"People are treating it as if it's a virus that started in 2017.
No, this is a cancer that began in 1776."
Violence fueled by white supremacist fears continues to this day. Mere weeks ago, the United States faced a violent coup attempt against its own government; agitators stormed the Capitol building on January 6th, 2021. Their goals were varied and chaotic-- some sought to overthrow the results of the presidential election, others wanted to murder or terrorize elected officials and their staff, and yet others seemed to want nothing more than to pose for photos in restricted areas and take part in a historic event.
While this mob did not achieve its most violent goals, its size and fervor did remind Americans that a significant number of people are willing to travel, fight, and commit violence for the sake of holding on to an outdated and violent image of America. The parallels to violence in Charlottesville are there; by taking a step back through history, one can understand how all of these events are connected.
February 20, 1939: A "Pro America" Rally is held at Madison Square Garden
An anti-Semitic, Pro-America rally was held at Madsion Square Garden in New York City. Attendees were amazed by a 70-foot-tall banner depicting George Washington, flanked by long banners with American flags and Nazi swastikas. Held by the pro-Nazi organization German American Bund, the event sought to emulate the fervor of Hitler's rallies in an American venue. Attendees wore Nazi armbands and heard slogans like "Stop Jewish Domination of Christian America."
The event was broadcast over radio, reaching far more people than could be contained within the venue's walls. Outside, a mass group of protestors had gathered, denouncing the hate speech and crying out against Nazism. The event was largely forgotten after the war, but the messages spread there are repeated to this day.
Skokie, Illinois 1976: A Battle Over Free Speech for Nazis
Until 1976, Neo-Nazi Frank Collin held public pro-Nazi demonstrations in Marquette Park in Chicago. When the city blocked all public demonstrations from the park, Collin started sending letters to Chicago's northern suburbs, hoping to start marching again. While most suburbs ignored Collin's request, the small town of Skokie responded. Their initial desire was to grant the request but make sure to give Collin's cause as little publicity as possible. Skokie's sizeable Jewish population, however, opposed any pro-Nazi demonstrations in their town. This eventually escalated into a Supreme Court case in which Collins was represented by the ACLU. The ACLU's involvement was intensely controversial; at least one attorney resigned over the ACLU's decision to defend the free speech of a neo-Nazi.
As the case gained notoriety, new anti-Nazi groups were formed and protests against Collins and his group erupted. Eventually, Chicago agreed to allow Neo-Nazis to march in a pro-Nazi demonstration. This set a precedent for free speech for hate speech that continue to this day.
June 17, 2015: Emanuel AME Church Shooting
On a Wednesday evening, 21-year-old Dylann Roof attended bible study at the historically significant Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. He participated in the bible study for about an hour, then took out a handgun and began shooting the other attendees, saying "I have to do it. You rape our women and you're taking over our country. And you have to go."
In total, he murdered 9 churchgoers. All were Black and ranged in age from 26 to 87. Roof escaped unharmed and was arrested the next morning.
Roof was found guilty of 33 counts of murder and hate crimes. He was sentenced to death in 2017. His influence in white supremacist circles is staggering. One group of Neo-Nazis called themselves the "bowl patrol" after Roof's bowl haircut. His manifesto was published online before his arrest. At Charlottesville, white supremacists are recorded as praising Roof for the violence he committed. Roof is one of the first examples of a mass hate crime perpetrator who was radicalized online.
MORE READING AND LISTENING
The violence in Charlottesville is not new, and it is not over. To read and listen about the past and future of white supremacist movements in America, and the people they affect, check out the links below.