In the aftermath of Donald Trump's stunning victory, and in response to the anti-Trump protests in numerous cities driven by the hashtag activist movement #notmypresident, a number of pundits and voices from across the political spectrum have called instead for unity, for those of us (like this writer) who thoroughly opposed Trump's candidacy to accept his presidency, give him the benefit of the doubt, and work to move toward a more shared American future (as Trump himself called for in his relatively restrained acceptance speech).
It's a practical and understandable (and in many ways admirable) position, not least because we have all seen over the last eight years what thorough, and thoroughly irrational, resistance to the president looks like. Yet if we move beyond simply Trump himself, and consider the kinds of white supremacist organizations and attitudes that his campaign and movement have tapped into and emboldened, we might see things very differently. And better remembering a dark and destructive historical shift would help us do so.
Throughout the Reconstruction era, the post-Civil War period in whose sesquicentennial we will remain for another decade, Southern white supremacists rose up to fight Reconstruction, and particularly its efforts toward racial progress and equality. They did so most strikingly through the Ku Klux Klan, a white supremacist terrorist organization created by former Confederate officers and dedicated to attacking African Americans, white allies and supporters, and every facet of Reconstruction.
In its early years, the Klan was clearly perceived and treated, by the federal government and in public opinion across the nation, as a terrorist threat. That perspective and narrative culminated in 1870 and 1871, in a series of special Congressional committee investigations into the Klan and in three federal laws--the Enforcement Act of May 1870, the Second Force Act of February 1871, and the Third Force Act of April 1871--designed to help the federal government combat the Klan and limit its destructive effects.
Yet at the same time, there was another emerging national narrative which offered a very different perspective: a narrative that emphasized reunion and reconciliation, of a central need to come together as a national community once more. Implicit--and sometimes explicit--in that narrative was that racial progress would, at the least, have to take a backseat to that more pressing communal need. In the aftermath of the controversial presidential election of 1876, and specifically of new President Rutherford B. Hayes's putting an immediate end to Federal Reconstruction, an editorial in the progressive magazine The Nation expressed (and agreed with) this narrative with particular clarity: "the negro will disappear from the field of national politics. Henceforth the nation, as a nation, will have nothing more to do with him."
The national shift didn't stop at reunion and reconciliation, however. Over the next few decades, as I argued at length in my first book, much of the nation experienced a process of conversion to the white supremacist perspective and narratives of American history and identity. By 1888, the civil rights lawyer, activist, and author Albion Tourgeé (who had fought the Klan politically, legally, and personally during his time as a Reconstruction politician and judge) noted that American literature and culture had become "not only Southern in type, but distinctly Confederate in sympathy." By the early 20th century, the Ku Klux Klan novels of white supremacist minister Thomas W. Dixon would become national bestsellers. And by 1915, the first blockbuster film Birth of a Nation, which received a celebratory screening in Woodrow Wilson's White House, would culminate with a heroic Ku Klux Klan ride to save the film's white protagonists from a rampaging African American mob.
I'm not suggesting that this national conversion to and embrace of the Klan and white supremacy--a trend that would not begin to shift until nearly fifty years after Birth's release, and that has continued to influence and damage our politics and society into this moment--was an inevitable outcome of the moves toward reunion and reconciliation. Yet these Reconstruction histories and aftermaths should remind us of the danger of any move toward unity that requires us to minimize or exclude certain Americans and communities. As we see the Klan openly celebrating Trump's victory, and begin to hear the stories of Americans attacked and threatened in the election's aftermath, we would do well to remember such an exclusionary moment in our past, and to consider how it might be happening again--and how to resist it.