The Dark History of White Reaction to Black Protest
As we observe what I will call the Trumpian conservative and white moderate reaction to the current Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests and movement, it helps to contextualize historically the nature of that reaction. When we do, we find that conservative and moderate white reaction is persistently critical of, and unresponsive to, black civil rights and social justice movements. At its worst, such white reaction has amplified the original historical dehumanizing offense against African Americans. In more modern history, the reaction has consistently sought both to deny the claims of black protest and to distort the public impression of social justice movements by identifying them with their worst, excessive manifestations.
What is historically notable about current BLM protests, though not entirely unique, is the level of white acknowledgment and support, but this active sympathetic support comes largely from liberal and left-leaning white people. Outspoken critical reaction, as has been historically usual, arises from the conservative right and from often self-identified moderates.
Of course, the first reaction to black protest, against the original crime of slavery itself — to what might be broadly described as the abolitionist movement — was the Civil War itself, for which the ideological front was “states’ rights.” Famous leaders of that reaction in the public memory include President of the rebellious Confederacy Jefferson Davis and generals such as Robert E. Lee, “Stonewall” Jackson, Nathan Bedford Forest, Braxton Bragg, John Bell Hood and Henry L. Benning.
The post-Civil War effort to build on the Emancipation Proclamation as part of Southern Reconstruction, which included the protection and expansion of the black franchise and elected black legislators, produced the reaction of the Ku Klux Klan. When Reconstruction was cut short by the presidential Compromise of 1877, the further, revanchist reaction was the institution of Jim Crow laws, in order once again to disenfranchise and subordinate the Southern black population. Similar, through legally uncodified limitation on black lives continued in the rest of the country.
The period of Jim Crow lasted nearly a century, though arguably continues in more limited and veiled representations, such as resurgent GOP voter suppression efforts.
Part of the spirit of Jim Crow, in continuing reaction to the pursuit of black civil rights, was the campaign, spearheaded by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, well into the 20th Century, to promote “lost cause” mythology and erect monuments to Confederate leaders. A similar manifestation of this memorialization and actual white washing of the Confederacy’s barbaric slave-holding commerce in human life is found in the naming of U.S. military bases after Confederate generals, including Bragg, Hood, and Benning.
Bragg, curiously (or not) for the honor, has a famously poor reputation as a general. Benning was a signer of the Georgia Ordinance of Secession signaling that state’s rebellion against the Union. Hood complained in a letter to Union General William Tecumseh Sherman about the “desire to place over us an inferior race, which we have raised from barbarism.”
The American nation advanced its growth in a process of systematic destruction of Native American culture, from the theft of historical lands and the desecration of spiritual sites to the forced abandonment of traditional forms of dress and even native languages. Slave-holding states systematically broke up the cultural foundation of African slave families. Yet regarding propagandized, memorialized mythologizing of slave-holding culture and a fake glorification, often less than a century old, of indecent rebellion — in the campaign of monument building — that is, in conservative and moderate white reaction, too great and sacralized a record of human history to warrant removal.
Further cultural reaction to Reconstruction is found, representatively, in D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film Birth of a Nation. In the infamously demeaning South Carolina black legislature scene below, note how the opening intertitle labels the scene “The riot in Master’s Hall” (emphasis added).
During the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s, the reaction of labeling such movements excessive and their leaders extreme becomes standardized. Even an organization such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), under its long-term leader, the institutionally liberal Roy Wilkins, is labeled by William Buckley as “demagogic & irresponsible.”
It is a commonplace today for conservatives and white moderates to praise and pretend to venerate a soft pillowy dream of Martin Luther King Jr. But what was Buckley’s reaction to a planned March on Washington in 1963?
Mass demonstrations, in a free society, should be reserved for situations about which there is simply no doubting the correct moral course…. But mob-deployment in circumstances that call for thought and discussion and mediation is a dangerous resort. (emphasis added)
Throughout U.S. history, the standard conservative and moderate white response to black protest has been to raise the specter of mobs, danger, and riots, even about largely peaceful protest, because as has been noted, when it comes to civil rights and social justice, these sectors of the white population are always in their reaction in search of the “perfect protest.”
Two years after Buckley’s manufactured fears about what became a nobly historic American event, in the National Review, there was further reaction, from Will Herberg, to the now honored Civil Rights Movement:
For years now, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King and his associates have been deliberately undermining the foundations of internal order in this country. With their rabble-rousing demagoguery …. [w]ith their doctrine of “civil disobedience,” they have been teaching hundreds of thousands of Negroes — particularly the adolescents and the children — that it is perfectly alright to break the law and defy constituted authority if you are a Negro-with-a-grievance; in protest against injustice…. They have on occasion after occasion, in almost every part of the country, called out their mobs on the streets, promoted “school strikes,” sit-ins, lie-ins, in explicit violation of the law and in explicit defiance of the public authority. They have taught anarchy and chaos by word and deed — and, no doubt, with the best of intentions — and they have found apt pupils everywhere, with intentions not of the best. Sow the wind, and reap the whirlwind. But it is not they alone who reap it, but we as well; the entire nation. [emphasis added]
This has been the pattern of reaction ever since, in conservative and moderate fault finding with every African American movement against endemic racism and every African American social justice leader who arises. The specter of violence is raised, in angry mob riot that threatens the foundation of culture and civilization itself (as William Buckley did, too, in his Oxford Union debate with James Baldwin). If there is some disorder, it is used to broadly distort a wider, more variable movement for social change. Leaders are tarnished, so that the offending movement might be cut off at the head. Demonized forces — communists sixty years ago, antifa now — are falsely identified as hidden agents behind the protests in order to discredit the movement.
The future cuddly King, whom the FBI smeared as a communist and actually tried to drive to suicide, saw this kind of reaction for what it is: “You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham,” he wrote. “But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations…. It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city’s white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.”
King went further: “”We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed…. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair.”
King saw the nature and source of the reaction clearly: “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.”
King remains profound and prescient, for that was 1963. Now it is 2020. Same ol’ same ol’.
As he brought his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” to a close, King wrote, “If I have said anything in this letter that overstates the truth and indicates an unreasonable impatience, I beg you to forgive me.”
But having not long before informed his moderate correspondents that they were a greater obstacle to racial justice than outright racists, he didn’t shy from full frankness again: “If I have said anything that understates the truth and indicates my having a patience that allows me to settle for anything less than brotherhood, I beg God to forgive me.”
Further reading: “Tom Cotton, The New York Times, and the People Who Just Don’t Get It”