In this country, mobs rule

OPINION: On Jan. 6, 2021, a horde of violent insurrectionists successfully overthrew the government…again. Because, in America, the mob always wins 

Capitol mob theGrio
Pro-Trump protesters gather in front of the U.S. Capitol Building on January 6, 2021 in Washington, DC. A pro-Trump mob stormed the Capitol, breaking windows and clashing with police officers. Trump supporters gathered in the nation's capital today to protest the ratification of President-elect Joe Biden's Electoral College victory over President Trump in the 2020 election. (Photo by Jon Cherry/Getty Images)

On Sept. 4, 1868, Georgia state Rep. R.W. Phillips stood before the legislature and publicly called for a mob to oust 33 of the state’s newly elected lawmakers from office because of the color of their skin. 

“I cannot believe that there is a native-born Southern white man but who would prefer, whether he be a Democrat or Republican, men of his own race to hold the reins of government in our State,” Phillips explained. “If you have not already done so; you must decide whether you will cast your fortunes with the white or the black race of your State; the line of distinction has already been drawn.” 

By Sept. 9, the 30 state representatives and three senators who made up the “Original 33”—Georgia’s first Black elected state legislators—were kicked out of office. Before the federal government could reinstate them, one-quarter had been killed, beaten or jailed, and a white mob had ambushed Black voters protesting the expulsion in the Camilla Massacre. Months later, the Georgia Supreme Court ruled in White v. Clements that “there is no existing law of this State which confers the right upon the colored citizens thereof to hold office, and consequently, that [a Black citizen] has no legal right to hold and exercise the duties of the office which he claims.” After William H. Rogers resigned in 1907, the state would not elect a Black representative until 1962.

The mob won.

While some may think this extreme example doesn’t typify America’s semi-democratic tradition, I could have used the racial terrorism that overthrew Wilmington, N.C.’s government in 1898 to illustrate this point. Maybe the Kirk-Holden War, also in North Carolina, when white supremacists forced the governor to flee the state, is a better example. Of course, Louisiana’s White League orchestrated so many massacres that the whites retook the government from Black legislators and disenfranchised Black voters by dreaming up the first “grandfather clause.”  Ernest Kruttschnitt opened the state constitutional convention that officially embedded white supremacy into the state’s DNA by proclaiming: “May this hall, where thirty-two years ago, the negro first entered upon the unequal contest for supremacy, and which has been reddened with his blood, now witness the evolution of our organic law, which will establish the relations between the races upon an everlasting foundation of right and justice.”

 Or maybe South Carolina is a better example. 

On Dec. 4, 1890, the white citizens of South Carolina celebrated the election of serial killer-turned-governor Benjamin “Pitchfork” Tillman. Tillman had already been indicted for murdering at least seven Black men in Aiken County, S.C., after the “the leading white men of Edgefield” decided “to provoke a riot and teach the Negroes a lesson” by “having the whites demonstrate their superiority by killing as many of them as was justifiable.”

Mississippi’s “Great White Chief” Gov. James K. Vardaman was unapologetic about his pro-mob stance that overthrew their majority-Black state. Perhaps the greatest example of a mob’s influence on our government is the bloodshed that sparked the Compromise of 1877 when 15 white men settled a disputed presidential election by making Rutherford B. Hayes commander-in-chief in exchange for the ability to treat Black Americans as they pleased—otherwise known as “Jim Crow.”  

Mob violence is one of the main reasons America has never been a true democracy. The simple prospect of racial terrorism disenfranchised Black voters until the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It kept African Americans from attending schools and colleges built with their own tax money. It homogenized white neighborhoods and purified drugstore counters. Swarms of angry white people are more powerful than the Constitution, laws, and even the ideals of liberty and justice for all.

And yes, the mob won on Jan. 6, 2021. 

If the multitude of MAGAmaniacs’ goal was to undermine American democracy, then there is no doubt they succeeded. While the impromptu militia didn’t stop the 2020 election from being certified, at least 19 states have passed laws making it harder to vote, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. Georgia’s Republican-controlled state election board has already started the process to oust a majority-Black county’s election board. On Jan. 6, Cobb County, Ga., Republicans will pay homage to the “J6 patriots” who smeared feces and fear in the U.S. Capitol building. Arizona spent millions of dollars on a recount that turned up nothing, but in November, an NPR/Marist poll found that one-third of Republicans don’t believe that elections are fair. In fact, 62 percent of all Americans expect violence in future elections, meaning the prospect of violence still exists.

See? They actually won.  

Of course, one could say that they weren’t successful at keeping Donald Trump in charge of the country, except they did. Biden can’t convince the members of his party to overturn the filibuster, pass the Build Back Better bill or protect the right to vote, but Trump’s mob mentality still controls half of the Senate, the Supreme Court, the post office, the news cycle and how your kids learn history. The GOP’s fear of offending the mutineer mafia is why Congress can’t pass legislation to protect voting rights. Trump’s minions would rather inhale a deadly virus than wear masks. They have stormed private homes, state capitols and school board meetings. His “Make America Sick Again” philosophy has influenced Republican governors to resist moves that will mitigate the spread of COVID-19. Trump has undermined the health of the entire country and the whole federal government, yet he remains largely unscathed. Who controls the Republican Party? Which one figure has the GOP twisting themselves into pretzels trying to comply with his every demand? In fact, besides bowing to Trump’s every command, name a single conservative principle that the GOP has stood up for since the Capitol coup. 

That’s what winning looks like.

And when I say white people, I am not just referring to the ones who built a lynching machine on the lawn of the Capitol building or the ones who traipsed through the seat of the American government with a flag that represents treason. I’m talking about all of us. 

The people who lynched their way to American domination didn’t do it all by themselves. Those white supremacist legislators in Georgia, North Carolina and throughout America didn’t know whether or not their fellow white people had torches and pitchforks handy, but they knew they could depend on the inaction of white people. I haven’t looked it up, but I’m guessing that murder was against the law in 1868. And 1968. And 1988. You don’t lynch, torture and terrorize American citizens in broad daylight unless you know you can get away with it. 

US Capitol noose theGrio
A noose is seen on makeshift gallows as supporters of US President Donald Trump gather on the West side of the US Capitol in Washington DC on January 6, 2021. (Photo by ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images)

Although some usually refer to the historical mob as the “white majority,” they were actually the minority in many cases. Mississippi didn’t have a white majority until 1900. South Carolina was majority-Black until 1920. But that’s why mobs do what they do. They have been convinced that the violence of white supremacy is the only way they can keep and maintain power. To be fair, there is a very good reason why white people were duped into believing this:

Because the violence of white supremacy is the only way they can keep power!

Pitchfork Tillman knew it. “[T]he triumph of democracy and white supremacy over mongrelism and anarchy, of civilization over barbarism, has been most complete,” said this king of the lynchmen to the crowd at his inauguration. “The whites have absolute control of the State Government, and we intend at any and all hazards to retain it. The intelligent exercise of the right of suffrage … is as yet beyond the capacity of the vast majority of colored men.; it is not true now, and was not true when Jefferson wrote it.”

Vardaman knew it. “There is no use to equivocate or lie about the matter,” he explained. “Mississippi’s constitutional convention of 1890 was held for no other purpose than to eliminate the nigger from politics. Not the ‘ignorant and vicious,’ as some of the apologists would have you believe, but the nigger. Let the world know it just as it is… In Mississippi, we have in our constitution legislated against the racial peculiarities of the Negro…. When that device fails, we will resort to something else.”

America knows it. It’s why every movement for Black liberation and equality has been demonized. It’s why Trump was elected. It’s why after serving as governor, Vardaman served in the U.S. Senate. It’s why Tillman was elected to the Senate six times, serving until the day he died. It’s why Wilmington’s insurrectionists produced a U.S. attorney, two congressmen, three governors, a secretary of the Navy and three senators, including America’s first female senator, Rebecca Latimer Felton, who once proposed that the only way to protect the purity of white women is to “lynch, a thousand times a week if necessary.”

Of course, some people will say it is wrong to heap the blame on one group of people, ignoring the fact that the rioters were 93 percent white or that whiteness was the most common ingredient among the rioters—even more so than sex, political affiliation or income. But where were the hordes of white people dragging them out of the Capitol? Jan. 6 was the first large-scale political, economic or social protest I have ever seen in my life where a horde of white counterprotesters didn’t show up en masse.

Some will undoubtedly pull Martin Luther King Jr.’s quote out of their rectums and say we should judge people by the content of their character and not the color of their skin—even though that’s not quite what he said; if I only knew that one MLK quote, I’d feel that way, too. But I can recall when King said: “Now they often call this the white backlash…The fact is that there has never been any single, solid, determined commitment on the part of the vast majority of white Americans to genuine equality for Negroes.” See? He knew.

I don’t think King knew the “vast majority of white Americans.” Maybe he was judging them. Or, perhaps he was just explaining how America works. After all, he also said: “It’s very seldom that a man by himself will lynch anybody, but a mob will lynch somebody. Individual men won’t do the things that a nation will do. “

Oh, say can’t you see? 

Whiteness was the mob this whole time.


Michael Harriot is a writer, cultural critic and championship-level Spades player. His book, Black AF History: The Unwhitewashed Story of America, will be released in 2022.

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