Sociologist/historian W.E. B. Dubois noted in his book, The Souls of Black Folk, published in 1903 that the ‘problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line.’ Twenty years into the 21st century, the ‘problem’ – like a malignant sore – still feeds on the nation’s soul, and once again threatens to dismantle the great American experiment: democracy.
The world caught a glimpse of the degree of America’s fragility January 6, 2021 when former president Donald Trump conned thousands of his supporters into becoming pawns in his scheme to storm the Capitol and stop Congress from certifying the 2020 election of President Joe Biden. Several people were killed, including two police officers and more than 100 others injured during the malicious attack. The rioters also threatened the lives of former Vice President Mike Pence and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, while vandalizing several offices in the Capitol. More than 350 people have been arrested for their roles in the deadly siege. Oblivious to the facts two months later, Trump recently referred to the incident as a harmless venture.
“It was zero threat, right from the start, it was zero threat,” Trump recently told Fox News another big lie.” Some of them went in … hugging (and) kissing the police and guards … a lot of the people were waived in, and then they walked in and they walked out.”
Harry Dunn, a black Capitol policeman, who was among scores of officers attacked, had a different perspective. He told ABC News the rioters he encountered seethed with racial hatred. “I got called a [racial slur] a couple dozen times … protecting this building,” said Dunn. One woman spewing abuse was wearing a “pink MAGA shirt. … They beat police officers with Blue Lives Matter flags. They had Confederate flags in the U.S. Capitol. … Is this America … I got angry, I got sad, I got hurt.”
In a CNN interview, Dunn amplified the impact the nation’s second insurrection had on him as a black American. He said, “Once I had time to sit down and put it all together, it was just so overwhelming: that here we are giving so much and putting our lives on the line to protect democracy and keep it and we’re being called racial slurs, traitors, and any weapon that these people could use because they were upset about something,” he said. “I didn’t wake up that morning and want to be called a nigger. I didn’t bring race into it. I just wanted to do my job.”
The first insurrection on America’s soil occurred In Wilmington, NC in 1898, when a 2,000-strong white mob overthrew the legitimately elected local government, a coalition of black Republicans and white Fusionists, who sought free education, debt relief, and equal rights for its black citizens. “African Americans were becoming quite successful,” Yale University history professor Glenda Gilmore told the BBC. “They were going to universities, had rising literacy rates, and had rising property ownership.”
The mob killed several black men in the upscale Brooklyn neighborhood, set fire to the Wilmington Record, a black-owned newspaper, then posed for pictures in front of the charred building. Black and white residents urged then-President William McKinley to intervene, but he didn’t respond. In the aftermath, more than 2,000 blacks left the city permanently, an exodus that transformed a majority black city to a majority white city.
“They burned down black newspapers all over the state,” historian David S. Cecelski told Atlantic magazine. “They shut down entry to the city from blacks and Republicans… It’s important not to forget that this was a planned thing. This wasn’t two people getting in a fight in a street corner and sparking underlying racial tensions.” Gilmore told Atlantic magazine: “This history was totally hidden from white children. And that was deliberate.”
In the book, Democracy Betrayed: The Race Riots of 1898 and its Legacy, historian Laura Edwards wrote, “What happened in Wilmington became an affirmation of white supremacy not just in that one city, but in the South and in the nation as a whole,” as it affirmed that invoking “whiteness” eclipsed the legal citizenship, individual rights, and equal protection under the law that Black Americans were guaranteed under the Fourteenth Amendment.”
Since the Wilmington insurrection, tens of thousands of black Americans have been traumatized, brutalized, lynched or incinerated in the name of white supremacy. The black carnage wasn’t confined to the South. During the Tulsa, Oklahoma race riots of 1921, more than 300 people were killed, 800 injured and 60 businesses were destroyed when white mobs burned and looted the flourishing business district known as Black Wall Street.
In his book, The Dead Are Arising, the Life of Malcolm X, Pulitzer Prize winning author/journalist Les Payne described the 2019 lynching of Will Brown, who was falsely accused of attacking a white woman in Omaha, Nebraska, Malcolm X’s birthplace. An enraged white mob wrested Brown from his jail cell, beat and dragged him down the street and lynched him on a lamppost near the courthouse. Gunmen fired nearly 100 bullets into his body. The crowd then set his body afire. Payne wrote: ‘Grisly photographs of Brown’s body roasting on the pyre were sold as postcards at the time. And rope used in his lynching reportedly fetched 10 cents a length as souvenirs. Such was the savagery of whites in Omaha and the barbarism in matters of justice for Negroes across America in the 1920s.”
Racial and ethnic cleansings were abhorrent stains on the American fabric during the first half of the 1900s. Native Americans were forced off their land and relocated to reservations. Chinese Americans in the Pacific Northwest and African Americans throughout the United States were rounded up and removed from some communities. I was 13 when I became aware of the depth of the evil that dwells within the souls of many southern white folk in 1955 when Emmitt Till, a 14-year-old Chicago resident, was kidnapped and murdered while visiting relatives in Mississippi. His offense: whistling at a white woman. A jury acquitted the two defendants. Till’s mother, Mamie Elizabeth Till-Mobley, insisted on having an open casket funeral because she wanted the world to see her son’s ravaged body. The casket is now on display at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., not far from the site of the Jan. 6 insurrection.
With his term-in-office set to end in two weeks, Trump, on Jan. 6, sent his right-wing followers on a mission to keep him in the White House, even if it meant executing a coup d’état. Trump’s rationale for the attack: ‘Unbelievable voter fraud’ in black communities in Michigan, Georgia, Pennsylvania, etc. That’s the us-vs-them morsel he knew his supporters gladly would swallow. The former president’s plan to overthrow the government that he had led for the last four years nearly succeeded. Now, GOP state legislators are taking a swing at assuring Republican victories in the 2022 elections via a bloodless coup. Republican controlled lawmakers in 47 states have enacted more than 300 laws designed to suppress the black vote. Republicans hope to settle the issue of the color line simply by abandoning the principles of fairness and equality, as their ancestors had done during the South’s Separate but Equal era. President Joe Biden opposes the GOP’s plan and wants Congress to adopt the John Lewis’ Voting Rights Act, named for the late Georgia Congressman and Civil Rights activist.
GOP leaders essentially have abandoned all democratic ideals. They seem interested only in having power, supporting big business and their wealthy sponsors. Neither democracy nor true Christianity would survive in the world they envision. Will the great ‘American Experiment’ survive while the nation is so dangerously divided? Only if we, the people stay active in politics at all levels, stand firm against any move toward authoritarianism and be ever vigilant.