The success of that insurgency showed that white supremacy was more important than democracy. Wednesday’s attack on the Capitol, on the day Georgia after elected its first Black senator, was a desperate gamble to show that it still is.
South Carolina was a totalitarian, minority-rule regime for 100 years before the creation of the United States, and it remained one until it seceded and was defeated along with its confederates, opening the door to Reconstruction and the hope of a truly representative system.
But self-proclaimed white supremacists were so outraged by equality under the law that they waged a terrorist campaign between 1865 and 1876 throughout the South, but especially in South Carolina. In 1876, Wade Hampton, an aristocrat and former Confederate general, ran for governor on the self-declared white supremacist Democratic ticket (the parties wouldn’t flip on issues around race until the civil rights movement nearly a century later). He was followed by an army of Red Shirts, whom he could incite to violence while distancing himself from it.
Those Red Shirts — many veterans of the original Ku Klux Klan and members of private armed groups or rifle clubs — took their violence far beyond what we’ve seen. Martin Gary, a Confederate general who refused to accept the surrender at Appomattox, came up with the plan of action that would be followed by the mob seeking to “redeem” the state or, in today’s terms, make it great again.
“I tell you there are certain men you must put out of the way — men you must kill … they must be killed; for they are the leaders of the Negroes and if you get ride of them we can carry things as we want them … we met them on the field once, and we are ready to meet them again,” Gary said in one campaign speech for Hampton. “Go in masses, armed and try to force the Negroes to vote our ticket … shoot them down and cut off their ears, and I warrant you this will teach them a lesson.”
Fortunately, we didn’t see that kind of violence in this election — although, like the Red Shirts, Trump has repeatedly tried to disenfranchise those who would vote against him. And in 1876, despite the terrorism, intimidation, murder and voter fraud, the white supremacist party lost. Incumbent Daniel Chamberlain was initially certified as the victor, prompting Hampton and Gary to lead Red Shirt mobs to march on the State House. And, as on Wednesday, we should have seen it coming.
“Even if we are not elected, we will go to Columbia in force, surround the State House, and tear it down and show them we will rule,” Gary had pledged before the election.
Initially deflected by Union troops, the Red Shirts retreated to a nearby hall and convened a parallel government. Gary led an army to march on the State House once again two days later. This time, they gained entry. Neither the legitimately elected representatives nor the insurgents would leave the building — leaving two separate governments to operate in the state.
Only hours after the occupation of the Capitol ended Wednesday night, during the confirmation of President-elect Joe Biden’s win, Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) noted the parallel and described the coup of 1876 as an attempt to “hold the country hostage to end Reconstruction.”
“It worked,” Graham said. “It led to Jim Crow. If you're looking for historical guidance, this is not the one to pick.”
But so much in our history — and in the Trump movement — say otherwise. We have valorized, rather than demonized, white terrorists and treated them as heroes and “redeemers.”
My great-grandfather named a child after Martin Gary in 1892, nearly two decades after the insurrection. In the late 20th century, I attended Wade Hampton High School in South Carolina (I’m proud to say I was kicked out). Ben Tillman was governor and then U.S. senator and has a statue at the State House — two people were arrested for trying to blow it up this summer. Tillman’s protege Strom Thurmond remained in office until this century. And when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) stopped Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) from reading a letter by Coretta Scott King on Jeff Sessions during a debate over his confirmation as attorney general at the beginning of the Trump administration, McConnell cited a precedent established when Tillman beat a colleague on the Senate floor.
Tillman never backed away from what they had done.
“It will appear a ruthless and cruel thing to those unacquainted with the environments,” Tillman said of the violence of South Carolina’s 1876 campaign, including the massacre of African Americans in the town of Hamburg. But “the struggle in which we were engaged meant more than life or death. It involved everything we held dear, Anglo-Saxon civilization included.”
Trump’s Red Hats on Wednesday served the same function as Hampton’s Red Shirts and seemed to work by the same logic — gambling that white supremacy would outweigh democracy once again.
In 1876, White Americans agreed. Even if they did not directly participate in the insurrection or vocally endorse it, they supported it with complicit silence.
We cannot assume that this failed putsch will be the end of the violent attempt to replace democracy — once again — with white power. And we cannot support them with our silence.