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Among the more common initial reactions to the disgraceful mob assault on the United States Capitol on Jan. 6 has been the notion that it was unprecedented and out of keeping with American values and the American experience. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy claimed that what he saw was “un-American.” One of his Republican colleagues, Tom Cole of Oklahoma, asserted that the behavior of the assailants was “not the American way,” while another, Nancy Mace of South Carolina, said that it was “not who we are.” On CNN, commentator Van Jones said he thought events looked “more like Syria than the United States of America.”
Even renowned historian Jill Lepore told the Boston host of an NPR morning show that she believed the episode at the Capitol was “off the grid of the trajectory of American history” and something that “comes out of the pages of the history of other countries.” Such sentiments surely reflect opinions held by a wide swath of the American population.
And they are wrong.
In some ways, of course, what transpired at the Capitol was indeed without exact parallel in American history. Never before has a U.S. president openly encouraged Americans to engage in seditious insurrection against their own government. Moreover, many Americans see the Capitol itself as a sacred space. It has been the site of violence before, such as when Puerto Rican nationalists opened fire in the chamber of the House of Representatives in 1954, but the last time the Capitol saw marauding on the scale of Jan. 6 was arguably when it was looted and burned by British forces during the War of 1812.
It does not require widening our angle of vision especially far, however, to see that mobs of white citizens rioting or attempting to overthrow legitimate governments, often with the complicity or support of public officials, have been commonplace in the United States for centuries. Nor does it take much effort to see that those mobs have frequently engaged in such activities in support of the idea that authority, power and speech in the United States are only legitimate when exercised by white people and on behalf of white people.
Mobs have frequently engaged in such activities in pursuit of the notion that authority, power and speech in the United States are only legitimate when exercised by white people.
Mobs routinely assaulted and sometimes murdered antislavery activists in both the North and the South before the Civil War. During postwar Reconstruction, violence by white mobs and paramilitary terrorist organizations was legion. These mobs particularly targeted Black lawmakers, Black voters and their allies as part of a larger campaign to “redeem” Southern states from Republican rule and restore power to white Democrats. The violence resulted in massacres in multiple states, the murders of thousands of people and the overthrow or near-overthrow of numerous multiracial state and local governments.
For decades after Reconstruction, white mobs carried out lynchings in broad daylight before crowds of thousands, often under the auspices of local authorities. In 1898, white supremacists engineered a coup to overthrow the city government of Wilmington, North Carolina. They murdered Black residents, burned large sections of Black neighborhoods and read a “White Declaration of Independence” at a mass meeting led by a former congressman.
During the so-called Red Summer of 1919, white mobs carried out riots and murders in dozens of cities, and they especially directed their ire at Black veterans recently returned from fighting in World War I. In Elaine, Arkansas that year, a white militia massacred Black sharecroppers who were attempting to unionize. In the 1920s, thousands of members of the Ku Klux Klan paraded down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., and white mobs carried out anti-Black pogroms in Rosewood, Florida, and Tulsa, Oklahoma, where city officials and the police colluded with the rioters. Between the 1940s and 1970s, white mobs in Chicago, Boston, Little Rock, New Orleans and scores of other cities and towns across the country besieged Black communities, Black families and Black schoolchildren in opposition to housing and school integration.
This list of atrocities is not remotely exhaustive. Nor are any of these incidents secrets or matters that require specialized or scholarly knowledge to discover. Many Americans, and white Americans in particular, are unaware of this history nonetheless. They were likely never taught it.
That ignorance — as well as the glibness of people to whom some of this history is undoubtedly familiar and who argue regardless that what we saw on Jan. 6 was an aberration — speaks to the fundamental failures of our educational system and mass media alike. Too often in our schools, movies and televisions, white supremacist mob violence, when it is acknowledged at all, is contextualized as exceptional or unusual, a departure from what is “normal” or truly “American.”
A narrative of American history providing a thorough accounting of both the regularity of that violence and the consistent aims for which it has been put to use would obviously look quite different. It would not be as uplifting, as self-flattering or as comforting as a history in which such violence is understood as “un-American.”
Yet it would be both more honest and more useful. We need not understand American history as nothing but an endless litany of riots and outrages. But we leave ourselves unprepared and in position to be “surprised” over and over again when we do not recognize that events like the attempted insurrection of Jan. 6 are very much part and parcel of our country’s past and its present.
Joshua D. Rothman is professor of history and chair of the department of history at the University of Alabama. He is the author of The Ledger and the Chain: How Domestic Slave Traders Shaped America, forthcoming in April from Basic Books.
This story about the history of white mobs was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.