William Glass’s overview of sources on the history of white-on-black violence
The video of a white policeman kneeling on the neck of George Floyd seems to have finally broken through the willful ignorance of white Americans about the systematic and systemic violence suffered by black citizens. What may be less clear is the long history of this racialized brutality. It began as soon as captive Africans were put on slave ships, and those ships set sail on the middle passage. There is little reason to think that this account from the nineteenth century of conditions on a slaver would differ from one written in the sixteenth century as new world plantations created a demand for labor, or consider Equiano’s memories of his voyage when he was a child (chapter 2 of his Interesting Narrative).
A fairly common passage in the nineteenth century freedom narratives is one recounting the cruelties of life on the plantations. Equiano’s description in chapter 5 of his Narrative is a good example, as is Douglass’s account of his time with the slave breaker, Edward Covey and his whip (chapter 10, Narrative).
With emancipation and the end of slavery after the Civil War, the effort by white southerners to prevent the freedpeople from exercising their rights took the form of the Ku Klux Klan. Originally created as an organization for Confederate veterans, the KKK quickly evolved into a terrorist organization to intimidate African Americans from voting through violence, often using the antebellum method of slave discipline: whippings. This version of the Klan was broken in the 1870s, but a generation later at the turn of the twentieth century, another, more deadly version of intimidation was used, not by individuals nor an organization, but by white communities.
As southern states moved to impose white supremacy in the form of Jim Crow in the 1890s, this new system of laws mandating the legal separation of the races in public spaces was enforced through the extra-legal means of lynching. From the 1880s until 1914, over 3,600 African Americans were murdered by a mob in the name of “justice.” Without Sanctuary documents this horror in a short 10-minute presentation of photographs and postcards (!) of the crowds gathered for the spectacle and their victims. Ida B. Wells dissects the lie that was frequently used to “justify” this mob justice, that the lynched man was a rapist of white women, in The Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynching in the United States. Not a dry recitation of incidents and statistics, this book burns with outrage at both a legal system and a society that turns a blind eye toward this outrage. A brief version of Wells’s analysis is her speech, “Lynch Law in America.”
After World War I, public lynchings subsided, but not the violence, most dramatically seen in the destruction of the thriving and prosperous black community in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1921. Largely unknown outside of African American communities, this incident has recently become much more widely known through a representation in the prescient and relevant HBO series Watchmen where fictional characters run through documented incidents in the military-like assault on the neighborhood known as the “Black Wall Street” and through President Trump’s decision to jumpstart his reelection campaign by holding a rally there on “Juneteenth” (June 19), a holiday celebrated among African Americans memorializing the end of slavery. Henry Louis Gates explains “What is Juneteenth?” and Jamelle Bouie shows “Why Juneteenth Matters.”
During the Civil Rights era of the 1950s and 1960s, one lynching jolted the nation, and that was the murder of Emmett Till, a fourteen-year-old from Chicago visiting relatives in the Mississippi delta. He allegedly made inappropriate conduct toward a white woman, and her husband and brother-in-law kidnapped Emmett and killed him, trying to hide his body in a river. The men were arrested, put on trial, and acquitted. What shocked the nation was that Jet magazine published photos of his deformed body. The decision to publish is explained by Michael Eli Dokosi in “That Defining Moment When John Johnson Had to Publish the Battered Face of Slain Emmett Till.” Historian Stephen Whitfield tells the full story in A Death in the Delta: the Story of Emmett Till.
The response to the nonviolent protests led by Martin Luther King against Jim Crow laws in the South could be described as “police riots.” The use of fire hoses and german shepherds against the marchers in Birmingham, Alabama, and of horses, tear gas, and billy clubs on those crossing the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma typify the state deployment of force against the Civil Rights movement. Both incidents had widespread coverage on American television and that footage became the basis for telling their stories in Eyes on the Prize episodes 4 and 6. Vivid images were published in Life magazine: “They Fight a Fire that Won’t Go out” for Birmingham and “Selma: Beatings Start the Savage Season.”
A different level of state force against African Americans in the 1960s was the use of the National Guard to quell the riots in American cities in the summers. Often they began with an all-too-familiar pattern of an encounter between police and African American citizens that escalated into violence and from there into riots in the streets lasting for days, only ending with the use of the military to occupy the streets. President Johnson empaneled a commission to investigate. Led by Otto Kerner, the governor of Illinois, its report, Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders offered this blunt assessment: “Our Nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.” Fifty years later, the Smithsonian Magazine sadly noted, “The 1968 Kerner Commission Got It Right, But Nobody Listened.”
This pattern of police violence against African Americans was at the heart of most the major domestic disturbances since the issuance of the Kerner Commission report, and obviously the precise spark that set off the latest round of protests. The Washington Post maintains a database of all fatal police shootings since 2015. It notes that white deaths account for more than half of such shootings, but African Americans die by police guns at a rate twice that of whites. One indication of the limitation of the database is that George Floyd is not in it. He wasn’t shot.