Facing South

Do violent words cause violence? Lessons from the civil rights era

George Wallace.jpgThe tragic Arizona shootings that left six dead and others, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D) critically wounded, have sparked debate over an important question: What's the connection between violent political rhetoric and real violence?

It's not a new debate, especially in the South, where the bloody civil rights era forced Southerners and the nation to confront how extremist and violent political messages can have deadly results.

As of last year, the FBI was still investigating over 100 unsolved murders that happened during the Southern civil rights struggle. That doesn't include the dozens of killings that have been successfully prosecuted, including the shooting of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968, whose life will be memorialized this coming weekend.

Many civil rights activists, scholars and reporters maintain there was a direct line between this blood-stained chapter in U.S. history and the violent rhetoric of politicians like George Wallace, the Alabama governor and presidential hopeful whose fiery defense of segregation defined an era.

After a failed run for governor as a liberal, Wallace resuscitated his career by becoming a staunch opponent of integration and the "integratin', scalawaggin', carpetbaggin' liars" that favored change. His message: When it came to the federal government, "resist them to the hilt" in defending the Southern way of life.

As Howell Raines of The New York Times wrote after Wallace's death, many believe his demagoguery had deadly consequences:

On the stump, Mr. Wallace always had a ready answer for the murder epidemic that hit Alabama after his election. He personally did not condone violence. But as civil rights leaders pointed out, that begged the question of the impact Mr. Wallace's rhetorical violence had on the gross and simple minds of back-alley racists.

In a personal meeting in 1965, the Rev. Joseph L. Lowery of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference reminded Mr. Wallace of their shared Methodist religion and warned the governor that his defiant demand that Alabamians "stand up for segregation" gave moral permission for thugs to use their pistols, lead pipes and dynamite. Mr. Wallace responded to such preachments with what Dan Carter correctly labeled a "reckless disregard" for the impact of his words on public safety in Alabama.

Dr. King was especially adamant that Wallace and other Southern politicians who inflamed racist sentiments were complicit in the era's trail of blood. On September 16, 1963 -- the day after four African-American girls were killed in a church bombing in Birmingham -- King wrote

The governor said things and did things which caused these people to feel that they were aided and abetted by the highest officer in the state. The murders of yesterday stand as blood on the hands of Governor Wallace.

The evidence seems to support King and others who argue there was a connection: As Raines notes, 12 people were killed in civil rights-related slayings during Wallace's first term between 1963 and 1966 -- a product not only of Wallace's escalating rhetoric, but also his famous unwillingness to prosecute the murder suspects.

And then there was Dr. King himself: James Earl Ray, the man eventually convicted for shooting King, was greatly influenced by Wallace and his agenda, even moving to Los Angeles to volunteer in Wallace's campaign headquarters in North Hollywood.

Several commentators have noted the similarity of today's Tea Party to the Wallace campaigns. Indeed, the principles of Wallace's American Independent Party in 1968 read remarkably like a Tea Party manifesto:

A new party is urgently needed today because the leaders of the two
existing parties, Democrat and Republican, have deserted the principles and traditions of our nation's founding fathers. Both of the existing parties have become the proponents of big government, crushing taxation, dictatorial federal power, waste and fiscal irresponsibility, unwholesome and disastrous internationalism, compromise with our nation's enemies, and authoritarian regimentation of the citizens of this Republic. Control of the government, under the domination of these two existing parties, has left the hands of the people our government was created to serve.

Even George Wallace's son -- a candidate for Alabama state treasurer in 2010 -- said of the Tea Party, "It does remind me of my dad's campaigns ... They are conservative, they want less government and they will make their voice known in November."

It's also not hard to find similarities in the tone -- and violent undertone -- used by Wallace and the Tea Party. As commentator Tim Wise observes:

In a media environment where highly paid commentators can keep their jobs even as they insist that those who call for the shooting of government agents so as to stop a world government takeover are "beginning to have a case," or that a national service initiative is just a run-up to the implementation of a literal stormtrooper corps like the Nazi SS, or that "multicultural people" are "destroying the culture of this country," or that Latino migrants are an "invasive species," that seeks to undermine the nation, or that the President is intentionally "destroying the economy" so as to pay white people back for slavery, or that, worse, he and other Democrats are vampires,
the only solution for which is a "stake through the heart," to feign shock at the acts of a Jared Loughner is a precious and naive conceit that we can no longer afford.

Civil rights history has provided us with compelling evidence that such rhetoric from key public figures can have deadly results. Has our nation learned the South's lesson?

PHOTO: Alabama governor and presidential candidate George Wallace.


People Referenced:


re: Do violent words cause violence? Lessons from the civil righ

Thank you, Chris. This could not be more persuasive or more timely; I hope it will be widely read.

re: Do violent words cause violence? Lessons from the civil righ

Been in the back of my brain for a while that the Tea Party reminded me of something. Thanks for showing what it is.

re: Do violent words cause violence? Lessons from the civil righ

Despite the valiant efforts of the Southern Poverty Law Center, for example, I'm not sure even the South has learned the South's lesson.

North Florida has been my home for 50 years. I can't make myself believe it's moving toward the light anymore.

re: Do violent words cause violence? Lessons from the civil righ

I'm from Tennessee. What more do I need say? My senator -- Lamar Alexander. Not enough words to describe him. I will offer one - despicable, i.e., deserving to be despised.

re: Do violent words cause violence? Lessons from the civil righ

That some still point a finger at the South in regards to racism is a c-o-s. As if racism didn't and doesn't exist in other parts of the country. Take yer blinders off.

re: Do violent words cause violence? Lessons from the civil righ

I think it's important to note that for decades many religious conservatives have been screaming that violence and sex on TV promote violence and sex in real life. The jury is definitely out on the sex issue, but if we do accept that children seeing violent images hundreds of times a week on the boob tube has some merit in desensitizing them or even offering them a solution to resolve conflicts, then it's only natural that media commentators and politicians who suggest harm be done to others would also influence the actions of weak-minded individuals.

In the case of anti-gay violence and badgering it is clear that when an environment exists that it's okay to call people faggots, fire them from their jobs, and entrap them it enflames the rhetoric AND violence even more.

Paul Harris
Author, "Diary From the Dome, Reflections on Fear and Privilege During Katrina"

re: Do violent words cause violence? Lessons from the civil righ

During a recent visit to the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC I was struck with a similarity between the propoganda techniques used by the Natzi Party in the years leading up to the war and the techniques presently being used by the Tea Party. I know this sounds extreme but the words, posters and promotional materials are eerily similar.

re: Do violent words cause violence? Lessons from the civil righ

While I tend to agree that violent rhetoric begets violence, you have not made a case here.

You tell us the number of murders in Wallace's first term, but compared to what?

There is nothing here supporting your thesis with facts, just anecdotal evidence.

re: Do violent words cause violence? Lessons from the civil righ

How easily people are led by false premises and tautology! No one disputes that violent rhetoric can whip up a mob. Huey Long--Democrat Demogogue--is a perfect example. But it does not follow that the Tea Party supporters' principles of smaller, less intrusive government, and more focus on this country's CONSTITUTION equals violence. Therein lies the problem with Chris Kromm's assertions. There is no evidence whatsoever that Tea Party supporters are violent. I'm old enough to remember George Wallace--in fact, when I was 20 years old and worked for Reuben Askew, Florida Speaker of the state Legislature, Wallace came to Tallahassee to speak to the House; I refused to shake his hand, as was the custom for staff as speakers walked to the podium. Wallace does not equal the Tea Party, despite his son's comparisons. While this is an adequate historical remembrance of George Wallace, the argument fails to deliver. Conflating Wallace with Tea Party supporters is a false premise; there is no evidence that Tea Party voters are segregationist, use violent rhetoric, or are violent themselves. Next time, try making a Constitutional argument in favor of bigger, more intrusive government, and higher taxes to pay for it. At least then, you'll be informing your readers with policy platforms. If you can't make the argument for what you support; it's convenient to use tautologies about the other side.

re: Do violent words cause violence? Lessons from the civil righ

US Violent examples set the precedent.

re: Do violent words cause violence? Lessons from the civil righ

No evidence for tea party violence? What rock have you been living under?

Fearing tea party violence, four Arizona Republicans resign (http://www.rawstory.com/rs/2011/01/fearing-tea-party-violence-arizona-re...)

Rand Paul supporter stomps on MoveOn member's head (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/10/25/rand-paul-supporter-stomps-head...)

Teabagger tries to kill man with Obama bumper sticker (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z5pdwTQ4xA8)

Severed gas line found at home of Perriello brother the day after tea party activists posted the address, mistakenly believing it was the Congressman's home (http://www2.dailyprogress.com/news/cdp-news-local/2010/mar/24/damage_at_...)

Hoyer estimates over 10 lawmakers have been threatened since health care vote (http://tpmlivewire.talkingpointsmemo.com/2010/03/hoyer-violent-rhetoric-...)

re: Do violent words cause violence? Lessons from the civil righ

One needs to recall President Lincoln's concern about having to execute Union deserters during the Civil War. If he had to execute the deserters, he wondered, what about those who encouraged men to desert? Should they not have to pay some price for contributing to the problem? Loons like Sarah Palin, Sharron Angle etc. need to shut up about "reloading" and gunsight markers on maps and suchlike and start being civil and remembering that politics is, short of dictatorship, the art of compromise.

re: Do violent words cause violence? Lessons from the civil righ

Nations tend not learn from history. Perpetrators seem to have learned to dog-whistle better. If we see the current political struggle as a continuation of the Civil War then we may conclude that all that has been learned is the ability to paper over the actual issues. Poor white folk in the ante bellum South had no stake in slavery. In fact, it harmed them economically. But they fought like hell to maintain slavery. I can't figure how public healthcare doesn't benefit most Americans, even "Tea Party" adherents. But they will it as if it were Northern aggression. With corporations having superseded plantations, this struggle doesn't end until every citizen is a virtual slave to the system. Which is soon. The irony is that the coming rightwing tyranny will demand that all citizens surrender their weapons. Poetry.

re: Do violent words cause violence? Lessons from the civil righ

What does the word "despicable" add to this dialogue on vitriolic rhetoric?

Gas on a fire?

Can we practice what we preach here?

re: Do violent words cause violence? Lessons from the civil righ

Forgive me, but I think all of us need a deep breath before continuing. "He's a this," or "She's a that" is counterproductive to any rational dialogue, which is why such remarks are forbidden in debate contests.

Debate must occur, and opposition and resistance is part of that. But the vitriol has indeed gone both ways since the 1960's and none is clean in this blame game.

If you recall, the Beatles had a song called "Piggies" in which they roasted the older generation, particularly those in influential positions, and it was a far cry from "Love - love - love. . . Love is all you need."

"See the piggies out with their piggy wives,
clutching their forks and knives
to eat the bacon."

Can we say "vitriol?"

Can we take beams from our eyes before tending the dust specks in our brothers'?

This is not sarcasm. I mean this as literally as it can be read.

re: Do violent words cause violence? Lessons from the civil righ

What did several different sources say from Florida on September

16, 1963 about the church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama on

September 15, 1963?