Incitement to Assassination Has a Special Place in the History of Racism

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Ms. Gilmore is Peter V. and C. Vann Woodward Professor of History, Yale University and the author most recently of: Defying Dixie: The Radical Roots of Civil Rights, 1919-1950.

When Liz Trotta, Fox News analyst, recently suggested on the air that assassinating “Osama, um, Obama—well, both, if we could,” would be a good idea, she followed a century-old playbook used to intimidate African Americans by warning that violence would follow if they exercised civil rights. Her comment became a popular You Tube viewing experience over Memorial Day weekend. Then she said, “I apologize to anybody I’ve offended. It’s a very colorful political season.” Her “apology” turned the next page in that venerable playbook: when caught advocating violence, act as if your target is simply too thin-skinned to play on a rough and tumble political field. If she won’t be clear, we must. The person she most offended is Barack Obama, but she also offended our democratic system.

For almost 150 years, inciting political violence has robbed African Americans of their rightful place in the nation’s politics. In 1897, Rebecca Latimer Felton, a white Georgia woman, suggested to southern white men that they “lynch a thousand a week if necessary.” The next year, her call became the rallying cry for white men who went on a murderous rampage in Wilmington, North Carolina. Felton’s was just one voice among hundreds of other white southerners, male and female, who advocated lynching and then stood back and watched their neighbors murder black people. During the violence that legitimized southern white supremacy at the turn of the century, the federal government refused to protect its southern black citizens. In the aftermath of the Wilmington racial massacre, one black woman wrote straight to the Attorney General of the United States and begged for federal protection. If the government did not come to their rescue, “How can the Negro sing ‘My Country ‘tis of Thee?” she wondered.

A little over three decades later, Adolph Hitler admired the American South for its incitement and deployment of violence. In fact, he called it “popular justice.” The Nazis evoked lynching and murder in the southern states in self-defense. Julius Streicher, publisher of the stridently anti-Semitic magazine Der Sturmer, bragged to an audience of 25,000 Nazis in 1935: “We do not kill Jews in Germany. . . . In America Negroes are killed by mobs without fear of punishment and for the most trivial reason . . . . As we do not bother about executions of Negroes, … [Americans] should not bother when we lead a race desecrator through the streets.”

On May 27, the New York Times ran Trotta’s apology under the headline, “Same Joke, More Regret.” This was no joke, despite the fact that Trotta giggled after she said, “somebody knock off Osama, um, Obama—well, both if we could.” This kind of talk comes with consequences.

Liz Trotta incited violence against a candidate for president of the United States. Fox News broadcast that incitement. They crossed the line from free speech to shouting “fire” in a crowded theatre. Trotta’s vague apology, “to anybody I’ve offended,” cheapens the civic life of the American people. These actions place all of us in danger.

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R.R. Hamilton - 6/4/2008

Prof. Gilmore concludes that, "These actions put all of us in danger."

The thing that most endangers Prof. Gilmore is that Ms. Trotta may see this article and bring a libel suit.

Btw, it seems this article is a tapestry of lies from one end to the other. Check (or try to check) the "facts" Prof. Gilmore proclaims here.

HNN - 6/2/2008

Professor Gilmore has well served her profession and public discourse generally in calling attention to the record of incitement to assassination that has marked this nation. That a person seeking high office should voice such incitement, even if it no more than by hint, is reprehensible. Recourse to such language, words which we are now all acquainted with, casts into question whether the person making use of these words is fit for public office.
Herbert Shapiro
Professor Emeritus
University of Cincinnati

R.R. Hamilton - 6/1/2008

... and it's far bloodier on the other side.

How many whites did blacks kill after being urged by Sistah Soljah?

Per Fagereng - 5/31/2008

The city of Memphis also withdrew police protection of Martin Luther King. But the murder plot went further than that. The killer was most likely a Memphis police officer. He shot from a back yard across from King's motel and handed the rifle to Loyd Jowers, owner of Jim's cafe, who later turned it over to a person with the CIA.

Jowers later revealed his role and offered to testify if given immunity, which the DA would not grant. In 1999 the King family, believing James Earl Ray innocent, sued Jowers and "other persons" in the death of King. A Memphis jury agreed and ruled that the killing was indeed a conspiracy.

For the whole story read "An Act of State" by William Pepper.

Tim Matthewson - 5/31/2008

Don't forget about the 5000 blacks lynched in the southern states between teh 1890s and the 1960s. The books that recorded the gory details is a picture book of black and white photos, mainly of post-cards, published by persons in the towns where the black men were lynched. The postcards were published in the aftermath of the lynchings and usually included an inscription across the bottom or on the back saying that the lynchings were provoked by uppity black men who did not know their place. But after the lynchings the black men were much intimidated and fearful that their own persons might be attacked. And don't forget the comment of Colin Powell's wife who refused to acquiesce in their desire of her husband to run for the presidency because Mrs. Powell believed that he would be assassinated. Martin Luther King, Jr. had received many many death threats before he was actually killed on the balcony of the motel in Memphis; and J. Edgar Hoover well knew of the threats but Hoover refused to do anything about it because he said there were more important things for the FBI to engage in (such as providing protection to his homosexual companion). Hoover's refusal of protection to Dr. King led directly to the his death. Liz Trotta knows about such history; she is old enough to know better. But she chose to issue a call for the assassination of Presidential Candidate Obama, saying that she hoped that both Obama bin Lauden would both be killed. Is this the proper role of the news media? Is this what the US government issues broadcasting licences for, to kill off the candidates that Liz Trotta and other fanatics, right or left, don't like?

Tim Lacy - 5/30/2008

...Miss Trotta's comment, aside from its intrinsic devaluation, is that comes in the wake of the "misunderstanding" about Senator Clinton's allusion to Bobby Kennedy.

All references to assassination, both direct and indirect, invite a host of feelings about democracy's failings---with regard to 1968 in particular. - TL

Christopher K. Philippo - 5/30/2008

Well, the SS did question some artist who made giant postage stamps with a gun next to Bush's head. If they don't question Trotta, it tends to suggest that assassinating Obama is OK with or even encouraged by the Bush administration.

Incidentally, I particularly hate "if" apologies and the people who make them.

Brian Martin - 5/29/2008

the "Snipers Wanted" episode of the Late Late Show that involved President Bush a few years back...