Woodrow Wilson, LBJ, Jesse Helms, Trent Lott, Robert Byrd, John McCain . . . : the public face of racism and white supremacy in the U.S. did not begin with Donald Trump. Charlottesville has many tributaries, the longest perhaps being the historical strains of racist-nationalism in the U.S.
Last weekend’s events in Charlottesville have spiked concern among many Americans regarding the resurgence of white supremacist and racist-nationalist groups in the country, a trend that many have asserted is directly tied to Donald Trump’s election to the U.S. presidency. While such groups have long been a part of the U.S. political landscape, research indicates that they are undergoing a marked revival, akin to the revival of racist groups in the years prior to the Great Depression.
According to Heidi Beirich, director of the Intelligence Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), “since the era of formal white supremacy — right before the Civil Rights Act when we ended [legal] segregation — since that time, this is the most enlivened that we’ve seen the white supremacist movement.”
The SPLC recently reported its findings for last year – as this year’s data is not yet available – and found 917 organizations it classifies as “hate groups” active within the United States. Of this total, there were 99 neo-Nazi groups, 130 outposts of the Ku Klux Klan, 43 neo-Confederate groups, 78 racist skinhead groups, and 100 white nationalist groups – comprising almost half of all active hate groups.
The SPLC has claimed that the number of hate groups jumped dramatically in recent years, rising by 17% since 2014, when the number of active hate groups stood at 784. However, some have challenged this figure given that the SPLC has also recently expanded their definition of what a hate group is, causing more groups to fall under the label of a hate group than before.
There has been evidence apart from the findings of the SPLC, however, that indicates that white supremacist or racist-nationalist groups are on the rise. Last year, a study by researchers at George Washington University’s Programme on Extremism examined 18 major white supremacist groups and organizations – such as the American Nazi Party and the National Socialist Movement – and found a sharp increase in followers. According to the study, the number of followers of these groups grew from 3,500 in 2012 to 22,000 in 2016, more than a 600 percent jump.
In addition, an analysis of Google searches conducted by ThinkProgress found that terms and phrases often used by white supremacists, such as “white genocide” and “black on white crime,” had increased significantly in frequency since 2008 — though some terms, such as “pro-white,” have received fewer searches in the last several years.
Racist politicians long a staple of U.S. politics
While there are many theories as to why white supremacy groups in the U.S. are on the rise, one of the most overlooked possibilities is that U.S. politics has given a platform to openly racist politicians – as well as to those with more subtle ties to hate groups – for much of the nation’s history, continuing up to the present. Though the collective short-term political memory of the country may lead many to place all the blame for this troubling trend on Donald Trump, he is just the latest politician — albeit following something of a lull — to bring hateful rhetoric to the national stage.
Racist politicians were once a fixture of the U.S. political landscape, only really fading into the fringes in the aftermath of the civil rights movement’s success. Many racist politicians in U.S. history went on to become U.S. presidents. Woodrow Wilson, to take one example, wrote in his book A History of the American People:
The white men of the South were aroused by the mere instinct of self-preservation to rid themselves, by fair means or foul, of the intolerable burden of governments sustained by the votes of ignorant negroes and conducted in the interest of adventurers.”
This quote was later used in the notorious film Birth of a Nation, which glorified the Ku Klux Klan and was screened by Wilson at the White House.
Some Presidents were even members of the Klan itself. Harry Truman joined the Ku Klux Klan in 1924 during the group’s revival, though, according to historian David McCullough, he was apparently motivated to join by political considerations. Truman, however, took issue with the Klan only over its rejection of white Catholics, particularly Irishmen – not for its stance toward any other minority group.
Other presidents who have since been championed as civil-rights advocates also were fountains of racist remarks. Lyndon B. Johnson, in pushing ahead his “Great Society” program, stated:
These Negroes, they’re getting pretty uppity these days and that’s a problem for us since they’ve got something now they never had before, the political pull to back up their uppityness…”
Johnson boasted that his efforts would secure the vote of the “n*ggers” for 200 years.
Carrying the racist torch
The number of openly racist politicians has declined since the 1960s. However, such figures have nonetheless managed to win major elections and exert major influence on U.S. policy. For example, Jesse Helms — who once stated that “crime rates and irresponsibility among Negroes are a fact of life which must be faced” and called homosexuals “weak, morally sick wretches” — was elected to the Senate five times, even serving as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee from 1995 to 2001. In 1995, on live television, a caller to CNN’s Larry King Live praised Helms for “everything you’ve done to help keep down the n*ggers.” Helms responded by saying, “Well, thank you, I think.”
Despite Helms’ flagrant racism, mainstream media outlets such as The New York Times described him after his death in 2008 merely as “a conservative stalwart for more than 30 years” — making no mention of support for apartheid in South Africa, his opposition to the federal Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, and his disdain for the nation’s civil rights legislation.
That same year, then-Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) eulogized Helms, calling him one of the “kindest men” in Congress, and adding that “no matter who you were, he always had a thoughtful word and a gentle smile.”
Helms’ was by no means an isolated case.
Robert Byrd — a former Democratic senator from West Virginia and the longest-serving senator in U.S. history — was also a former recruiter for the Ku Klux Klan and later leader of his local Klan chapter, eventually reaching the rank of “Exalted Cyclops.” Byrd refused to join the military in World War II, balking at the prospect of having to serve alongside “race mongrels, a throwback to the blackest specimen from the wilds.”
Though he renounced his ties to the Klan and his vitriolic racist comments during a 1958 Senate campaign when he was 41 years old, Byrd would later stir controversy by using the term “white n*gger” repeatedly during a televised interview in 2001.
As in the case of Helms, when Byrd died in 2010, the eulogies in the mainstream press were glowing. Only one, published in The Hill, mentioned Byrd’s association with the Klan. Upon learning of his death, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton referred to Byrd as her “friend and mentor” and “a man of unsurpassing (sic) eloquence and nobility.”
Watch | Robert Byrd’s “unsurpassing eloquence” in his infamous 2001 interview with Fox News
Even presidential candidates have made blatantly racist statements in recent years, statements that have not come back to haunt them. Senator John McCain in 2004, told a group of reporters on his campaign bus, “I hated the gooks. I will hate them as long as I live.” The term gooks is a derogatory term for Asians. McCain claimed he was referring only to his former captors in Vietnam and never apologized for the statement. He became the Republican candidate for president just four years later.
Haley Barbour, a Republican who served as governor of Mississippi from 2004 to 2012 and was considered a potential Republican candidate for the presidency in 2012, was found to have attended numerous meetings of the Council of Conservative Citizens (CCC), a white supremacist group.
The CCC’s website in 2001 stated that “God is the author of racism. God is the One who divided mankind into different types. […] Mixing the races is rebelliousness against God.” Barbour denied the association despite that the fact that he had been photographed at CCC fundraisers and former members of his staff have confirmed his ties to the group.
Former Senator Trent Lott, like Barbour from Mississippi, has also met with the group and delivered speeches at its meetings no less than five times. However, Barbour and Lott – like Helms – avoided censure by the mainstream media and the U.S. political establishment for their connections to the white supremacists.
Making sure we look deeper than Trump
Given the recent and historical failure of the media as well as the U.S. political establishment to take aim at racism in American politics, white supremacists and their ilk have had a platform for their message long before Donald Trump even considered entering presidential politics.
White supremacy is an issue that will not be resolved simply by publicly condemning the current president and the white supremacist or white nationalist groups he has been seen by many to condone. The growth of these groups was not a phenomenon magically spurred by Trump’s decision to run for president, but rather the result of a political environment that has consistently failed to condemn the expression of racist sentiments by some of the nation’s highest-ranking officials throughout much of American history.
The danger inherent in the tragedy of Charlottesville is that those who purport to condemn these groups will do so myopically, without regard to the nation’s unfortunate tradition of giving such ideologies a safe haven and, in some cases, outright political acceptance.
Feature photo | A man holds a Confederate flag with a depiction of Donald Trump during a campaign rally at the Jacksonville Equestrian Center, Nov. 3, 2016, in Jacksonville, Fla. Evan Vucci | AP