President Joe Biden has called the racism and white supremacy behind the massacre in Buffalo “a poison,” and questioned why, “in God’s name,” Americans are willing to live in a nation where gunmen kill children.
At a news conference Gov. Jay Inslee condemned the Buffalo massacre, stating that politicians who stoke racial violence through espousing bogus conspiracy theories like the “great replacement theory” have no place in Washington state.
Biden and Inslee are right. But the Buffalo shootings are not the first time Black Americans have been massacred out of white angst over being replaced. And the killing of innocent school children and teachers in Uvalde, Texas, is not the first time seemingly random violence has followed on the heels of the targeted violence of hate.
It’s difficult to get into the minds of 18-year-old mass murderers. These acts of violence make no sense. But if we are ever to find the courage to stop these massacres, it behooves us to understand what we can about their motives, and the horror in Buffalo presents an opportunity to better understand racial violence born out of fear, which becomes violence charged with hate.
The tragedy in Buffalo, and the great replacement theory which apparently motivated the gunman, can be traced back to a time just after the Civil War. “Africanization” was the term used in this post-Civil War era to stoke white fear over replacement by Blacks, and the telegraph, rather than the internet, was the technological means by which white supremacists organized mass killing sprees.
After the Civil War, across the South, formerly enslaved people were elected to positions of political power — from county clerks, to sheriffs, to state senators, even to governors, U.S. representatives and U.S. senators.
Whites expressed alarm. “When we come to reflect that these people … number over four millions in this country, … who can call the Africanization danger ‘a spectre’?” said the Memphis Daily Appeal in a June 28, 1872 article titled, “The Threatened Danger.” In an article on Jan. 11, 1874, titled “Sambo in Excelsis,” the New York Herald lauded James Shepard Pike, one of the paper’s extremely racist correspondents, lamenting, “With the sad prescience of fallen greatness the gentleman predicted the approaching ‘Africanization’ of South Carolina.”
In fact, the 1868 Second Constitutional Convention of South Carolina, about which Pike wrote, met in Charleston. The convention was dominated by Black men, and was anything but “fallen greatness.” Planks were passed on voting rights, civil rights, greater diversity in politics, wealth redistribution, taxation reform, prison reform, universal free education, women’s rights, care for the indigent, expansion of credit and social safety nets.
One would not be faulted for believing these the accomplishments of a progressive movement of the 21st century, rather than the efforts of the formerly enslaved, and their supporters, in the 1860s.
But at every turn, white violence rose to meet Black progress. Hobbled by the passage of federal acts, like the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871, incensed white Americans organized new white supremacist groups like the White League, the White Line and the Red Shirts.
Calls went out for recruits. One printed in the Times Picayune on July 2, 1874 under the title, “the White League: Its Platform in Full,” read, in part: “Disregarding all minor questions of principle or policy, and having solely in view the maintenance of our hereditary civilization and Christianity menaced by a stupid Africanization, we appeal to the men of our race, of whatever language or nationality, to unite with us against that supreme danger.”
In December 1874, Vicksburg, Miss., became the flashpoint. There, a formerly enslaved man, Peter Crosby, had been elected sheriff. When a group of Black citizens rallied around Crosby, to protest his ouster by white citizens on trumped up charges, the Red Shirts attacked. With the help of 160 White Leaguers who crossed the Mississippi River from Louisiana, several hundred Black men, women and children were slaughtered in what is known as the “Vicksburg Massacre.” Southern whites were ecstatic.
“Raise the banner of white supremacy,” said the Mobile Register. “Citizens have killed off as many [racial slur] as they are ready to dispose of at present,” was the opinion of the Louisville Courier-Journal. “When they get more ammunition they will renew the diversion. Meantime, as the telegraph informs us ‘the whites are in possession of everything.’ ”
George W. Walton, president of the board of supervisors in Vicksburg received a telegram from J.G. Gates and A.H. Mason in Trinity, Texas: “To the President of the Board of Supervisors: Do you want any men? Can raise good crowd within twenty-four hours to kill out your negroes.”
Peter Crosby, the sheriff of Vicksburg, eventually succumbed to injuries sustained when his white deputy, Jonathan P. Gilmer, shot him in the head.
Violence by white supremacists was so effective in wresting political control of cities and states from Black elected officials that it was actually named in honor of the Vicksburg Massacre. Called the “Mississippi Plan,” white violence was used by southern Democrats, the conservative politicians of that era, to kill and intimidate Black people; to rape Black women; to remove Black elected officials from office; and, to keep Blacks from voting.
The violence of the “Mississippi Plan” spread from one southern state to another until the gains made by the formerly enslaved were completely erased, and it would be another 100 years before some of them were restored. The Mississippi Plan ended the post-Civil War era of Reconstruction, that time between 1865 and 1876, when formerly enslaved people began to make political, economic and social progress. It began the long period of racial oppression in the South, known as the Jim Crow era.
Speaking in 1909, at a Red Shirts reunion, one-eyed, Ben “Pitchfork” Tillman, a principal leader of the Red Shirts in South Carolina, who rose to become governor of the state, then U.S. senator, fondly recalled his killing time under the Mississippi Plan. “Altogether in 1874 and 1876, I was a participant in four race riots. All of these were most potent influences in shaping the conflict between the whites and blacks and producing the gratifying result which brought the white man again into control of his inheritance.”
1909 was also the year when the U.S. Census Bureau was hard at work readying a new technology in time for the 1910 census. That technology was the punched card, which ushered in the digital revolution, ultimately giving rise to computers and the internet.
Finally, more than 100 years after Tillman gloated over killing Black men and women out of fear of being replaced, this new technology melded with the white fear of replacement. Where newspapers and telegraphs once radicalized white extremists and called them to violence against Black Americans, today social media platforms and widespread internet misinformation campaigns took over and did the same with much greater speed and greater efficiency.
The shooter in Buffalo was not a “lone wolf,” as some have described him nor was the shooter in Uvalde. Both were deeply connected by technology to virtual communities which impressed them, or which they sought to impress.
In Buffalo, the gunman was involved in a social media community of hatred; a community savoring the same kind of violence against Black Americans that Ben Tillman, the Red Shirts and White Leagues once did. In Uvalde, the young gunman took to social media to document he was about to embark on a killing spree.
The timing of the carnage in Uvalde was not coincidental to the carnage in Buffalo either, although we cannot ask the shooter in Texas. When outlandish, discredited theories, like the great replacement theory, are allowed to proliferate, they give rise to the targeted violence of hatred, which simply makes it seem that violence is a solution to all problems, personal or social in nature.
Combine technology with the acceptance of violence and you have a toxic brew. The internet and social media now provide powerful new ways to normalize violence, by spewing hatred, providing an encouraging audience, and recruiting malleable young minds to commit heinous acts.
For the gunman in Buffalo, his online community of white nationalists hoped, as Ben Tillman believed, that this violence against Black Americans would produce the gratifying result of white people gaining control of their inheritance.
Only democracy is not about the inheritance of power, it’s about being voted into power, political power at least. Yet, in the 1870s, white fear of the great replacement, of losing this mythical inheritance, sparked murderous violence against Black Americans, and the same fear of replacement continues to spark murderous white violence against Black Americans today, which only gives rise to a belief that murderous violence is the way to address whatever ails us as individuals and as a society.
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