The members of the mob that attacked the Capitol and left a police officer dead last week were not desperate.* They were there because they believed they had been unjustly stripped of their inviolable right to rule. They believed that not only because of the third-generation real-estate tycoon who incited them, but also because of the wealthy Ivy Leaguers who encouraged them to think that the election had been stolen.
Ibram X. Kendi: Denial is the heartbeat of America
There’s ample precedent for this. When the Ku Klux Klan formed during Reconstruction, according to the historian Eric Foner, its leadership “included planters, merchants, lawyers, and even ministers. ‘The most respectable citizens are engaged in it,’ reported a Georgia Freedmen’s Bureau agent, ‘if there can be any respectability about such people.’”
Respectable people can be very dangerous. President Ulysses S. Grant responded to the outrages of the KKK in the Reconstruction South by sending the military to crush the Klan and the newly formed Department of Justice to prosecute it. For a time, the effort was successful.
Nevertheless, the paramilitary wings of the Democratic Party, determined to disenfranchise Black voters and restore white supremacy, reconstituted themselves. Only this time they left the masks off, so everyone could see how respectable they were. Operating openly, they were far more successful than they had been while clad in their goofy costumes and masks, taking on names such as the White League and the Red Shirts. They terrorized, murdered, and intimidated Black voters and their white Republican allies in order to excise them from the polity and restore Black people to a state of near-slavery.
In New Orleans, “carpenters, grocers, and tinsmiths belonged [to the White League], as did laborers and stevedores,” according to the historian Justin Nystrom, but “more common were professional men from Factor’s Row: clerks, accountants, sugar and cotton factors, weighers, and lawyers.” In South Carolina, a leader of the Red Shirts, Benjamin Tillman, was born into a wealthy slave-owning family. His men were made up of “substantial landowners already prominent in local agricultural societies, Granges, and conservative political clubs,” the historian Steven Hahn wrote. The white-supremacist militants who massacred Black people and overthrew the government of Wilmington, North Carolina, in 1898 were described as “reputable white citizens” in contemporary accounts.
The elite leaders of white-supremacist organizations, however, were content to cultivate the perception that the outrages condemned by northern newspapers were the work of lower-class white men, which only increased the urgency of their political project: restoring the rule of the white elite, so that the alleged passions of the white lower classes could be restrained, and the supposed corruption of Black men and their white allies could be punished. In truth, however, it was when Black and white laborers formed alliances—such as the Readjusters in Virginia—that the white supremacists were most effectively resisted.