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‘The Past is So Present’: How White Mobs Once Killed American Democracy

January’s Capitol attack echoed an 1876 massacre that led to a racist takeover of South Carolina. Its effects lasted a century

The Guardian

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barbed wire in front of the US capitol

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Hours after Georgia elected its first-ever Black and Jewish senators in early 2021, a mob of white Trump supporters stormed the US Capitol. They set up a gallows on the west side of the building and hunted for lawmakers through the halls of Congress.

People around the world watched in shock: was this the United States?

As he monitored the attack from his home in South Carolina, the local historian Wayne O’Bryant was not surprised. He recognized the 6 January attack as a return to the political playbook of white mob violence that has been actively used in this country for more than a century. Mobs of white Americans unwilling to accept multi-racial democracy have successfully overturned or stolen elections before: in Wilmington, North Carolina, in 1898, in Colfax, Louisiana, in 1873 and New Orleans in 1874, and, in Hamburg, South Carolina, in 1876.

O’Bryant, who lives just five miles from the ruins of Hamburg, once a center of Black political power in South Carolina, has become an expert on the 1876 massacre. He has relatives on both sides of the attack: one of his ancestors, Needham O’Bryant, was a Black Hamburg resident who survived the violence, while another, Thomas McKie Meriwether, was a young white man killed while participating in the mob.

O’Bryant has spent years researching how the Hamburg massacre unfolded, and how, despite national media coverage and a congressional investigation, the white killers were never held accountable. Now, he is watching history repeat itself. The attack on the Capitol, he said, was “almost identical” to the way white extremists staged a riot in Hamburg during the high-stakes presidential election of 1876.

The Hamburg attack and other battles successfully ended multi-racial democracy in the south for nearly a century. Black Americans, who had filled the south’s state legislatures and served in Congress after the civil war, were forced out of power, then barred from voting almost altogether, as white politicians reinstituted a full system of white political and economic rule. The south became a one-party state for decades.

It would take Black Americans until the 1960s to win back their citizenship.

Now, as Republicans have shut down any attempt to hold Trump and other politicians accountable for inciting the attack, historians like O’Bryant are warning of the known dangers of letting white mob violence go unchecked, and about the fragility of democracy itself.

The effects of the white terrorism of the 1870s lasted into O’Bryant’s own childhood: he vividly remembers the day his great-grandmother, grandparents and mother voted for the first time. It was in Charleston in 1968, and he was eight years old.

The reason American history is marked by repeated incidents of white mob violence is because the violence works, O’Bryant, 60, said.

“When you adopt a political strategy and you’re successful at it, you might as well continue.”

‘We took the government away from them’

By the summer of 1876, a presidential election year, some white citizens in South Carolina had reached a crossroads: they realized they would never again hold power in a state with fair elections.

Benjamin Tillman, one of the leaders of South Carolina’s white mob attacks, identified the “arithmetic” problem for white supremacists: “In my State there were 135,000 negro voters or negroes of voting age, and some 90,000 or 95,000 white voters,” he said later. “With a free vote and a fair count, how are you going to beat 135,000 by 95,000? How are you going to do it?”

Since they did not have the votes, white supremacists decided to take control of the South Carolina government through terrorism. There were white terror attacks across the southern US that year, all aimed at preventing Black citizens from casting their votes in national and state elections.

The first major attack in South Carolina came in July, in Hamburg, a growing center of Black political power. In Hamburg, the mayor was Black. The sheriff was Black. Most of the city officials were Black. Several prominent Black lawmakers elected to the state legislature also lived in Hamburg.

“These same slaveowners that once told you what to do – they might ride through Hamburg, and you might be the sheriff, and you might tell them to pick up their trash off the street,” O’Bryant said.

The rise of Black politicians such as Prince Rivers – a man who had liberated himself from slavery, served as a sergeant in the Union army and gone on to be a mayor, state representative and judge in Hamburg – undermined white supremacists’ arguments that Black Americans were unready for political power.

On the Fourth of July in 1876, two white men staged a confrontation with Black soldiers outside of Hamburg. The white men then went to court and tried to get a judge to take away the Black soldiers’ guns.

When the Black soldiers refused to disarm, they were attacked by a crowd of hundreds of white men, who even wheeled in a cannon to fire at the Black soldiers as they took refuge in a government building. Some Black residents were killed in the initial attack, and others were captured later and then executed in cold blood.

Hamburg’s Black sheriff was also killed and mutilated, according to some accounts: the white men cut out his tongue. In all, one white man and seven Black men died during the massacre.

As with the 6 January attack at the Capitol, the rioting in Hamburg in 1876 appeared spontaneous, but had been carefully planned in advance by white extremist groups, O’Bryant said. The South Carolina groups called themselves “Red Shirts” or members of local “rifle clubs”. O’Bryant said he saw them as the equivalents of the Proud Boys or Oath Keepers militia today.

The violence sparked national outrage, O’Bryant said. There were official investigations of the massacre and in-depth coverage from the New York Times. Ninety-four white men, including a former Confederate general and other veterans and prominent citizens, were indicted for murder for their roles.

Worried that jailing the white defendants might spark another attack, court officials let all of the men out on bail, O’Bryant said, and the decision was made to postpone the trial until after the 1876 election, because of the “climate of violence”.

As the November election approached, white violence in South Carolina escalated: two months after the Hamburg massacre, another series of white terror attacks in Ellenton, South Carolina, killed dozens of Black citizens, by some estimates as many as a hundred.

One of O’Bryant’s own ancestors, Needham O’Bryant of Hamburg, later testified before the Senate about the constant attacks and threats, describing a white man firing shots at his house, and having to flee and hide when posses of armed white men rode by.

In the 1876 election, one marked by murder and outright fraud – the county where Hamburg was located ended up logging 2,000 more votes than it had registered voters, O’Bryant said – white Democrats took control of the South Carolina government.

The continuing violence also “wore down northern commitment to enforcing the law in the south,” the historian Eric Foner said. “In the beginning, President Grant sent troops into South Carolina in order to crush the Ku Klux Klan. But over time, the willingness to intervene to protect the rights of Black people waned.”

After political negotiations over the contested presidential election of 1876, the federal government ended Reconstruction and withdrew federal troops from the south.

With white supremacists once again in control of the state government, Rivers, like other Black politicians, was accused of corruption and quickly forced out of public office. He ended up working once again as a carriage driver at a white hotel, the same work he had done when he was enslaved.

O’Bryant has records of one of his ancestors on the South Carolina voter rolls in 1868, and a record of another relative serving as an elections manager in 1876. After that, there is no record of them voting for 92 years. His family members, a long line of educators and academics, worked hard and were deeply involved in their communities. They faced the risk of being fired, he said, if they even tried to participate in an election.

Meanwhile, one of the men indicted in the Hamburg murders, Benjamin Tillman, rose to a position of national power, continuing to brag about having “shot negroes and stuffed ballot boxes” on his way to becoming South Carolina’s governor, and then serving for nearly a quarter-century as a US senator.

None of the perpetrators of the Hamburg massacre was ever prosecuted or convicted.

“We took the government away from them in 1876. We did take it,” Tillman said in a speech in the Senate in 1900. “If no other senator has come here previous to this time who would acknowledge it, more is the pity.”

What Tillman and others had won through terrorism they later codified into law, writing a new South Carolina constitution explicitly designed to keep Black citizens from voting.

“We are not sorry for it,” Tillman said. “We of the south have never recognized the right of the negro to govern white men.”

‘This is America’

Anti-democratic beliefs, white nationalism, and the glorification of violence have always been a “powerful strand” in American history, Foner, one of the most influential historians of America’s post-civil war period, said.

It is time to push back against the shocked statements of television pundits on 6 January “saying, ‘This is not America,’” Foner said. “It is America, actually. Not the whole picture of America, but it is part of the American tradition. And we need to face that fact.”

In the footage from the 6 January invasion – a giant Confederate flag being paraded through the halls of Congress, a gallows and noose being set up outside, furious white crowds chanting about hanging politicians – the echoes of post-civil war violence are unavoidable.

“Whether or not these men and women [who broke into the Capitol] are aware of how their actions replicated what has already happened in history, it’s so present – the past is so present,” Kellie Carter Jackson, an American historian who studies 19th-century political violence, said.

That does not mean that the violence is at the same level as it was directly after the civil war, Carter Jackson said. In 1895, Robert Smalls, a Black army veteran who became a South Carolina congressman, estimated that 53,000 Black Americans had been killed by white terrorists since the end of the civil war.

“That’s 1,766 murders annually, or five per day,” Carter Jackson said. “I don’t think we are at those levels of such open racial violence and hostility.”

In the the wake of the Capitol invasion, the problem facing the United States is often framed as one of “disinformation”: how were so many Americans convinced to attack the government based on claims that simply were not true?

Much of the media and political reaction has taken the invaders’ claims at face value: they believed the lies of Trump and Republican politicians that the election had been stolen. They sincerely thought Democrats were undermining democracy. Some had been radicalized by the lurid claims of the QAnon conspiracy theory about a cabal of powerful pedophiles torturing children.

But some experts argue the insurrection should be labeled a white supremacist attack, even if many of the attackers themselves did not talk explicitly about race. Trump’s evolving web of claims about election fraud, which were rejected by judges in lawsuit after lawsuit his supporters brought, revolved around the idea that the vote counts for Joe Biden in cities like Detroit, Philadelphia, and Atlanta, which all have large Black populations, were somehow fraudulent.

The former president’s repeated claims that he got the majority of “legitimate” votes suggested that the African Americans who cast decisive votes for Biden were inherently illegitimate.

Trump’s big lie about the stolen election was built from the same lies propagated by the white supremacists in the south: that majority-Black cities were corrupt, that Black politicians could not be trusted.

South Carolina’s white supremacists not only put up giant statues of the murderers who had stolen the state government, they also wrote history books for school children that described the state’s brief era of Black political participation as “the darkest days in the state’s history”, an era of rampant corruption and mismanagement, O’Bryant said. Those were the books he grew up studying.

After the victories of the civil rights movement, many Americans were taught a more triumphant version of their own history, with the arc of American democracy redrawn as a slow but inevitable march towards racial equality.

O’Bryant is proud of the legacy of the civil rights movement: he met Martin Luther King as a small child, attended marches in diapers, sat in the background at movement meetings in his home and at church. But he has also spent years spreading public awareness about the flourishing multiracial democracy that was ended through violence in the 1870s.

“If they had prosecuted and punished the perpetrators of the Hamburg massacre, they would have set a precedent that we won’t stand for these types of crimes,” O’Bryant said. “There would have been no need for me to have marched if they had done the right thing in Hamburg.”

The ruins of Hamburg

Today, the site of the Hamburg massacre is part ruin, part golf course. There is no marker there to the seven Black men who were murdered in 1876, just neatly maintained turf, fences and a few disintegrating buildings in the woods.

America’s civil war battlefields are the sites of intense, even obsessive, memorialization: hundreds of thousands of people visit the site of the battle of Gettysburg every year, and the government and private donors annually spend millions of dollars to maintain the town’s thriving complex of statues and museums. Gettysburg is remembered as the bloody turning point, the moment where the north, at great cost, began to win the war.

But the battlefields where America’s multi-racial democracy was lost just a decade later have not been preserved in the same way. Most of the memorials that exist were erected by white supremacists to mark their victory.

There is massive statue of Ben Tillman at the South Carolina statehouse, and an obelisk dedicated to Meriwether, the one white man killed during the Hamburg massacre, at the heart of North Augusta, the town closest to Hamburg.

Hamburg itself had been built next to the Savannah River, in an area prone to flooding, and while the army corps of engineers built a levee to protect Augusta, the white town on the other side of the river, the government left the Black town unprotected, O’Bryant said. After a particularly devastating flood in 1929, the town was abandoned. Today, all that is left on the site are a few ruins deep in the woods.

But Hamburg has survived in other ways. Forced out by flooding, the town’s Black residents moved to higher ground and built a new town, Carrsville.

“They didn’t have the money to buy lumber,” O’Bryant says, citing interviews with elderly residents who could recall the move. “They took their houses apart, brought the wood uphill, and reconstructed them.”

In 2016, after advocacy by O’Bryant and other local residents, North Augusta finally dedicated a historical marker and memorial to all eight people killed at Hamburg, including the seven Black victims. The place they chose for it was not the empty ground in Hamburg, but in Carrsville.

O’Bryant does not see it as an accident that Black primary voters in South Carolina, led by Jim Clyburn, a veteran of the civil rights movement, picked Joe Biden as the safest choice for the Democratic presidential nominee, or that Black voters in Georgia and other swing states turned out to help secure Biden’s victory.

Black voters fully understood the dangers of a second Trump term, O’Bryant said.

“It felt to us like it was life or death, not just for African Americans. It felt like it was life or death for the country.”

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This post originally appeared on The Guardian and was published February 22, 2021. This article is republished here with permission.

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