By Charles B. Dew ’58
Illustration by Carmen Segovia
We are currently witnessing the death throes of white supremacy in our country. And it is not a pretty sight.
As someone who has spent the major part of my adult life trying to understand the history of the American South, it has been, in the immortal words of Yogi Berra, “déjà vu all over again.” I had the strong feeling as I watched the Trump years unfold that I was seeing something I never thought would happen again on a national scale: the elevation of a racist demagogue to the White House.
Racist demagogues were my stock in trade as I spent years teaching courses on both the Old and the New South.
In the antebellum period, it was Alexander H. Stephens of Georgia, the vice president of the Confederacy, who bragged in 1861 that the South had turned a vital corner in seceding from the Union. Thomas Jefferson and other founders were clearly in error when they argued “that the enslavement of the African was in violation to the laws of nature.” Nothing could be further from the truth, Stephens insisted: “Our new Government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man.”
This theme was carried forward into the New South years with nauseating frequency.
In his inaugural address as governor of Alabama in 1963, George Wallace insisted that white Southerners were being subjected by liberal Northerners to the “false doctrine of communistic amalgamation,” an outrage that would lead to a “mongrel unit of one” in the South “under a single all-powerful government.”
But that was then, right?
Wrong. As soon as Donald J. Trump rode down that escalator in Trump Tower and announced his candidacy, I had a terrible feeling the country was heading for deep and, to me, familiar trouble.
Unfortunately, we were.
Starting with his initial attack on Mexican immigrants, characterizing them as murderers and rapists, continuing on through his Muslim travel ban, his “very fine people, on both sides” comment following the 2017 neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Va., to his final attacks on minority voters in cities like Atlanta, Philadelphia, Detroit and Milwaukee, Trump played the race card over and over again. It was the centerpiece of his “Stop the Steal” campaign: Black and brown voters had stripped the vast majority of his voters—white voters—not only of their president but also, as they saw it, of their God-given birthright: the right to rule.
The result was totally predictable—a lynch mob.
The Trump presidency culminated in the vicious attack on the U.S. Capitol on
Jan. 6, 2021. The attackers even erected a noose and scaffold on the Capitol grounds in case anyone might be confused about their intent. Their cry of “Hang Mike Pence!” ringing through the halls of the Capitol seemed almost like an afterthought. Anyone who has studied lynching in this country had seen it all before.
By mid-century, white people will be in a minority in the U.S. Demography may not be destiny, but it is one hell of a barometer. And you do not have to be a weatherman to see which way the wind is blowing. White nationalists certainly do and have become more frantic and violent in their response to these inexorable changes, as the events of Jan. 6 so clearly indicate. But as a historian of the South, I think we can take hope: Time, much less the arc of justice, is not on their side.