History

Charlottesville and the Confederate Legacy

The white supremacist violence in Virginia echoed the tactics of antebellum vigilante groups and showed how deep the roots of racism in America are.

Charlottesville and the Confederate Legacy

Thousands gather with candles to march along the path that white supremacists took the prior Friday with torches on the University of Virginia Campus in Charlottesville, Virginia on Aug. 16, 2017. (Photo by Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

As Americans struggle to make sense of the bloodshed resulting from the white supremacist “Unite the Right” march in Charlottesville this past weekend, we must remember the movement’s historical predecessors.

In their vicious quest to “Make America White Again,” this motley conglomeration of different hate groups did more than simply protest the removal of Confederate monuments. Armed for war, these incendiary racists employ several of the same aggressive tactics that the slaveholding leaders of the Confederate rebellion once relied on to achieve secession.

Having spent months using the ominous threat of violence to gain attention in Charlottesville, these modern-day homegrown terrorists attacked their fellow countrymen in a spectacle-like setting. The death of heroic activist Heather Heyer and the injuries of 19 other brave men and women are, quite horribly, only the most recent casualties in a long string of murders by white supremacists.

As the American abolitionist movement gained steam in the 1830s, Southern vigilante posses began springing up throughout the region. Led by the most affluent men in each village and town, vigilance committees and “minute men” groups terrorized both slaves and poor whites in an effort to enforce segregation and prevent possible rebellions.

Donning helmets, bulletproof vests and military gear, armed with assault rifles, handguns and plenty of ammunition, “Unite the Right” members took a page right out of the old secessionist handbook. In fact, a highly functional culture of vigilante violence has long existed in the antebellum South. It was even more entrenched in the Deep South, where large percentages of slaves and greater economic inequality between whites intensified social tensions. And just as in their beloved Confederacy, where vigilantes worked hand-in-hand with local law enforcement, the Charlottesville vigilantes encountered very little resistance from the police.

The preservation of a multifaceted slave society required constant attention. By itself, the legal system could not assure the level of security slave owners needed to feel safe, so they employed extralegal means to buttress the criminal code. As the American abolitionist movement gained steam in the 1830s, Southern vigilante posses began springing up throughout the region. Led by the most affluent men in each village and town, vigilance committees and “minute men” groups terrorized both slaves and poor whites in an effort to enforce segregation and prevent possible rebellions. Precursors to the Ku Klux Klan, these terroristic groups used violence and the constant threat of violence to maintain the Southern hierarchy, and eventually achieve secession from the United States.

Along with legally sanctioned slave patrols, vigilante slave owners and their allies were always policing the underclasses, reminding them that every utterance, every allegiance and every movement was under surveillance, with bloodshed a quick remedy for disloyalty. They targeted whites who were not connected to the slave empire, or who disagreed with slavery morally or intellectually. But their primary targets were black Americans, who bore — and still bear — the vast brunt of our nation’s brutality.

Although slave owners’ extensive use of vigilante violence to achieve disunion has generally been overlooked by historians, it unquestionably existed. Secession certainly was not secured by popular (white) will, nor by free choice for that matter. The master class had long lorded over the region with slave patrols, vigilante violence and mob brutality, and these instruments of force all helped to secure disunion. “The subsequent proceedings of the Southern leaders convinced all that there was a large element of Southern society which had been drawn into secession by force,” one white abolitionist Virginian wrote. To be sure, “every step of the South has been marked by perjury, treachery and lawlessness.”[1]

In Charlottesville this past weekend the American public witnessed the same type of terroristic intimidation that vigilante slaveholders once employed. This racist violence and rhetoric was amplified during Trump presidential rallies and has since been consistently condoned — tacitly, or increasingly, explicitly — by the president himself.

Vigilante violence was unquestionably necessary, claimed the Vicksburg Weekly Citizen, just in case the government needed to “resort to drastic measures to [e]nsure secession.” W.S. Barry, the president of the Mississippi Secession Convention, even suggested that “a stiff limb and a strong rope vigorously applied” should quiet anyone who was opposed to “our work.”[2]

In Charlottesville this past weekend the American public witnessed the same type of terroristic intimidation that vigilante slaveholders once employed. This racist violence and rhetoric was amplified during Trump presidential rallies and has since been consistently condoned — tacitly, or increasingly, explicitly — by the president himself. Trump’s abhorrent comments essentially defending white supremacists Tuesday afternoon only serve to show just how ingrained racism is in our current executive branch.

Perhaps even more alarmingly, however, was the fact that police seemingly allowed the neo-Confederate white supremacists to do as they pleased, even declining to intervene as anti-racist counter-protestors were savagely attacked. Comparing the police’s often violent reaction to Black Lives Matter protestors with their “coddling” of white supremacists, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor wrote that by contrast, in Charlottesville “police stood passively as white supremacists lined up in formation, charged at protestors, and beat people.”[3]

In a nation that grapples with the egregious overuse of police force daily, the Charlottesville police force’s inaction in this matter clearly exposes the incredible power of modern white privilege. Still, the relationship between the police and these domestic terrorists again harkens back to the slaveholding South, where these vigilante groups were populated by the same men who ran state and local governments and law-enforcement agencies.

Always working in tandem with local criminal courts and sheriff’s departments, the antebellum South’s vigilante groups served to buttress the other systems and ensure that the masses were rendered either powerless or terrified. Slaveholding Confederates so nearly perfected this system that even after emancipation they continued using this matrix of violence to re-establish control over the region, with the practice of racial terror dominating the Jim Crow era — and reappearing with a vengeance in 2017.

By using violence and intimidation to gain political clout, the white supremacists who descended upon Charlottesville accomplished more than just saving for now a Confederate monument. Not only did they openly tout the benefits of a slavery-ridden society, they brought back the vicious tactics of Confederate vigilante groups as well. By the early 1860s, historian Roger Shugg wrote, white supremacist secessionists had accomplished their goals by “farce and fraud; the knife, the slingshot [and] the brass knuckles determining…who shall occupy and administer the [public] offices.” Nearly 160 years later, white supremacy – and its resulting violence — threatens to tear our nation asunder once again.[4]

 


 

[1] M.D. Conway, Testimonies Concerning Slavery (London: Chapman and Hall, 1855), 96-97.

[2] Quoted in Michael P. Johnson, Toward a Patriarchal Republic: The Secession of Georgia (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1977), 19; quoted in Charles C. Bolton, Poor Whites in the Antebellum South: Tenants and Laborers in Central North Carolina and Northeast Mississippi (Durham: Duke University Press, 1994), 175.

[3] Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, “No More Charlottesvilles,” Jacobin, Aug. 14, 2017.

[4] Roger W. Shugg, Origins of Class Struggle in Louisiana: A Social History of White Farmers and Laborers during Slavery and After, 1840-1875 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1939), 147.

Keri Leigh Merritt

Keri Leigh Merritt is an independent historian in Atlanta, Georgia. She is the author of Masterless Men: Poor Whites and Slavery in the Antebellum South. Follow her on Twitter: @KeriLeighMerrit.

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