WashU Expert: Lessons and cautions from 1965 to fight white supremacy

‘Extremist groups most successfully organize when potential followers feel threatened’

White nationalists and counter protesters clashed at a rally in Charlottesville on Aug. 12, 2017. (Source: Shutterstock)

In his inauguration speech, President Joe Biden said his administration would confront and defeat the rise of political extremism, white supremacy and domestic terrorism. David Cunningham, professor and chair of sociology in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis and author of “There’s Something Happening Here: The New Left, the Klan, and FBI Counterintelligence,” supports the president’s tough approach. Cunningham advocates for the arrest and prosecution of those who engaged in violence and other criminal action during the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

However, Cunningham warns that doing so could have unintended consequences.

Under Trump’s watch, white supremacist groups became more emboldened. With the implicit, and sometimes explicit, support of the former president, they rallied publicly, circulated conspiracy theories online and openly participated in the storming of the Capitol in an attempt to overturn the election. Hate crimes — including fatal ones like the 2017 car attack at the Charlottesville counter protest — also increased.

What many people may not realize is that these groups could see an increase in interest and growth now that Trump has been defeated, Cunningham said.


“Right-wing extremist groups tend to most successfully organize in times when their potential followers feel threatened — that their way of life is under siege. So, we saw significant bumps in the number of active militia and hate groups following the 2000 Census, which spawned the big news that white citizens would be in the minority in the U.S. by the 2030s, as well as around Barack Obama’s election in 2008,” Cunningham said.

“Trump’s defeat signals a similar closing of a window that openly equates ‘greatness’ with white advantage, and white nationalist and extremist groups play on that with calls to defend ‘their’ country and way of life.”

Lessons and cautions from 1965

A similar scenario occurred in 1965 after President Lyndon Johnson defeated arch conservative Barry Goldwater, who was backed by the Ku Klux Klan. Following the election, the KKK experienced a wave of new followers who were energized in their aggrieved alienation from national politics, Cunningham said.

With bipartisan support, the government began to investigate the Klan in March 1965, and formal hearings were held that June. This led police to, for the first time, challenge KKK rally permit requests and aggressively investigate cross burnings and other intimidation tactics they had previously dismissed. By 1969, the KKK had all but ceased to operate as a mass membership organization in North Carolina and throughout the South.

The aggressive moves to dismantle the Klan’s organizational capacity had unintended consequences, though.

“Police ultimately deployed their expanded powers not primarily toward the KKK, but instead against the Black and brown targets — including civil rights and Black nationalist movements — that have always borne the brunt of the state’s repressive apparatus.”

David Cunningham

“The Klan’s militant core was pushed underground, where it metastasized into lone-wolf or cell-based violence. As a result, the threat posed by adherents became even more volatile,” Cunningham said.

“Meanwhile, though the Klan’s rank-and-file melted away from membership rolls, former members continued to rend the social and political fabric of their respective communities. Research I’ve conducted with sociologists Rory McVeigh and Justin Farrell shows that, after controlling for a wide range of competing explanations, areas where the KKK was active in the 1960s continue to display — even 50 years later — significantly higher levels of violent crime and political polarization.

“Finally, and perhaps most importantly, police ultimately deployed their expanded powers not primarily toward the KKK, but instead against the Black and brown targets — including civil rights and Black nationalist movements — that have always borne the brunt of the state’s repressive apparatus,” Cunningham said.

With this history in mind, Cunningham said Biden and his administration can and should make every effort to defeat the rise of political extremism and white supremacy.

“Doing so, however, shouldn’t require expanding police powers in ways that inevitably will be turned on those who have been seeking justice all along,” he said.

Read more from WashU experts regarding an array of policies and initiatives ahead in the new administration’s first 100 Days.

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