-Dade County, Fla., election officials from counting votes in the 2000 presidential election before a court-imposed deadline.
November 2008-March 2009: After the election and inauguration of Barack Obama, Nevada lawyer Stewart Rhodes forms the Oath Keepers. The paramilitary militia organization encourages “members of the military and law enforcement to pledge not to follow certain hypothetical ‘orders’ from the federal government,” including directives “to put American citizens in detention camps” and disarm citizens. Meanwhile, right-wing extremist Mike Vanderboegh organizes the III Percenters.
When Obama announced his candidacy, there were 50 militia groups in the U.S. By the end of Obama’s first year in office, there were 200, reports the ADL.
February 27, 2009: Conservatives and libertarians organize the first of many anti-Obama demonstrations. The movement would eventually become known as the Tea Party and would be marked by spitting, sporadic violence, racial slurs and hanging Obama in effigy.
November 9, 2009: Attorney General Eric Holder’s Department of Justice voids Shelby County, Ala.’s elections after one town gerrymanders away its only majority Black district. In the do-over, the city of Calera re-elects Ernest Montgomery as its only Black city council member, instigating a legal fight that would eventually gut the Voting Rights Act and become known as Shelby v. Holder.
November 22, 2015: Activist Mercutio Southhall Jr. is kicked and punched after yelling “Black Lives Matter” at a rally for Donald Trump in Birmingham, Ala. The incident would become the template for dozens of violent occurrences at Trump rallies during the 2016 election season.
January 20, 2017: Donald J. Trump becomes the 45th president of the United States.
November 3, 2020: Militia groups, the Proud Boys, Bill Barr, the Republican Party, the Department of Justice, and America prepares to “stand down and stand by.”