Four years ago, amidst the civil unrest that followed five years of well-publicized reports of shootings (by law enforcement) of unarmed black men, a growing chorus of public commentators suggested that America was on the verge of experiencing "another 1968" – waves of violent, political protests with military and law enforcement responses, specifically over ongoing issues with racial oppression.
As a historian, I myself rejected the characterization that America was heading towards a race war, arguing that improvements in race relations and economic opportunities for African Americans, while far from perfect, mitigated against any kind of ongoing, widespread unrest along the lines of what we saw in 1968.
I am no longer as optimistic.
As in 2016, 1968 was a culmination of several years of violent, political upheaval in the United States, though in late 60s it was on a much greater scale. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 did very little to address the ongoing concerns of black Americans outside of the south, who could already vote and who faced de facto rather than de jure discrimination.
Few issues highlighted the ongoing racial oppression more than policing with widespread reports, especially in urban centers outside of the south, of abusive and discriminatory law enforcement practices.
Even rumors of excessive force against black citizens spurred violent rebellion in many instances, lighting powder kegs of frustration in adjacent cities. Economists William J. Collins and Robert A. Margo identified 11 urban riots in 1965; 53 in 1966; 158 in 1967 and 289 in 1968.
But even after 1968, political violence continued (230 more riots by 1971) and arguably increased as it took different, non-racial, forms. Between 1971 and 1972, according to the FBI, Americans experienced on average more than three domestic-terrorist bombings per day, often from radical, anti-war groups.
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It is worth noting that this occurred during a period of economic growth. Real GDP grew from between 2.5 percent to 6.5 percent all but one year from 1964 until 1974, with unemployment rates going no higher than 6.1 percent; even in the black community, with structural limits on opportunity, unemployment peaked at ten percent in the period I teach my students to call "The Age of Social Upheaval."
But now we are facing social unrest amidst a backdrop of coronavirus-induced mass unemployment and increasing food scarcity, conditions that most experts see as persisting for months and that will likely only exacerbate the potential for violence and unrest. The drop in economic growth (to - 4.8 percent from 2.1 percent) and the levels of unemployment (14.7 percent) have one precedent – the Great Depression – which also is the last time, prior to the 1960s, when outbreaks of civil unrest were common.
Economic uncertainty and food scarcity have fueled mass domestic violence throughout history – from the French Revolution, through the Russian Revolution through the Arab Spring. There is no reason to think that Americans are immune from two of history’s most impactful change agents.
Add to this one additional and troubling factor – provocations by white supremacists and white nationalists – and the potential for chaos magnifies. Even back in 2016, I worried about this possibility. In my books, I documented an ideological thread among certain white supremacists and racist groups, going back to the end of World War Two, that sees racial conflict as a normative good.
Indeed these individuals – modern scholars of terrorism refer to them as accelerationists – want to start a race war, that they hope will "purify" America through ethnic cleansing. Some even see provoking such a race war as a religious imperative.
These individuals were major players in the violence of the 1960s. With their obscure religious ideas and unconventional targets (they wanted attacks on Jews as much as they wanted attacks on people of color) they tended to present a conventional, reactionary racist public persona while hiding their proactive, accelerationist goals.
Their likes included J.B. Stoner and Reverend Connie Lynch, whose speeches inflamed white audiences to violence in counter-rallies against civil rights marches; Sam Bowers, leader of the most violent Ku Klux Klan group in the country – the Mississippi White Knights; and Willam Potter Gale, who formed paramilitary groups to prosecute such a race war. They did not succeed. But their ideas and their tactics did not die in the 1970s and, instead, reemerged among smaller cell-based groups in the 1980s.
Researchers who monitor racist social media forums say that the current crop of white supremacist is considering the same playbook, and anecdotal evidence from several cities suggest they may already be making good on those plans.
It is still too early to tell and would represent a new tactic – infiltrating a mass march posing as an ally – but it would be consistent the general approach, described by one-time (and now reformed) racist terrorist Tommy Tarrants, regarding his white supremacist compatriots’ agenda in the 1960s. The goal was "to produce racial polarization and eventual retaliation. This retaliation would then swell the ranks of whites who would be willing to condone or employ violence as a viable response to the racial problem."
That response, then and now, would include federal, military intervention that many, such as Tarrants’s one-time "boss," Mississippi KKK Grand Wizard Sam Bowers, believed would ‘fortuitously’ intensify the violence. According to a government informant, Bowers believed a federal intervention would draw in leftist agitators who would renew the cycle of violence by exploiting people of color.
Those sentiments echo today. Attorney General William Barr, without citing any evidence, suggested that antifa vigilantes are the real provocateurs, even as local officials on-the-ground point to white supremacists. Echoing those sentiments, President Trump has promised to federalize the National Guard or even the military to quash the protests if they continue to become rowdy; he paraphrased the civil rights era racist police chief Walter Headley and the segregationist presidential candidate George Wallace in a tweet where he warned, "when the looting starts, the shooting starts."
The unforeseen consequence might be to encourage white supremacists in their efforts to amplify the chaos.
Organized group activity is not even necessary to exploit the unrest. So-called lone wolves, like Dylan Roof and John Earnest, marinating in fantasies of a future race war, engaged in horrific acts of mass murder in far less charged times. In the context of ongoing unrest, the appeal to deranged racists would likely be greater, and their crimes more inflammatory. A military presence seems unlikely to deter someone of that ilk.
If white supremacists are changing their tactics, it is not surprising. But their success at subverting protests bourne of genuine grievance is not not inevitable. If we are cognizant of the possibilities for manipulation and the responses – including from law enforcement – are restrained, perhaps greater violence could be avoided. Absent this, 2020 may end up being closer to 1968 than to 2016.
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