From politics to pop culture, the present feels more like a grim sci-fi version of reality than ever before. Welcome to Dystopia Now!, a collection of stories about our darkest timelines.
In 1893, in Paris, Texas, a young black man accused of molesting a small white child was burned at the stake in front of 10,000 people, many of whom carried away pieces of his body as souvenirs afterward. A journalist from the New York Sun described the scene:
The negro was placed upon a carnival float in mockery of a king upon his throne, and, followed by an immense crowd, was escorted through the city so that all might see the most inhuman monster known in current history ... Here Smith was placed upon a scaffold, six feet square and ten feet high, securely bound, within the view of all beholders. Here the victim was tortured for fifty minutes by red-hot iron brands thrust against his quivering body. Commencing at the feet the brands were placed against him inch by inch until they were thrust against the face. Then, being apparently dead, kerosene was poured upon him, cottonseed hulls placed beneath him and set on fire. In less time than it takes to relate it, the tortured man was wafted beyond the grave to another fire, hotter and more terrible than the one just experienced.
There's a curious tendency among those who seek to learn lessons about fascism to look overseas to find examples: Mussolini's Italy, Franco's Spain, and, of course, Hitler's Germany. And it's certainly true that we can learn lessons from European fascist movements and the antifascist resistance that rose up against them.
But if full-throated fascism should rise in the United States, it will be an American fascism, animated by American concerns and with antecedents in American history. Fascism has happened before in America.
For generations of black Americans, the United States between the end of Reconstruction, around 1876, and the triumphs of the civil rights movement in the early 1960s was a fascist state. Local and federal governments enforced an authoritarian regime that curtailed the movements and advancement of black Americans, and black Americans only. America has been governed by the heavy hand of white nationalism before. The lessons learned by black Americans living under a restrictive and domineering regime a century ago are ones we can take now, too. If we want to know what it looks like when the worst happens, we don't have to look to the old world; we have a rich history of horror in the new.
It is impossible to read about the post-Reconstruction, pre–Jim Crow era without alarms going off in your head.
The root of the word fascism is from the Latin root fascis, meaning "a bundle," usually of sticks. Individually, a stick of wood is weak, but bound together, they are nearly unbreakable. Fascism represents a unified and unyielding state, one that enforces not only laws, but attitudes. From the top down, fascism views democracy as a problem because it permits independent thought. The end of Reconstruction — the era after the Civil War from 1865 to 1876 in which black Americans attempted to integrate into America's political and social structures with the assistance of the Republican Party (which, before the civil rights movement, represented black interests) and abolitionists — meant the rise of a new, racist authoritarianism. In the American South (and much of the North) the black population was subject to a regime that systematically stripped them of their rights, their property, their freedom of movement, and, often, their lives, under the premise that African-Americans were not fully American — or really, fully human.
Robert Greene II, a Ph.D. candidate in U.S. history at the University of South Carolina and book review editor for the Society for U.S. Intellectual History, told MTV News, "Across the South, black Americans had access to some political and social power [during Reconstruction] that would slowly wane during the 1870s and 1880s and be virtually destroyed by 1900. With the rise of paramilitary organizations that allied with the Democratic Party, such as the Ku Klux Klan in the late 1860s, and White Leagues and Redshirts in the mid-1870s, the Republican Party was destroyed across the South. That meant black political power was severely curtailed."
In The Strange Career of Jim Crow, C. Vann Woodward argued that the rise of segregation was not an inevitable consequence of the end of Reconstruction, and it didn't happen immediately. Black people continued to vote, run for office, and use the courts. There was still segregation, but it was the same kind of segregation that had existed during Reconstruction, like being barred from certain hotels and restaurants.
The rise of fascism doesn’t have to be the result of any centralized, organized conspiracy. In the United States, all it takes is a failure of the dams holding back the flood.
It is impossible to read about the post-Reconstruction, pre–Jim Crow era without alarms going off in your head. The complete capitulation to segregation and Jim Crow was caused by the collapse of the institutions restraining it: Southern populism, Southern conservatism, and Northern liberalism. As Woodward wrote, "The South’s adoption of extreme racism was due not so much to a conversion as it was to a relaxation of the opposition. All the elements of fear, jealousy, proscription, hatred, and fanaticism had long been present ... What enabled them to rise to dominance was not so much cleverness or ingenuity as it was a general weakening and discrediting of the numerous forces that had hitherto kept them in check."
Elitist Southern conservatives took a paternalistic approach to race, and saw black people as inferiors to be managed, but not necessarily degraded or segregated. "The Negro race is under us," said Governor Thomas Jones, one of the leaders of the conservative wing of Alabama's Democratic Party. "We are his custodians … we should extend to him, as far as possible, all the civil rights that will fit him to be a decent and self-respecting, law-abiding and intelligent citizen … If we do not lift them up, they will drag us down." In opposition to the conservative approach, which dominated the South in this era, were Southern populists, who built a multiracial, class-based political coalition that was based on solidarity and self-interest. The third force was an exterior one, Northern liberalism, which exerted pressure on the South through the government, the court system, and the media to make things right with formerly enslaved Americans.
The Southern populist coalition dissolved as white populists blamed black populists for electoral defeat at the hands of the conservatives, who used voter intimidation, violence, and bribery to win elections. As the economy in the South suffered a downturn in the 1880s and ’90s, the conservative alliance with big business eroded their popularity with their voting base. Conservatives responded by rallying their base with antiblack racial demagoguery and advocating for the earliest forms of segregation and repression that would harden into Jim Crow laws. A series of court decisions weakened Reconstruction-era laws that restricted the Ku Klux Klan and protected black Southerners, as white Northerners began to lose interest in protecting the voting rights of black citizens and the media began to find common ground with the racist Southern rhetoric. As Woodward wrote, black people were the obvious scapegoat for the South’s problems in the wake of the Civil War, and American institutions offered “permission to hate” where they’d formerly denied it.
The rise of fascism doesn’t have to be the result of a centralized, organized conspiracy. In the United States, all it takes is a failure of the dams holding back the flood. In Louisiana, more than 130,000 African-Americans were registered to vote in 1896. Then, in 1898, a new law passed that required voters to have at least $300 worth of property and pass a literacy test (a proviso allowed for exemptions if your grandfather could vote in January 1867, which no black Louisianian could claim — the source of the term "grandfathered in"). By 1904, only 1,342 African-Americans were registered to vote — a reduction of nearly 97 percent. In Mississippi, a revision to the state constitution in 1890 required voters to pay a poll tax and not only be able to read a section of the Mississippi state constitution, but "to give a reasonable interpretation thereof" to a county clerk (who was invariably white). White Mississippians, even those who were illiterate, were not affected by the revision because of a clause that permitted them to vote if their grandparents had been able to vote before the Civil War.
James Kimble Vardaman, then a member of the Mississippi House of Representatives and later governor of Mississippi, said of the revision, "There is no use to equivocate or lie about the matter. ... Mississippi's constitutional convention was held for no other purpose than to eliminate the nigger from politics. Not the 'ignorant and vicious,' as some of the apologists would have you believe, but the nigger." The percentage of black male voters in Mississippi dropped from more than 90 percent during Reconstruction to under 6 percent in 1892. The Supreme Court ruled 9–0 in Williams v. Mississippi that the new policies were not discriminatory.
As the Jim Crow era began, white supremacy began to claw back the gains that black people had made since the end of the Civil War.
This was not merely state policy, but Southern policy. According to Heather Richardson, a history professor at Boston College, "State governments in the former Confederacy tried desperately to reinstate a form of peonage that, while not slavery in name, was perilously close to it. Different states had different laws, but generally, African-Americans could not testify in court or sit on a jury. This meant they had no means to protect themselves from white employers who cheated them, white gangs who beat them and raped them, or even white assassins who murdered them." For millions of black Americans, the laws that protected their neighbors from everything from theft to murder simply didn't apply. Rather, the weight of the law, and the power of local and federal government, was aimed squarely at them.
The era between the collapse of Reconstruction and the civil rights movement is known as the Nadir. America's foggy collective memory of the Nadir — that it was primarily about drinking fountains, city buses, white people saying "nigger" freely, and black people wanting to go to school with whites but not being allowed to — is so incomplete as to be false. This era was about stripping black people of their citizenship, agency, and humanity.
As the Jim Crow era began, white supremacy began to claw back the gains black people had made since the end of the Civil War. It enforced its regime by murdering black people and destroying their property. Between 1865 and 1920, as Jim Crow laws were imposed, 3,500 people were lynched, most of them black men in the South. Lynchings were usually public spectacles, used to inspire fear and enforce compliance and submission from black people. But white supremacy also trafficked in larger-scale racial violence, in riots and pogroms that could claim hundreds of lives. In 1910, in Slocum, Texas, a white mob massacred more than 200 unarmed black people after a lynching because they thought black people might retaliate. "Men were going about killing negroes as fast as they could find them, and so far as I was able to ascertain, without any real cause," the local sheriff said at the time. "They hunted the negroes down like sheep."
While racial violence was at times arbitrary, at others it had specific purpose — to crush black economic and political freedom. In 1919 in Arkansas, sheriff’s posses and federal troops were marshaled to crush a new black sharecropper’s union. More than 200 black men, women, and children were killed in the fighting. In Bogalusa, Louisiana, that same year, law enforcement teamed up with white supremacist vigilantes and corporate security to carry out a campaign of kidnapping, assault, and assassination against black and mixed-race unions. But there wasn't a hard line between arbitrary and instrumental terror. After the pogrom in Slocum, for instance, the remaining black residents fled, and whites seized their land and property. These riots weren’t restricted to the South, either. They stretched across the country, as white supremacy suppressed black economic and political freedom.
By the 1920s, the Ku Klux Klan, an organization founded by Confederate veterans and rooted in white supremacy, anti-Semitism, and anti-Catholicism, was present in every state in America — including, in at least one case, the governor's mansion. The Klan viewed its mission as fundamentally patriotic and nationalist. "Klansmen imagined themselves as a fraternal order saving the nation from threats within and outside of the nation's borders," Kelly Baker, author of Gospel According to the Klan, told MTV News. They had support from the very heart of American democracy. In 1915, then-President Woodrow Wilson hosted a screening of the Klan hero epic The Birth of a Nation in the White House and said of the film, "It is like writing history with lightning, and my only regret is that it is all so terribly true." Under Wilson, interracial marriage became a felony offense in the District of Columbia and thousands of black federal employees lost their jobs. Black soldiers in the Army were forced into noncombat positions. Progress made before Wilson's presidency was lost almost as soon as he entered the Oval Office.
But the violence of the Nadir was met by black resistance. Black people armed and organized in defense of their lives and livelihoods, and when they were attacked, they fought back.
The mere possibility that white violence would be resisted with violence had a deterrent effect.
As Nicholas Johnson writes in Negroes and the Gun, black gun ownership has a long history. Even before the Civil War, free black people bought guns to defend themselves and their communities from marauders, lynch mobs, and slave-catchers alike — despite laws that banned free blacks from owning bullets. That resistance continued even after the Fugitive Slave Law decreed that slave patrols would often be accompanied by federal marshals. During Reconstruction and afterward, blacks armed themselves not just for their own personal self-defense, but in the defense of others as well. They trained and drilled, and could organize at a moment's notice to defend people from mobs who were attempting to drive blacks from jobs or white neighborhoods, or lynch mobs besieging homes and courthouses. In Stanford, Kentucky, in the early 1900s, after the police arrested and jailed two young black men following an argument they had with white farmers, a lynch mob quickly gathered around the jail. Armed black men from the neighboring black town of Mackville mustered at the jail, guarding it throughout the night, dissuading the mob.
Especially before the Civil Rights era, large-scale confrontations between black resistance fighters and white supremacists were often heroic last stands, rather than victories for the resistance. Even when they fended off the first attack, they were often overwhelmed by the superior numbers and weaponry of white mobs. Even though armed self-defense was often ultimately unsuccessful, the mere possibility that white violence would be resisted with violence had a deterrent effect. "Negroes can stop lynching in the South with shot and shell and fire," read an editorial. "But when those 50 Negroes rain fire and shot and shell over the thousand, the whole group of cowards will be put to flight."
As David Krugler points out in 1919, the Year of Racial Violence, black people resisted white supremacist fascism in the press and in the courts, as well as in the streets. Newspapers were often filled with racist rhetoric that sensationalized black crime, reported inflammatory rumors as fact, and fabricated justifications for lynchings. With mainstream press functioning as the propaganda arm of white supremacy, black people set up their own, independent newspapers in order to keep themselves informed, and to counteract the lies of the official narratives offered by both the white press and the government. From her perch at the Memphis Free Speech and later New York Age, Ida B. Wells's reporting and editorials condemned lynching and advocated for blacks to arm themselves. Other papers, like the legendary Chicago Defender and the Philadelphia Tribune, served not just as sources of information and inspiration, but as organizing hubs. These outlets were rightly seen as a threat to American-style fascism: The offices of the Memphis Free Speech were destroyed and its coeditor driven out of town; Southern police harassed the Defender's reporters and confiscated copies of the paper.
Though the courts could not be relied upon to deliver justice, the NAACP organized lawyers and legal funds to try anyway. They attempted to pressure authorities to offer fair trials to black people charged with crimes, to press charges against white people who participated in pogroms, and to award damages for the destruction of black property in riots. They were met with occasional success in getting courts to rule that black people had acted in self-defense when firing upon white attackers, but convictions for white rioters were almost nonexistent in the South. The courtroom, like nearly every other institution in the United States, was captured by white supremacy.
Fascism has a history in the United States, and we should look to this history to inform our preparations for the darkest timelines. America is not the same country as it was in the Jim Crow era — a new American fascism will adapt to the present, and that means that resistance must adapt as well. This new fascism will have its own face, but America's peculiar history is still the ground from which fascism will rise, making it all the more valuable to examine that terrain. The questions that we're asking ourselves about the tactics and strategy of fascist resistance aren't new to America — they've been asked before, in times that were more dire than they are now. All this has happened before. Good luck.