Many mainstream commentators lambasted the president for his predictable bombast. “Trump’s July 4th celebration sounds like a salute to Trump,” read a typical headline. Such commentary, however, deflects attention from a more ominous historical context. The Fourth of July has routinely been used by white nationalist and supremacist movements to consolidate power, recruit members, raise funds and draw ideological linkages between race and nation, whiteness and patriotism, and blackness and civic fraudulence.
Given the president’s well-publicized appeals to white nationalism, xenophobia and nativism — appeals heard in his refusal to condemn white supremacists in Charlottesville, his bald bigotry toward migrants and asylum seekers of color, his leading role in the “birther” movement and beyond — Trump’s planned Independence Day celebration must be viewed as part of this long lineage of white nationalist movements co-opting the language of independence and freedom on the Fourth of July to advance their causes.
Throughout the 19th century, the American Colonization Society (ACS), a popular transregional organization that advocated for removing “free” black people from the United States and resettling them in Liberia, used the Fourth of July to expand its message and donor base. Founded in 1816-1817 in Washington, the ACS quickly became the leading institutional voice calling for the pursuit of a homogeneous white nation.
“Among us is a growing population of strangers,” preached pastor Baxter Dickenson to the ACS Auxiliary Society of Hampden County, Mass. on July 4, 1829. Dickenson expressed his reservation that free black people could ever be sufficiently incorporated into “this white nation.” To Dickenson, they couldn’t match up to white America: poor where white Americans thrived, ignorant where white Americans were “enlightened” and enslaved where white people were independent. To the pastor, the solution was obvious: “An asylum has been opened for them in the land of their fathers. Send them thither; and they will find themselves to be at home. … Rise to their relief. Restore them to their proper home.”
It should come as no surprise that black Americans nearly unanimously rejected the colonization movement and the type of cheap white atonement it represented and organized vigorously against it.
Dickenson‘s sermon was saturated with rank racism. He characterized the presence of free blacks as “a most manifest evil.” Most frightening to Dickenson was the potential for the future as the black population grew. He feared that “if nothing is done to arrest their increase, we shall have in twenty years four million of slaves; in forty years eight millions; in sixty years sixteen millions, and a million of free blacks; — seventeen millions of people; seven millions more than our present white population; enough for a powerful empire! And how can they be governed? Who can foretell those scenes of carnage and terror which our own children may witness, unless a seasonable remedy be applied?”
Dickenson’s sermon was emblematic of those preached at every Fourth of July celebration organized by ACS auxiliaries around the country. This sort of fire and brimstone fearmongering led to donations flooding in. In fact, the ACS’s Fourth of July fundraisers were the most effective way for the society to meet its annual collection goals. From Connecticut to Virginia to New York, July 4 was a day for the ACS to advance the cause of removing free black people from the United States. The society’s use of America’s birthday was designed to anchor the idea of colonization to the idea of a free republic and to whiteness.
A century later, the Ku Klux Klan began to routinely organize Fourth of July celebrations for roughly the same purpose as the ACS. The revitalized Klan, which had been resurrected in 1915, was immensely popular throughout the U.S., and it saw the nation’s most patriotic day as an ideal moment to recruit members, raise funds and hatch plans to terrorize black Americans, Catholics, Jews and immigrants whose whiteness was contested. Like the ACS, the KKK aspired to fuse patriotism to their goal of building a white racial state.
Shortly after a July 4, 1924, Klan rally in Nebraska — a rally that helped to launch a “three week cross-burning frenzy” — Nebraska’s Star Herald newspaper provided a vivid illustration of how the two ideas, racism and patriotism, were inextricably intertwined at the popular gathering. The American flag “proudly floated from the flagstaff in the center [of the crowd], the stars and stripes waving brightly in the glaze of the spotlights from several cars closely packed, extending two miles along the highway, waiting to gain admission to the gathering. … With the first fiery cross burning high on the side to the east of the meeting, the Klansmen with the aid of colored flares, formed a living, blazing cross on the side below.”
C. Arnold Stewart, the keynote speaker that day, reportedly opened his remarks by saying he was proud to be an American citizen and “citizen of the Invisible Empire.” He continued by noting that “any man or woman who was not proud of that fact had no right here and should not have a home in this country,” thereby attempting to cocoon white nationalism in the discourse of patriotism.
This event was far from unusual in the 1920s. July 4 cross-burning Klan rallies were often the most popular Klan events of the year. These events weren’t simply a Southern phenomenon either. They were held in Washington state, Michigan, Indiana, New Jersey, Kansas, Vermont, Maine and beyond.
These also weren’t small gatherings. Reflecting the popularity of the white supremacist cause, reporters covering the Klan’s July 4, 1923, gathering in Kokomo, Ind., estimated a crowd of 75,000 to 100,000 supporters. The attendance was similar the next year in Jackson, Mich.
Patriotism and racism went hand-in-hand with Klan leaders routinely seen waving and distributing American flags at such celebrations. It wasn’t just the Klan that saw the link: In some instances, groups like the American Legion helped to sponsor and support the Klan’s Fourth of July gatherings.
For most presidents, trying to organize a Fourth of July celebration wouldn’t conjure this sinister history. But Trump’s record of racist rhetoric invites the linkage. Implicit in his tweet is a plan to celebrate a narrow vision of America and Americanism, one that omits immigrants, ignores racial inequality and lionizes the white working man routinely championed by Trump.
Social movements grounded in white nationalism have long used Independence Day as an epicenter of organizing, recruiting, fundraising and messaging. Historians must draw out these linkages to Trump’s rally, both now and this coming summer. To ignore these inconvenient histories would leave Americans underequipped to challenge the white nationalist movements emboldened in Trump’s America.