Simon Balto: ‘What happened at the Capitol was no anomaly’
There’s much to be said about Thursday’s January 6 committee hearings, and there will be more to be said following the hearings’ full sequence. But speaking as a historian, let me for now say this: Americans need to understand that what the terrorists at the Capitol did that day wasn’t the anomaly people think it was within the long history of the United States. The almost entirely white mob storming the halls of Congress operated squarely within a tradition of white mob terrorism that has deeply shaped specific parts of the country, and the whole of the nation itself.
The clearest analogue to me is Wilmington, North Carolina in 1898, where a mob of white racists violently overthrew the duly-elected, interracial government of that city, citing the need to be free from “Negro domination” – by which they meant political power that was equitably distributed between Black and white residents. They murdered at least dozens – likely hundreds – of people in pursuit of power. They deployed murderous violence to illegitimately usurp political control of that city and destroy democracy there, prioritizing white rule over interracial democracy when faced with the prospect of having to legitimately compete for power.
Americans talk about coup d’états as the province of so-called “third-world” nations, but it happened here. And it happened in spectacularly successful fashion. Those terrorists destroyed Wilmington’s “Fusion” Black and white government, replacing it with a white, racist, autocratic, Jim Crow government.
There are endless relevant historical comparisons to draw from here, but that one speaks to me the most. Many of the January 6 terrorists are nakedly white nationalists. They were inspired and driven by a white nationalist former president who’d failed as a reelection candidate in large part because he, too, is a racist, and thus couldn’t coerce people of color in an increasingly non-white America to vote for him. And so, when they couldn’t win legitimately, they collectively sought to overthrow the government and destroy democracy.
Albeit on a different scale, there is precedent for their approach succeeding, as it did in Wilmington. We must ensure that these terrorists don’t win.
Simon Balto is an assistant professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison