Dylann “Storm” Roof just wanted to take his country back. The twenty-one-year old shooter said as much as he gunned down nine congregants at Charleston’s historic Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church last week: “I have to do it, . . . you’re taking over our country and you have to go.” He hoped his violent act would provoke a race war, lead to the restoration of legal segregation, and stave off further challenges to white dominance. Roof will be called many things in the weeks ahead – troubled loner, mass murderer, domestic terrorist, extreme racist. Few, however, will label him a foot soldier in the fight for white nationalism that has infested the American body politic since its inception, and still does.
For nearly two hundred and forty years, white Americans have been torn between adherence to civic nationalism and ethnic nationalism. The former is a sense of national identity and loyalty based on allegiance to a shared set of civic ideals – such as liberty, equality, and natural rights – and a common government. The latter is a sense of national identity and loyalty based on allegiance to one or more of the following: a common language, religion, culture, or, most importantly, a belief in a common biological descent. In the case of the United States, ethnic nationalism has usually meant white nationalism, the ideology that the nation was founded by white men for white men and should continue to be so. All others are interlopers.
Although it is rarely presented in these terms, the Civil War was – first and foremost – a struggle to confirm white nationalism in the face of perceived political and cultural threats. This is demonstrated in Apostles of Disunion (2001), a masterful little book by historian Charles Dew. Analyzing the documentary record from the secession crisis that followed Abraham Lincoln’s election, especially the speeches and editorials written by so-called secession commissioners sent out by the Deep South states in 1860-61, he makes clear the extent to which secession was perceived by many southern whites as a way to prevent the imposition of racial equality and amalgamation and to head off the prospect of a race war such as the Haitian Revolution occurring on American shores. Failure to secede, white southerners believed, would mean submission to “Black Republican” rule. Fighting to protect slavery was a means to an end.
The Civil War decided the questions of slavery and Confederate independence, but it didn’t quash hopes for a continuation of white nationalism. This was the view expressed by Edward Pollard, the editor of the Richmond Examiner and a leading spokesman for the Lost Cause myth of the South’s supposed noble goal in the conflict. He observed at war’s end that the outcome of the war “did not decide negro equality. . . . This new cause – or rather the true question of the war revived – is the supremacy of the white race.” When the demise of Reconstruction returned political and social power to southern whites in the 1870s, it allowed a three-quarter-of-a-century long gestation period for a more fully-developed white nationalism.
It was during the long decades of Jim Crow – along with the early twentieth-century challenge of modernism – that white nationalists began to embrace and use the language of taking their country back. Perhaps, none of the defenders of white nationalism did this more often and more eloquently than the revived Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s, which became a major social and political force during the decade. Hiram Evans, the Imperial Wizard of the resurgent Second Klan, said that the organization was a tool “for the common people to resume control of their country” in the face of the rising presence of Jews, Catholics, immigrants, and, especially, “the New Negro.” When they believed it was necessary to defend racial purity and dominance, they acted forcefully with lynching and other forms of racial violence to take their country back.
As challenges mounted to white supremacy as the twentieth century wore on, white nationalists developed a siege mentality. In the face of changing race relations and emerging legal equality for African Americans, taking their country back meant not only taking it back from perceived black control but also taking it back to an earlier time, when white dominance was unchallenged and commonly accepted. During the 1950s and 1960s, in the face of changes wrought by the Civil Rights Movement, Confederate flag imagery proliferated in a range of venues, from state capitols to pickup trucks. Increasingly, white nationalists adopted this time-worn banner as their primary symbol.
A few days ago, these strands came together in the person of Dylann Roof – the fear of African Americans taking over, the siege mentality, the Confederate flag imagery, the need to take the country back, the willingness to use violence. Roof, however, is merely the tip of a far larger iceberg – and one with links to elements of today’s political mainstream. His racial manifesto, which articulates these several strands, is cribbed from arguments voiced by the contemporary Council of Conservative Citizens, the intellectual descendant of the White Citizens Councils (known as the “uptown Klan”) of the era of the Civil Rights Movement. In parts of the South, the CCC has documented connections with Republican politicians. Likewise, members of the Tea Party regularly talk about taking the country back from Barack Obama, the nation’s first African American president. University studies of Tea Party supporters have documented their far greater tendency to accept negative stereotypes of African Americans and to harbor racial resentment than is true of other Americans.
The Civil War ended one hundred and fifty years ago this month. Instead of taking our country back, isn’t it time to take it forward? As Southern Magazine said nearly thirty years ago in discussing white nationalism and Confederate flag imagery: “Ideals that are rotten are better forgotten.”