• Ideas
  • History

Modern Far-Right Terrorism Is a Repeat of Reconstruction-Era Themes

9 minute read
Ware is a research fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and an adjunct professor at Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service and at DeSales University. He is also a visiting fellow at the University of Oslo’s Center for Research on Extremism. With Bruce Hoffman, he is the co-author of God, Guns, and Sedition: Far-Right Terrorism in America

In A Red Record, civil rights pioneer Ida B. Wells recounts the story of a lynching near Selma, Alabama, in which a young Black farmworker developed a consensual relationship with a white daughter of the household, and eventually fathered a child. Taken from jail, the man, Daniel Edwards, was hanged and his body filled with bullets. According to a contemporaneous dispatch, “Upon his back was found pinned this morning the following: Warning to all [N-words] that are too intimate with white girls. This the work of one hundred best citizens of the South Side.”

During the volume’s opening chapter, Wells recalls Frederick Douglass’s three “excuses” for the lynchings of Black men in the post-war South, each of which developed as the prior justification grew too implausible: white men sought to lynch Black men, Douglass argued in a posthumously published 1895 article, to stamp out “race riots,” to suppress the Black vote, and to protect the virtue of white women against Black rapes and assaults (the lie that would herald Edwards’ death sentence). “The orderly arrangement and periodicity of excuses are significant,” Douglass argued. “They show design, plan, purpose, and invention.”

Remarkably, though, over 100 years later, those three justifications are still among those that animate the far-right today—even though the range of targets has broadened. Indeed, each of Douglass’s justifications was an early manifestation of the same “Great Replacement” conspiracy theory—positing that an ongoing replacement of American whiteness is underway, orchestrated by Jews and elites—which motivates most white supremacist terrorism today. Most modern attacks, including the deadly white supremacist attack on Buffalo that occurred two years ago this week, repeat Reconstruction-era themes.

The “Great Replacement” theory, then, is not something new to the social media era or a more globalized world—it instead is fundamental to the very fabric of America, dating from the lynchings of the postbellum decades to modern acts of white supremacist terrorism as seen at Charleston, El Paso, Buffalo, and beyond. Further examination of the materials published as part of those attacks reveals language that hearkens back to the same excuses used for lynching in the Deep South.

Take, for instance, the justification that Black men deserved to be lynched because they were, to use Wells’ words, “alleged participants in an insurrection or riot.” Dylann Roof, murderer of nine Black parishioners at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015, evoked this urgency to protect white communities from Black violence, writing that “Segregation was not a bad thing. It was a defensive measure. Segregation did not exist to hold back [N-words]. It existed to protect us from them.” A manifesto penned by Payton Gendron, the shooter who targeted a supermarket in a predominantly Black neighborhood in Buffalo, New York, in May 2022, similarly outlined in no uncertain terms both his grievances against African Americans and his genocidal intent: “They are prone to violence and common criminal activity. We must remove blacks from our western civilizations.” These days, the bogeyman often takes the forms of perceived hordes of Antifa and Black Lives Matter rioters wreaking havoc on America’s streets. Kyle Rittenhouse traveled to Kenosha, in his own words, to “protect” businesses and people, before ultimately killing two protestors.

Read More: The Kyle Rittenhouse Verdict Makes Us All Less Safe

The complaint of minority dilutions of the white vote is similarly oft-uttered by today’s white supremacist terrorists. In fact, the replacement of white votes was one of the primary drivers behind Patrick Crusius’s assault on predominantly Latino shoppers at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, in August 2019. He killed 23. “They intend to use open borders, free healthcare for illegals, citizenship and more to enact a political coup by importing and then legalizing millions of new voters,” he wrote, going on to add, “They will turn Texas into an instrument of a political coup which will hasten the destruction of our country.” Gendron made similar claims: “Children of replacers do not stay children, they become adults and reproduce, creating more replacers to replace your people. They grow up and vote against your peoples own wishes, for the interests of their own people and identity.” In the post-Reconstruction years, the effort to suppress the Black vote (or what some termed “Africanization”) was ultimately successful—South Carolina, for instance, saw a drop in registered voters from more than 92,000 in 1876 to under 3,000 in 1898. Moreover, this model remains a popular tactic. As terrorism expert Daniel Byman reflects, “White racists’ victories during Reconstruction gave them a repertoire of violence to draw on in subsequent years when their superior social position faced new threats.” Indeed, similar declarations are now frequently issued by politicians and media figures on the political right, perhaps best encapsulated by X owner Elon Musk, who tweeted on May 9, “Given the massive influx of illegals from every country on Earth, 2024 will probably be the last election actually decided by US citizens.”

And finally, modern far-right terrorists still frequently invoke the same libelous assertion that white women must be protected from licentious Black men. In perhaps the most infamous example, Roof told victims during his rampage on Charleston, “I have to do it. You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.” Similarly, Gendron’s manifesto seethed, “Black youth are two and a half times as likely as White youth to have raped someone.” Both attacks accordingly conformed to Jamelle Bouie’s reflection in Slate after Charleston: “Make any list of anti-black terrorism in the United States, and you’ll also have a list of attacks justified by the specter of black rape.” In his manifesto, however, Roof offered perhaps an even more direct nod to his postbellum compatriots. “I have noticed a great disdain for race mixing White women within the White nationalists community, bordering on insanity,” he wrote. “These women are victims, and they can be saved. Stop.” Herein lies the “benevolent sexism” also inherent in Roof’s attack—the implication that white women are owned by white men, who therefore must nobly protect their property through violence.

Despite ideological echoes, though, perhaps the most important similarity is the deliberately public way in which these Black lives are taken. These Black bodies brutalized. Just as the Black men in the late-1800s who were supposedly sparking riots, voting against white interests, and raping white women were often hanged in public places as a warning to other would-be rebels against the established social order—as was Daniel Edwards’ horrific demise—modern white supremacist terrorism also seeks to create a spectacle. Today, the show often takes the form of a livestream, shared online to thousands of excited onlookers, while a manifesto is published as ideological testament to the crime. Conforming to the characteristics of lynching killings that terrorism scholar Tim Wilson called “rightist vigilantism that grew both highly ritualized and carnivalesque,” Gendron noted in his manifesto that “I think that live streaming this attack gives me some motivation in the way that I know that some people will be cheering for me.” As Georgetown University’s Emma Coleman Jordan wrote in the days after the horror at Buffalo, “As with the lynchings of the past, today’s racially-based attacks put Black suffering on display for the entertainment of a 21st century version of the White mob.”

Globalization and social progress have served to broaden the number of enemies against which the white supremacists targets their vitriol—adding immigrants, women, Jews, and the LGBTQ community to Black men and women—but they have not greatly altered their grievances. And, America’s Black population remains the foremost, enduring target. As terrorism scholar Brian Levin told TIME in May 2022, “Many people swim in this elastic, amorphous reservoir of grievance, where a constellation of new targets are identified all the time. But African Americans remain.” What’s more, those first two justifications behind far-right violence both during the postbellum years and today are actually platforms often defended by the political right—suggesting that political support continues to provide the veneer of legitimacy behind which extremist violence can be excused, if not encouraged. Buffalo also provided an important reminder that, despite the focus of much of Wells’ work being the Deep South, racist terrorism has never been a uniquely Southern phenomenon.

Incidents of mass racial violence such as the shooting at Charleston are often correctly decried as instances of “modern-day lynching.” What is remarkable, though, is how little the justifications themselves have shifted. The common thread, in the words of CeLillianne Green, is the “depth of hatred in the bone marrow of this country that supports the killing of the black body.” The only conclusion to be drawn, then, is a sober and pessimistic one—that America will not rid itself of its violent white supremacist plague without a deeper reckoning about the very origins of the country. Until then, prosecutors should consider pursuing white supremacist terrorists with charges that place their acts of violence within the proper historical context—such as the Emmett Till Anti-lynching Act, which President Joe Biden signed into law in 2022 after over a century of efforts to pass such legislation.

Meanwhile, for those of us in the public policy space, our solemn task is to continue to tell the stories of those taken by hatred far too soon as well as those who have fought back—and to loudly condemn those who continue choosing violence in pursuit of hatred. Or, as Wells puts it, “It becomes a painful duty […] to reproduce a record which shows that a large portion of the American people avow anarchy, condone murder and defy the contempt of civilization.”—With research support from Sinet Adous.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary on events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of TIME editors.