The emerging wave of anti-Semitic violence in the United States is unique for its lethality. The attack on The Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh alone produced more casualties than any year or any decade of anti-Jewish violence in American history; and if John Earnest, the shooter at San Diego’s Poway synagogue had had his way, he would have killed far more victims than Lori Gilbert-Kaye, the congregant who died shielding her friend and rabbi from Earnest’s bullets.
But these shooting sprees are unfortunately not unique for their killing potential or their choice of target - Jewish houses of worship.
A coordinated wave of attacks on Jewish and black institutions, that injured some but luckily killed no one, terrorized America in the late 1950s. Terrorists directed a similar bombing campaign at black and Jewish religious leaders and institutions in Mississippi from 1967-1968 (no-one died.)
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In both instances, the masterminds of the plots acted upon a relatively new strain of white supremacist theology, now called Christian Identity, which argues that Jews are the literal off-spring of the devil; that people of color are sub-human; and that Jews manipulate people of color in a centuries-long cosmic conspiracy against White Europeans, one that will end in a "race-purifying" holy war.
As elements of this ideology, especially the idea of inciting a race war, are now pervasive in the manifestos of recent white supremacist shooters, we must examine how previous U.S. administrations dealt with these kinds of terrorists - and how the current White House can learn from and act on these lessons.
The federal government’s aggressive response to both bombing and arson campaigns in 1957-8 and 1967-8, especially when contrasted with its slow-footed reaction to the ubiquitous violence from like-minded bigots that haunted civil rights activists before 1964, shows the value of presidential leadership - but also the dangers of federal inaction in the face of domestic terrorism.
The federal government, at first, did take its time addressing the 1957-1958 bombings. On April 29, 1958, the Jewish Telegraph Agency reported on efforts by the American Jewish Committee to convince the FBI to investigate the "spate of lawlessness and bombings which have erupted in the South" - by that point there had been five attacks on Jewish schools and synagogues, as well as an all-black junior high school.
But it took the next and highest profile bombing, of one of the south’s oldest synagogues - The Temple in Atlanta - to spur the executive branch into action.
Within hours of the bombing on October 12, 1958, President Eisenhower publicly condemned the attacks as "deplorable" and insisted that he would not "countenance the desecration of any edifice that symbolizes one of the great faiths." More concretely, he ordered the FBI to abandon their default deference to local criminal law enforcement and to organize a task force to investigate the bombings as a national priority.
The FBI’s intervention quickly led to the arrest of five conspirators, all connected with a white supremacist group, the National States Rights Party. Spurred by the acquittal of all of the accused by local juries, Congress added provisions to new civil rights legislation making it a federal matter if terrorists who bomb institutions like churches and schools flee across state lines.
Signed into law by President Eisenhower, the Civil Rights Act of 1960 justified FBI investigations into the many high-profile bombings that followed, such as the attack on the 16th Street Baptist Church in September, 1963 that killed four black girls.
But the investigation of that last attack illustrated, as much as anything, the FBI’s ongoing reluctance to develop such investigations into actual prosecutions, as the core crimes still fell under local jurisdictions.
The legislation that Eisenhower signed opened the door for the FBI to investigate racial crimes under the pretext that the perpetrators may have fled across state lines or obtained explosive material from out-of-state; but if the bombers did not ultimately fit either criteria (as was true for the 16th Street Church bombing and for most other racial violence) the actual prosecution still remained in the domain of state and local authorities.
The FBI more or less solved the church bombing within a matter of months, but withheld information from local investigators (and prosecutors) for more than a decade, out of fear that FBI sources and methods would be exposed and wasted in a local trial that would, once again, acquit the perpetrators.
Time and time again, the FBI made these types of choices. Perhaps not surprisingly, groups like the NSRP made strategic decisions to focus their energy on anti-black violence, which they could commit with near-impunity, and which, in the context of the southern counter-response to the civil rights movement, would make more "sense" to potential recruits than anti-Jewish violence.
Leaders of these groups often harbored deeply violent, anti-Semitic agendas that they tactically hid from rank-and-file members. Membership in racist and anti-government groups swelled into 1964, in part because of federal indifference to those groups’ leadership incitement and growing recruitment.
One such racist, anti-Semite, Samuel Bowers, leader of the Mississippi KKK, upended these dynamics in 1964, when he ordered the killing of three civil rights activists - one black, two Jewish-- on the eve of the Freedom Summer in 1964. The Mississippi Burning murders generated an unprecedented level of national outrage that inspired President Lyndon Johnson to push the FBI into greater engagement against domestic terrorists.
The FBI thus created an offshoot of its domestic counterintelligence program (COINTELPRO), aimed specifically at white hate groups. Now justifiably maligned for its excesses and abuses, COINTELPRO undoubtedly achieved its mission of fragmenting and dismembering large white supremacist organizations through a combination of surveillance, infiltration and dirty tricks.
It was so successful that KKK leader Sam Bowers, driven (like most of the leaders of the National States Rights Party) by a religious imperative to provoke a race war, turned to supporters outside of Mississippi, or those with no record of criminal, racist violence and thus off the counterintelligence radar, to launch America’s next major wave of anti-Jewish violence in 1967.
A series of arsons, bombings and drive-by shootings, aimed both at Jewish and black community leaders, erupted in Mississippi even as the federal government finally began to use centuries-old federal statutes to prosecute the Mississippi Burning conspirators (including Bowers himself). Though initially confounded by Bowers’ tactics, the FBI, with the help of police informants, lured the perpetrators into a sting.
Bowers went to prison in 1969 for masterminding the 1964 killings, and almost all Klan violence in Mississippi trickled to a stop - in part because the new Grand Wizard, as we now know, was an FBI informant himself.
It wasn’t the only factor, but federal, domestic counter-terrorist operations played a critical part in undermining and neutering white supremacist groups from Eisenhower’s time until the present.
When those efforts intensified, it forced white supremacist leaders to embrace small-cell operations and, ultimately to publicize their ideology in hopes of recruiting and radicalizing lone wolves. Right now, America is dealing with so-called lone wolves who, while deadly, lack the resources or know-how to pull off truly devastating attacks.
But efforts by the Obama administration to highlight the growing danger posed by right-wing groups were met by outcries of bias by some conservative commentators, and fueled what has become a general trend of the government to de-emphasize the threat posed by white supremacist groups. Evidence suggest this trend has accelerated under the Trump administration, although some Trump administrative officials have pushed back against the charge.
And so here is the other lesson of America’s history with domestic counter-terrorism: when those efforts wane or ebb (as when scandals ended the COINTELPRO program in 1974), white supremacists adjust their prospects upward. They reconstitute into groups, grow their membership and engage in outreach to other like-minded organizations.
The Southern Poverty Law Center reports twice as many hate groups in 2018 than existed in 2000 with a 30% increase since 2014. All 50 Americans killed by extremists in 2018 were murdered by perpetrators affiliated with the far right or white supremacy.
Already, disparate white supremacist groups are looking to form alliances not only within the United States but with ethno-nationalist groups around the world. This is when the threat of larger scale, coordinated violence becomes more ominous.
Eisenhower showed that the only appropriate and effective response to public acts of white supremacist violence is to counter with greater force and intention by law enforcement and counter-intelligence – not to maintain the status quo, and certainly not to downgrade capabilities or belittle the threat.
Stuart Wexler is a historian and a teacher. His books, "America’s Secret Jihad:The Hidden History of Religious Terrorism in the United States" and "Killing King: Racial Terrorists, James Earl Ray, and the Plot to Assassinate Martin Luther King Jr." (co-authored with Larry Hancock), explore the history of Christian Identity terrorism. Twitter: @wexlerwriting
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