Dylann Roof and the white fear of a black takeover

tags: racism, Dylann Roof

Jason Morgan Ward is associate professor of history at Mississippi State University and author of "Defending White Democracy: The Making of a Segregationist Movement and the Remaking of Racial Politics, 1936-1965." His second book, "Hanging Bridge: A Lynching Site and a Civil Rights Century," will be published next year.

... According to eyewitness accounts, Roof said, among other things, "You're taking over our country." Most observers, a gaggle of dissembling politicians excepted, have taken the killer's own words as evidence of racial motive, if not pathology.
For most of the South's history, the fear of African Americans "taking over" has permeated mainstream political culture. That paranoia ran deepest in states like South Carolina, where African Americans constituted a majority of the population well into the 20 century. Whites in Charleston certainly acted on those fears in 1822, when they executed Denmark         Vesey, a founding member of Emanuel AME Church, for plotting a slave rebellion. After emancipation, white supremacists stoked fears of "Negro domination" to overthrow South Carolina's interracial Reconstruction government. The architects of Jim Crow enacted disfranchisement measures such as poll taxes and literacy tests as safeguards against the seemingly ever-present threat of another black takeover. 

It is fitting, if coincidental, that authorities apprehended Roof just across the state line in Shelby, N.C., the birthplace of the man who arguably did more than anyone to sear the specter of Negro domination into the national consciousness.

Thomas Dixon's "The Clansman," a novel set in Reconstruction-era South Carolina, inspired the 1915 blockbuster film "Birth of a Nation" and glorified white supremacist violence as a heroic response to black civic participation. Few remember Dixon's apocalyptic final novel, "The Flaming Sword," which depicted a Marxist-inspired, all-black "Nat Turner Legion" overrunning the South in the 1930s. Dixon died before he could complete his planned trilogy, in which a white "Patriot Union" would presumably take America back. 

By the 1930s, South Carolina had lost its black majority to outmigration, but white supremacists continued to trade in fears of black domination. In 1936, Sen. "Cotton Ed" Smith stormed out of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia after a local black pastor rose to deliver the opening invocation. The mere hint of black inclusion in what Southerners regarded as the white man's party sparked threats of a mass political defection. 

In the early 1950s, South Carolina Democratic Gov. James F. Byrnes accused national party leaders of adopting a socialistic platform due solely to pressure from "Negro politicians … interested only in race problems." South Carolina newspaperman William Workman, a prominent segregationist who defected to the Republican Party by the early 1960s, decried black activists' growing political influence on both parties as proof of the "distressing tyranny of the numerical minority." 

The fear of blacks taking over worldwide also fueled American segregationists' interest in southern Africa, where white-minority regimes in South Africa and Rhodesia teetered on the brink of collapse. Even as the international community shunned these pariah states, the segregationist Citizens' Councils, which peaked at 40,000 members in South Carolina, claimed them as kindred spirits, while depicting African anti-colonialists and African American civil rights activists alike as spear-chucking savages and enemies of Western civilization.

Read entire article at The Los Angeles Times

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