Television commentators and everyday folks on the street are saying that they have never seen the U.S. as imbued with racial hatred as it is today.
And they place this attitude squarely at the feet of the un-president. He who has made speeches at his political rallies that the hundreds of Central American refugees fleeing to the U.S. to escape persecution in their nations of origin are “invaders,” “terrorists” and “criminals” with “unknown Middle Easterners” among them. Who has disrespected three Black women reporters who cover the White House, calling one “stupid.” Who has said Congressperson Maxine Waters of California, who is Black, has a “low IQ.”
Hate crimes spiked upward last year under the un-president. FBI statistics released this month indicate that 7,175 hate crimes took place last year, an increase from 6,121 in 2016. Three out of five hate crimes were against ethnic and racial groups. One out of five targeted religious groups.
But the last two years isn’t the only time in U.S. history that such hatred has been out in the open, seemingly unrestrained. Ask your grandparents, your great-grandparents, great-aunts and uncles, if they are still living, if they remember seeing, or hearing about, Senator Theodore Bilbo of Mississippi (1877-1947), or Senator Benjamin Tillman of South Carolina (1847-1918). During their active years in government, more than 3,000 Black people were lynched in the South.
Tillman and Bilbo were both Democrats, or “Dixiecrats” at a time when the party was dominated by white Southern racists. The Republicans were the “liberals” then, and had earned Black peoples’ support as the party of President Abraham Lincoln which freed their ancestors from enslavement.
Tillman made his political career as a champion of poor white farmers, and a scourge of rich whites and all Black people. He was a member of a “rifle club,” or “Red Shirts,”one of several in his state that existed to terrorize and kill Black people, especially those who had entered political office during the South’s Reconstruction period, and those who tried to exercise their right to vote. He boasted about his role in the Hamburg Massacre, in which six Black men who had done nothing were murdered. “The leading white men of Edgefield (city in South Carolina) (seized) the first opportunity that the Negroes might offer them to provoke a riot and teach the Negroes a lesson,” he said.
As a governor of South Carolina, Tillman was responsible for many of its Jim Crow (segregation) laws, and created a new state constitution that prevented Black people from voting or holding elected office. A staunch white supremacist, Tillman opined that educating Black people means ” . . . you educate a candidate for the penitentiary or spoil a good field hand.”
In a 1900 U.S. Senate speech, Tillman supported white men in his state who had murdered Black people by characterizing the victims as “hot-heads” who brought their murder on themselves. Black men in the South, he said, had to be killed. Whites would . ” not submit to (the Black man) gratifying his lust on our wives and daughters without lynching him.”
Mississippi Senator Bilbo (pictured), like the current un-president, was effective in using the news media to spread hatred. The radio was Bilbo’s Fox News. Commenting on the severe beating by whites of a Black World War II army veteran in Mississippi who tried register to vote, Bilbo told his radio audience, “. . . every red-blooded Anglo-Saxon man in Mississippi (must) resort to any means to keep hundreds of Negroes from the polls . . . And if you don’t know what that means, you are just not up to your persuasive measures.” A lifetime member of the Ku Klux Klan, Bilbo attempted to be taken seriously as an author when he wrote and published his book, “Take Your Choice: Separation or Mongrelization.”
Bilbo supported lynching as a way to keep Black people in their “place.” During a filibuster against an anti-lynching bill pending before the Senate in 1938, he insisted that passage of the bill “will open the floodgates of hell in the South. Raping, mobbing, lynching, race riots and crime will be increased a thousandfold; and upon your garments and the garments of those who are responsible for the passage of the measure will be the blood of the raped and outraged daughters of Dixie, as well as the blood of the perpetrators of these crimes that the red-blooded Anglo-Saxon White (sic) Southern men will not tolerate.”
The current racist atmosphere is nothing new. Many of our ancestors survived the Tillmans, the Bilbos, and worse. Because of them, we are here. We owe it to our progeny to get through this. And to be strong. We are the descendants of the enslaved Africans they could not kill.