Civil Liberties

A History of Violence

The long, sordid tale of anti-black brutality on the American left


Do the noisy protests directed at President Barack Obama's health care plan reveal something uniquely sinister about the American right? A surprising number of liberal pundits seem to think so. "Let's be honest with ourselves," progressive blogger Josh Marshall declared, "the American right has a deep-seated problem with political violence….The ideological pattern is clear going back at least thirty years and arguably far longer."

Chip Berlet, a senior researcher at the liberal think tank Political Research Associates, went even further than that, telling New America Media: "For over 100 years—more like 150, you've had these movements, and they came out of the Civil War. It is a backlash against social liberalism and it's rooted in libertarian support for unregulated capitalism and white people holding onto power, and, if they see themselves losing it, trying to get it back."

Now, it's certainly true that the United States has seen some brutal right-wing thugs over the years, particularly during the Cold War and the Civil Rights struggle of the mid-20th century. But Berlet's ridiculous claim that "libertarian support for unregulated capitalism" created a racist backlash stretching back "over 100 years—more like 150," reveals nothing more than Berlet's own profound ignorance about what actually happened over the past century and a half.

Perhaps Berlet should consider the career of South Carolina's Benjamin "Pitchfork" Tillman (1847-1914), a leading progressive who railed against the sins of "unregulated capitalism" while preaching the salvation of white supremacy. An ally of the agrarian populist William Jennings Bryan, Tillman supported antitrust laws, railroad regulations, the free coinage of silver, and a host of other progressive panaceas. He first entered politics as a member of the Red Shirts, a Klan-like terror group that "came out of the Civil War" to menace African Americans during the early years of Reconstruction. When President Theodore Roosevelt entertained the black leader Booker T. Washington at the White House in 1901, Tillman served as a de facto spokesman for the Southern opposition, declaring: "The action of President Roosevelt in entertaining that nigger will necessitate our killing a thousand niggers in the South before they will learn their place again." It's hard to imagine a nastier threat of political violence than that—and Tillman is obviously nobody's idea of a libertarian.

In fact, as the historian David Southern has documented, the worst evils of the South's Jim Crow regime, including segregation, disfranchisement, mob violence, and lynching, all "went hand-in-hand with the most advanced forms of southern progressivism." Remember that progressives wanted an interventionist government with sweeping powers to regulate all walks of life, an approach that fit nicely with Jim Crow's bullying assault on economic liberty and freedom of association.

As for "white people holding onto power, and, if they see themselves losing it, trying to get it back," let's not forget the racist history of the American labor movement, particularly the powerful American Federation of Labor (AFL). Since most AFL unions banned African Americans outright until federal anti-discrimination laws appeared in the 1960s, blacks often had to take drastic measures to break into union-dominated fields. This led many African Americans to accept dangerous work as strikebreakers—"scabs"—while the lily-white AFL walked the picket line.

In response to this unwelcome competition, AFL chief Samuel Gompers thundered: "If the colored man continues to lend himself to the work of tearing down what the white man has built up, a race hatred worse than any ever known before will result. Caucasian civilization will serve notice that its uplifting process is not to be interfered with in any such way." Along those lines, during the infamous 1892 Homestead strike against Carnegie Steel, black strikebreakers were beaten and dynamited by members of the picketing Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers. Once again, racist political violence coming from the left.

Have some ugly views cropped up at the recent health care protests? Sure. But to take that as evidence of a century-long battle between enlightened liberal reformers and knuckle-dragging laissez-faire racist goons is to believe in a self-serving fairy tale. It's time for any pundit who thinks that way to grow up.

Damon W. Root is an associate editor at Reason magazine.