Charlottesville and Racism

In 1998, when he was 23 years old, John William King and two friends beat an African-American man, James Byrd, Jr., behind a convenience store. King was the one who used a baseball bat. They then chained Mr. Byrd behind their truck and dragged him for 3 miles. The pathologist report, once they had reassembled the 81 pieces of Mr. Byrd’s body, told the court that the evidence indicated Mr. Byrd was alive for most of the dragging since the remains indicated he tried desperately to protect himself.  John William King, and his friends, were found guilty. At his sentencing, King issued a statement:

Though I remain adamant about my innocence, it’s been obvious from the beginning that this community would get what they desire; so I’ll close with the words of Francis Yockey: “The promise of success is with the man who is determined to die proudly when it is no longer possible to live proudly.”

King is still on death row awaiting execution, forgotten by all. If he had done those actions even thirty years previously, he’s probably still be walking among us, a free man.

His statement at his sentencing probably mystified anyone who heard it. Dina Temple-Raston’s terrific book on the lynching gives us the statement but does not explore it. Just  a crazy statement by a hate-filled and hateful man. But Francis Yockey is important.

Francis Parker Yockey (1917-1960) was a far-right ideologue who remained underground after World War II until he was finally arrested in 1960 after authorities discovered a suitcase filled with fake passports under a variety of assumed names. He committed suicide in his jail cell in California with a cyanide capsule. Authorities did not know how he got the cyanide capsule but the last person who visited him was Willis Carto, who went on to be America’s leading antisemitic organizer for the next half century.

In 1948, Yockey published his masterwork Imperium: The Philosophy and History of Politics under the pseudo-Viking pen-name, “Ulrick Varange.”  I remember buying a copy sometime in the early 1990s having found it in a used bookstore.  At the register, the bookseller looked at me with suspicion, “Kind of a controversial book.”  I knew the tone, having used it myself: “I don’t want any trouble if you think this is a good or correct book–you might be into this stuff, but I want you to know that I know what it is.”  I assured him that I was a historian interested in the far-right, this was for research.  He looked relieved.

I highly recommend Kevin Coogan’s magisterial biography of Yockey if you want a comprehensive treatment. You’ve never heard of him but the racist right absolutely loves him. Somebody put Yockey’s works into John William King’s hands. And Yockey was one reason James Byrd, Jr. died that night. I absolutely believe that we need to understand someone like Yockey if we want to understand John William King.

The best thing we could say about Trump is that he is a moral coward. The man who takes to Twitter for every perceived slight to his bottomless ego has not condemned the white supremacy. White supremacists are absolutely delighted with what they correctly see as his approval of them and their actions.  As I’ve argued elsewhere on this blog it doesn’t matter if Trump “really” is a white supremacist or not or if libertarians who supported school privatization were “really” racists. What matters is Trump’s actions and his tacit approval.  The racist right are absolutely right that they have an ally in our President, Many on the respectable right have been pretending for decades that white supremacy had nothing to do with the success of the Republican party. One wonders how long they can maintain that fiction.

Just as foolish commentators want us to believe that the success of Trump has nothing to do with race, so too have the same sort of commentators for decades been telling us that the Confederate battle flag is about “regional pride” rather than race. That the addition of that flag to the state flags of many southern states during the Civil Rights Movement is just a big coincidence. The march in Charlottesville was purported to be a protest about the removal of Confederate statues. Statues that city leaders had been telling us for decades were about southern heritage and pride, not about white supremacy. The traitors on those those statues were fighting for a principle of independence, of governing their own state. The Civil War was not about slavery they said. And so many white people just shrugged their shoulders and agreed and threw a hissy fit when those statues began to come down. And then the racists came, who knew all along exactly what those statues meant, and so many respectable white people were mystified by what happened.  They believed the lies for whatever reason, they didn’t listen to their African-American neighbors, they simply allowed it all to happen.

Declaration of secession of Georgia:

The people of Georgia having dissolved their political connection with the Government of the United States of America, present to their confederates and the world the causes which have led to the separation. For the last ten years we have had numerous and serious causes of complaint against our non-slave-holding confederate States with reference to the subject of African slavery.

Declaration secession of Mississippi:

Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery– the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth.

Declaration of secession of South Carolina:

These ends it endeavored to accomplish by a Federal Government, in which each State was recognized as an equal, and had separate control over its own institutions. The right of property in slaves was recognized by giving to free persons distinct political rights, by giving them the right to represent, and burthening them with direct taxes for three-fifths of their slaves; by authorizing the importation of slaves for twenty years; and by stipulating for the rendition of fugitives from labor.

We affirm that these ends for which this Government was instituted have been defeated, and the Government itself has been made destructive of them by the action of the non-slaveholding States. Those States have assume the right of deciding upon the propriety of our domestic institutions; and have denied the rights of property established in fifteen of the States and recognized by the Constitution; they have denounced as sinful the institution of slavery; they have permitted open establishment among them of societies, whose avowed object is to disturb the peace and to eloign the property of the citizens of other States. They have encouraged and assisted thousands of our slaves to leave their homes; and those who remain, have been incited by emissaries, books and pictures to servile insurrection.

Declaration of secession of Texas:

She was received as a commonwealth holding, maintaining and protecting the institution known as negro slavery– the servitude of the African to the white race within her limits– a relation that had existed from the first settlement of her wilderness by the white race, and which her people intended should exist in all future time. Her institutions and geographical position established the strongest ties between her and other slave-holding States of the confederacy. Those ties have been strengthened by association.

Declaration of secession of Virginia:

The people of Virginia, in their ratification of the Constitution of the United States of America, adopted by them in Convention on the twenty-fifth day of June, in the year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and eighty-eight, having declared that the powers granted under the said Constitution were derived from the people of the United States, and might be resumed whensoever the same should be perverted to their injury and oppression; and the Federal Government, having perverted said powers, not only to the injury of the people of Virginia, but to the oppression of the Southern Slaveholding States.

The racists in Charlotte knew exactly why those statues were there. They knew exactly what that protest was about. White people who for decades were lying to themselves about the meaning of those statues absolutely deserve some of the blame for Charlottesville.

It is so, so easy to hate them. It is so so easy to be angry. I’m angry. Very angry. But I’m also so terribly sad. John William King was 23 years old.  The alleged Charlottesville killer is only 20 years old.  The new face of angry white nationalism is only 20. So young. Same ages as my own kids, the same age of my own students. People who have their whole lives in front of them; who could do anything. I feel no sympathy for them. They don’t really deserve any.  I feel great sorrow for people who will never be; those people they could have been. If instead of reading Yockey or similar hate, they had embraced the cause of racial justice. I can’t help feel that we have let those young people, who will never exist, down. We need to do better.

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2 thoughts on “Charlottesville and Racism

  1. The supposed link to Corey Robin’s review of Democracy in Chains instead goes to a review by Bethany Moreton at Boston Review. It’s a good review, but it is not Corey Robin’s.

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