Capitol attack conjures American legacy of racial violence
In the wake of the Capitol Hill attack by a mob of President Donald Trump‘s supporters — including white supremacists — some conservative lawmakers, especially those who broke with the president on overturning the election results, have expressed concerns about receiving death threats.
For many lawmakers of color, threats to their lives are par for the course, building on a well-documented history of threats and acts of racially motivated violence that coincide with people of color seeking and gaining political power.
Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., spoke about this in an interview with MSNBC shortly after the attack.
“Feeling unsafe is not new, and certainly being a Black woman and feeling unsafe is not new,” said Pressley. “The experiences of Wednesday were harrowing and, unfortunately, very familiar in the deepest most ancestor ancestral way. And that includes for, you know, all Black Americans, all Black [Congressional] members.”
Intelligence warnings of ongoing domestic terror threats have prompted an unprecedented security effort with as many as 25,000 National Guardsmen given the green light to descend on the nation’s capital to protect the inauguration. Through it all, Harris has been adamant about going forward with a public swearing-in.
“I am very much looking forward to being sworn in as the next vice president of the United States, and I will walk there, to that moment, proudly with my head up and my shoulders back,” Harris told reporters Monday.
Still, allies of Vice President-elect Kamala Harris have circulated concerns for her safety. In an interview with The Washington Post, Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Fla., said she was “petrified” for Harris as she prepares to take the oath of office. Harris will be the first woman and woman of color to hold the office of vice president.
“Her big day, the big day for the nation, a crowning moment for America as she breaks through thousands of glass ceilings — glass should be on every street throughout this nation — and that’s going to be shrouded by fear of a white mob of insurgents who are racist and hate-filled. That’s the sad part about all this,” Wilson told the newspaper.
“I am afraid for every Black public official,” said Lateefah Simon, a mentee of Harris’ and local elected official in the San Franciscoo Bay Area, in an interview with ABC News. She later added: “We just celebrated Dr. King’s birthday in the last few days and we know so clearly, when folks are fighting unapologetically for the freedom of oppressed people, that folks are clinging on to the last gasp of white supremacy, we’re seeing the desperation of white supremacist and their actions, both online, and both in the insurrection.”
“What we saw in that attack on the Capitol is the sort of insistence on bringing down the latest mass democracy movement and it starts with the tea party and the backlash to Barack Obama,” said Kidada Williams, a historian at Wayne State University who studies Black victims of racial violence.
When he ran for the nation’s highest office in 2008, then-candidate Barack Obama received Secret Service protection earlier than any other candidate because of the threats. And during his eight years in office, Obama and his family received an unprecedented number of death threats.
Williams believes threats against Harris could be even more severe.
“It’ll be worse because she’s a Black woman, there’s a different kind of hate for Black women than there is for Black men,” Williams said. “I believe it’s also because of the huge age gap, if anything happens to President Biden, she’s next in line.”
There is a grim legacy within the Black community of leaders being assassinated. The examples are numerous. Civil rights activist Medgar Evers was shot by a white supremacist while trying to integrate the University of Mississippi. Fred Hampton, a leader of the Black Panther Party, was killed by police in Chicago while he was sleeping and unarmed. Malcolm X was shot and killed by a member of the Nation of Islam after the FBI’s Counterintelligence Program fomented tensions between him and the leaders of the movement. Most notably, civil rights icon Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot dead at the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1968.
Violence and threats of violence against Black leaders go well beyond Obama and the civil rights movement of the 1960s. A century prior, in the years after the Civil War, Black men began to exercise the rights of their newfound freedom. It created a wave of Black political organizing and with it came hundreds of Black men who were elected to public office in local, state and federal government.
In response, racial violence perpetrated at the hands of white supremacist groups like the Ku Klux Klan was used as a means of intimidation against Blacks who sought to participate in government. According to Eric Foner, a historian at Columbia University who specializes in the Reconstruction Era, scores of Black leaders were victims of racial violence and more than 30 Black elected officials were murdered.
“You have to be pretty brave to be a Black elected official in a lot of the South during Reconstruction,” said Foner. “It would be very hard to think of another group of public officials in American history of whom 10% would be direct victims of violence in one way or another.”
Foner likened the mob that attacked the Capitol to white mobs during the Reconstruction Era. They invaded statehouses and city halls in attempts to strip Black people of political power. He also compared Trump’s political rise through his spread of a racist birther lie about Obama to the racist rhetoric of President Andrew Johnson.
In his 1867 State of the Union address, Johnson used racist language to justify keeping Black people out of elected office.
“Negroes have shown less capacity for government than any other race of people. No independent government of any form has ever been successful in their hands,” said Johnson. “On the contrary, wherever they have been left to their own devices, they have shown a constant tendency to relapse into barbarism.”
Johnson was a lifelong Democrat and former slave owner from Tennessee. He was widely viewed as lenient toward Confederate leaders, offering thousands of pardons to rebels and making way for the violence across the South that came after.
“That’s the closest predecessor in American history to Trump, Johnson even helped to inspire riots,” according to Foner, pointing to race riots in New Orleans and Memphis in 1866 in which white mobs killed 94 African Americans, wounded hundreds, and burned churches and schools.
Harris’ swearing-in is the culmination of her historic election and she’s moving forward fully aware of this history of brazen displays of white supremacy.
“People walking around carrying the Confederate flag? This is not a new display we’ve seen, this — we saw this over the course of the last four years and we’ve seen it in our history in the world’s history before,” said Harris in an interview with CBS News Sunday.
Williams said that a real reckoning with our nation’s past will be required on the part of white lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to create change for the better.
“There’s a tendency to look to Black people for solutions,” said Williams. “Black people didn’t start this fire. Black people can’t put it out.”