Thursday, August 6, 2009

Organized Vigilante Mobs in the Civil Rights Movement and the Teabaggers: Historic Parallels

And then finally there’s this, from Stockley’s book Ruled by Race (pp. 360-362): he notes that, as the Civil Rights movement advanced in the Arkansas Delta, the part of the state most wedded to Old South ways, the John Birch Society began to organize and disseminate literature that deliberately spread lies to inflame the fears and hatred of whites in the region.

The predictable upshot of that organized covert vigilante disinformation campaign was outright vigilantism: in the summer of 1969, as racial tensions escalated following the murder of Martin Luther King, whites inflamed by these techniques of the organized vigilante disinformation campaign began to rally, form mobs, and issue threats. Stockley notes,

In early September an estimated crowd of more than seven hundred whites turned out for a rally [in Forrest City] at which speakers denounced city officials, the news media, and outside black influence. Dr. George McPhail claimed the Arkansas Gazette was “Communist controlled” and said, “You can rough up a few Sweet Willies and be within the law.” . . . Sue Saunders, a local correspondent for the Arkansas Gazette, was physically assaulted by an irate woman as she attempted to cover a story dealing with the racial situation. She had been called a “Communist” and “n----r lover” and frequently had been cursed by incensed white conservatives for her efforts to cover news stories involving race relations in Forrest City. After her attack, she said, “I’ve never seen such hate. I didn’t know it existed.”

Sound familiar? For anyone who lived through this period of Southern history, it is impossible, I suspect, to look at the rage-contorted faces of the organized mobs now shouting speakers down at town hall meetings and not call to mind what went on in our part of the country in the 1950s and 1960s.

The faces are the same. The tactics are the same. The goal—dissemination of lies to fuel fear and rage leading to social regression—is the same.

Through Nixon’s Southern strategy, the Republican party has inherited a shameful legacy that it would do well to disavow now, if it wants to have a viable future. That is, if our future is not to be one of outright mob rule. This is why I have been intently concerned about the increasing use of organized, disruptive mobs by powerful interest groups of the right in our society, from our last election campaign right up to this summer of discontent, 2009. And by the silence of Christian leaders about this potential turn to ugly mob rule.

I know what can happen. I've seen it happen. It's not pretty. And people of conscience have an obligation to stop it from happening, it seems to me.