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In the history of racist violence in the US, Charlottesville may represent a breakthrough




CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA - AUGUST 13:  A woman places flowers at an informal memorial to 32-year-old Heather Heyer, who was killed when a car plowed into a crowd of people protesting against the white supremacist Unite the Right rally, August 13, 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.)
CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA - AUGUST 13: A woman places flowers at an informal memorial to 32-year-old Heather Heyer, who was killed when a car plowed into a crowd of people protesting against the white supremacist Unite the Right rally, August 13, 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.)
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

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The nation is still coming to grips with events in Charlottesville, Virginia over the weekend, where a white nationalist rally protesting the removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee turned deadly.

On Saturday, counter-protesters clashed in the streets with supporters of the "Unite the Right" rally, and a number of fights broke out in downtown Charlottesville. After Virginia's governor declared a state of emergency and police ordered crowds to disperse, a driver plowed his Dodge Challenger into a group of peaceful counter-protesters, killing one woman and injuring at least 19 others. Two state police troopers were also killed when their helicopter crashed outside of town.

The 20-year-old alleged driver of the car, James Alex Fields Jr. of Ohio, faces several charges, including second-degree murder. Fields' former teacher told The Washington Post that as teenager, Fields sympathized with Nazi beliefs and idolized Adolf Hitler.  

On Sunday, marchers took to the streets across the country, including in downtown Los Angeles, to protest the actions of white supremacists and neo-Nazis in Charlottesville. Republican and Democratic leaders alike denounced hate groups, echoing the sentiment, "this isn't who we are as Americans."

But the United States has experienced centuries of history of racially motivated violence.

It's a subject Walter Greason has taught students about for years. He's a professor of history at Monmouth University. Over the weekend, he tweeted links to some of the teaching materials he uses in courses on racist attacks, and the thread went viral.

Greason joined A Martinez on Monday to discuss the historical context for the violence in Charlottesville.

Americans generally know about some very dark chapters in our history involving racist violence – slavery, lynch mobs, and the Klan. What are some of the lesser-known events you highlight for students?

I normally start with the stories about how we responded to the Haitian revolution and then repressed attempted slave revolts in Louisiana, Virginia, and South Carolina. But then I move rapidly into the story of Cincinnati in 1829, where in Ohio, basically they decided they didn't want any black residents. This framed an ongoing pattern of rioting in the United States to expel African Americans from small towns.

[Recently] we've had more and more stories telling about the cases of violence used to displace African Americans neighborhoods and towns ... During the Civil War and after, these processes multiplied. You start to get increasing efforts. Really the worst period in terms of lynching in American history that goes on for the better part of 50 years culminates in the Red Summer of 1919 with dozens of riots across the country trying to disrupt and destroy black neighborhoods. And then the two famous ones that have been covered in the 1920s are the Rosewood, Florida massacre, and the Tulsa, Oklahoma destruction of Black Wall Street.

We've only started to come to grips with that story in the past couple decades.

When you see what happened over the weekend at the "Unite the Right" rally and subsequent attack, how does it fit in to the history of white supremacist violence in the U.S.? What's the same, and what's different today?

The scale is really the main thing. We hate and despise the violence that took the lives and injured so many people over this weekend. But this is a chance to stop it before it gets bigger. And that was really my main motivation in posting the material, so people can see what can happen if we remain silent, if we say this is only an isolated case.

This is a moment where there is a stronger, larger coalition of Americans to confront white supremacy than there's really ever been in the nation's history. You can look back to the coalition that started around Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the early 1960s, and that was the biggest at that point – much bigger than the groups that supported the elimination of slavery in the 1860s and early 1870s.

It's hard. It's dangerous work to stand up and put your life on the line for racial equality in the United States ... and that's the process. Having a committed group of people dedicated to racial equality, being able to move the majority of the population in a direction that doesn't tolerate neo-Nazism and the Ku Klux Klan.

In these situations, we look to our leaders. President Trump spoke on Saturday to reporters about the violence in Charlottesvile. 

He said, in part: "We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides, on many sides."

He's been criticized for not coming down more strongly on white nationalism, specifically. What do you make of the response from political leaders so far?

I think there was a really groundbreaking moment this weekend with the Republican Senators' responses to hold the President accountable and to specifically take on white supremacy. President Trump hasn't had great success in identifying the people in his coalition that support neo-Nazism and white supremacy. The Republican party has struggled with that same question for 50 years. Strom Thurmond joined the Republican party [in 1964], and the White Citizens' Council and segregationists of the deep South, North and Midwest all turned to the Republican party in 1968 to support Richard Nixon.

The success and the real breakthrough moment for folks like Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio and John McCain, to come on board and say white supremacy is intolerable ... for Orrin Hatch, the Attorney General Jeff Sessions to come out and make these statements ... that's something that civil rights activists have been waiting for for generations. We haven't heard those kinds of comments in the last 50 or 60 years. How that turns into new policy is really the measure now. Does this actually not just move to symbolic commentary? Do we see the Republican party and conservatives in the movement generally embrace racial equality in a way that shapes policy at the local and state level? That to me is the real measure.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. To hear the full conversation, please click on the blue media player.