Radical White Violence in American History a Sad Tale

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In his book, Blood at the Root: A Racial Cleansing in America, author Patrick Phillips describes in graphic detail how white people in Forsyth County, Georgia, launched a campaign in 1912 to drive 1,098 black citizens out the county. Phillips says it was a "coordinated campaign of arson and terror." They burned homes and churches of black people and worked to make sure Forsyth County was "all white."

Driving black people out of American cities, or black people leaving Southern cities on their own, was and is a common occurrence in American history. In the case of Forsyth County, three black laborers were accused of raping and murdering a white girl in 1912. Black people, specifically black men, being accused of disrespecting a white woman was a common reason given for lynching but it often did not take such an accusation to rile up resentful white people. The three blacks were lynched in Forsyth County, and afterwards, white mobs drove the black population out of Forsyth County. They were threatened and harassed; their homes were burned, their crops destroyed, as well as their farm animals. Black people, in terror, left Forsyth County in droves.

What happened in Forsyth County was not uncommon. In the 1915 case of Anthony Crawford of Abbeville, South Carolina, it was the fact that he dared argue with a white man over the latter's refusal to pay him the price of his cottonseed as he was paying white farmers. Crawford objected and argued with the white man - something which was forbidden - and for that, he was arrested. He was put in jail but was beaten by white mobs who stormed the jail, beaten again after he regained consciousness, tied to the back of a buggy and dragged through the streets to a place where he was finally hung, and then his body riddled with 200 bullets. Following this horrific lynching, black people in Abbeville were ordered out of the city. They obliged. The economy of the city suffered as the source of labor for the fields was forced out, but it did not matter. White supremacy forced the migration of literally hundreds of thousands of black people out of cities across the South.

What happened in Forsyth County and in Abbeville, and in countless other cities in the South is called, simply, ethnic cleansing, and it is never talked about.

It is easy and perhaps convenient to blame the ruthlessness of white terror against black people on an organization. The Ku Klux Klan is the most potent buzz word used in America to prick the ears of those who decry racism and racial violence, but Phillips in his book shakes that tendency loose from its comfortable berth. Most of the violence committed against black people, lynching included, was done not by an organized group, but by everyday farmers and citizens of the cities. The KKK, in Forsyth County, Georgia in 1912, was not a major player in the lynching of the three black people, or in the ethnic cleansing ordered by white people after the incident. The perpetrators were ordinary, "good, Christian" people.

Phillips says that attaching the violence to the KKK absolves ordinary people from responsibility of racial violence. The going accusation of the violence coming from a rogue group allows white people in general to breathe a sigh of relief, but Phillips gives a history of the Klan that few of us know. The original Klan was "stamped out in 1871" after the passage of the Ku Klux Klan Act, he writes. That act actually enabled victims of KKK violence to sue in federal court. The U.S. Justice Department was empowered by the Act to suppress Klan activities during Reconstruction, and as a result, "was able to arrest and convict many of the group's earliest, most violent members," Phillip writes. Because of that, the group's leader at the time, a former Confederate general named Nathan Bedford Forrest, called for the organization to disband, and by 1872, "federal prosecutions had rendered the original KKK all but defunct."

There was no KKK for more than 40 years after that, writes Phillips.

Phillips writes that the original Klan was not like we see it today. The modern version of the Klan was created by Hollywood. D.W. Griffiths made the film, The Birth of a Nation, based Thomas Dixon's play, The Clansman. The "modern" version of the KKK came from behind the lens of a camera. The KKK was depicted as a noble group, formed to defend white womanhood. It was Griffiths, for the sake of drama, who put KKK members in white robes with white hoods (they had not dressed like that before this film), and it was Griffiths who had even their horses draped in white. White people, including President Woodrow Wilson, who hosted a screening of the movie in the White House, were enthralled by the film, which not only deified white women, but demonized black people, specifically black men.

Griffith's movie didn't come out until three years after the lynching of the three black people accused of murdering a white woman in Forsyth County, Georgia. Phillips' point was that those who carried out acts of domestic terrorism were not members of the Klan, but where "farmers and field hands, blacksmiths and store clerks, and in all likelihood, even a few elected officials."

What the ordinary people wanted was to "take their cities back." They resented the gains made by black people during Reconstruction. They resented the intrusion of the federal government into their affairs. They wanted white supremacy to be able to function as it always had, and it was the common people who worked to make sure that was the reality.

There is no question that there are organized hate groups in this nation and indeed all over the world. But the power of hatred comes from the ground up; leaders who tap into the resentment, fear and anxiety of the masses are the ones who inspire violence against people. It is not "outsiders" who wreak havoc against the masses, it is the masses themselves who call the shots. Leaders who feel the spirits of the masses "radicalize" them and the work of maintaining the structure of the Empire is done by the people.

Radical, Christian terrorism is an inside job.

There is just a little too much credence given to the supposed power of "outsiders." Outsiders were said to be the cause of black people growing discontent with their oppression. The idea has always been preposterous, because it assumes that black people liked being oppressed and would have "stayed put" if outsiders had not manipulated them.

The hatred and violence we see comes from the masses; shrewd leaders, again from the inside, know how to manipulate those hate-filled emotions in a way that causes cruel and brutal violence.

We have seen it before. We are seeing it now. And we will see it again.