In politics, who you admire may be less important than who you fear. Defeated slaveholders in the wake of the Civil War wasted no time reminding voters, white and black, that they still held the whip. Whoever controls the threat landscape will have the first-mover advantage in defining and imposing a new unifying mythology.
Setting the threat landscape determines which ideas can be expressed safely in the public sphere and which ones can only be shared at great personal risk. In almost any setting, the overwhelming bulk of people just want to be left alone to pursue their personal interests. This largely disinterested mass will reward voices who maintain calm while shunning “agitators” who might disturb the settled order, regardless how good or vile that settled order might be. Once the threat landscape is set, the range of expression that will be tolerated by polite society (sometimes expressed as the Overton Window) is largely constrained by the bounds of those threats. Fear goes a long way to police discourse.
When a Republican Congressional candidate planned a dangerous trip out to Camilla, Georgia in September 1868, someone spread rumors that “armed negros” were descending on the town. Former slaveholders were about to demonstrate how far they were willing to go to set the threat landscape.
A cartoon threatening that the KKK will lynch scalawags (left) and carpetbaggers (right) on March 4, 1869,Tuscaloosa, Alabama, Independent Monitor, Sept. 1, 1868.
Mitchell County with its relatively sandy soil was at the southern fringe of cotton production, with few successful plantations and an overwhelmingly white, and poor, population. “One observer noted with perhaps some exaggeration that Mitchell County whites were as poor as the blacks.” Georgia’s impoverished “wiregrass” region had been a haven for deserter gangs during the war. Like dozens of other marginal regions of the Confederacy, from the Carolina Piedmont down to the swamps of southern Mississippi over to the Texas Hill Country, Georgia’s wiregrass country had fallen beyond the reach of the Confederate government by 1864.
Their resistance to Confederate authority was driven less by opposition to slavery than by hatred of the planter class. Many hoped these places might become the kernel of a new cooperation between poor whites and freedmen. That isn’t what happened. Freedmen had been moving into Mitchell County since the war, fleeing their former masters in nearby counties. Whites were responding with suspicion and fear.
The local Freedmen’s Bureau agent warned the Republican campaigns that the planters were stirring up trouble. A bank in prosperous Albany, up on the fertile Blackland, had purchased cases of new repeating rifles for the Young Men’s Democratic Club. The club’s secretary, James W. Armstrong was travelling to Camilla ahead of the rally and would likely be delivering the new arsenal to their mob. The candidates decided that the rally should go on.
As the freedmen gathered at the edge of the town they were confronted by Jimmy Johns, a drunk armed with a double-barreled shotgun. He ranted about their music, then rode into town to prepare the “vigilance committee” assembled by the sheriff. As the parade of freedmen approached the town, the sheriff stopped them, insisting that they leave all weapons behind. Marchers carried a few bird guns and hand tools, which they refused to relinquish, continuing on to the town square.
When the procession reached the square, the candidates recognized the trap. Armed men had gathered at two vantage points, from which they could rake the assembly with crossfire. Before the candidates could begin speaking, drunken Jimmy Johns staggered out of the mob to scream about the music again, then shot a band member. Whites in the mob opened fire and the crowd began to run, trying to escape the town to the swamp or the forest. The candidates escaped, though one was shot. “Night riders” pursued fleeing freedmen for several days, killing whoever they found.
There is no authoritative casualty count, but the official death toll was set at 12. The day after the massacre, a judge and several prominent whites from wealthy Albany descended on the town to shape the narrative. They took statements from the sheriff and other “men of good character” who explained that the “disturbance” had been caused by unruly black marchers provoked by the white Republican candidates. Basically, “it was Antifa.” The white mob was doing what was necessary to protect their women and children. This account made it into national press releases and was endorsed by the Georgia legislature.
The massacre, and the reign of terror which followed, was successful. Republican candidates demanded that the government and the Freedmen’s Bureau provide them protection. The Bureau instead instructed them to avoid “imprudent” mass gatherings and insist that attendees remain unarmed to avoid agitation. Whoever controls the threat landscape gets to dictate the definition of “agitation.” Without protection, campaigning and organizing among the freedmen in South Georgia ceased. Freedmen were blocked from voting and white Democrats won Mitchell County by an enormous margin.
The 1868 Election was marked by nearly identical incidents all over the South, from Texas to Virginia, as a new political order was being born. White planters, defeated, humiliated and desperate after their defeat, were swallowing their pride, struggling to make common cause with the poor whites they loathed in a last-ditch effort to preserve their power and wealth. The white supremacy that persists with us today was being born.
What emerged from the hastily assembled mob violence of Reconstruction was a tactical formula for blunting black power, organized by white businessmen and planters. White rabble, usually poor, guided and steered by Sheriffs who were beholden to local landholders, and often organized into local clubs or the Klan, would do the bloody work.
Ordinary people, often poor, were left with a stark choice. They could side with the old plantation class to preserve what little peace and freedom they still enjoyed. Or they could risk their lives to build an alliance with people they didn’t know, who were even poorer than them, with whom they had, at the time, no open avenues of communication, collaboration or organization. As long as the planters were allowed to continue their reign of terror, without any organizational support for an opposition, the calculation for poorer whites was crystal clear.
Camilla’s blueprint persists in the enforcement model for white supremacy today, echoing with today’s “busloads of Antifa” terrors among whites. Murder by white mobs is “an unfortunate incident,” beyond the capacity of law enforcement to prevent, while the slightest suggestion of resistance by Blacks is met with overwhelming police brutality. In that environment, non-Black workers with few resources, little education, and no independent organizational capacity have every incentive to cloak themselves in a white identity and collaborate with racists.
Racist violence directed against both Blacks and any of their white allies sent a message to the “middling masses,” the overwhelming majority in almost any political fight who’d prefer to be left alone. There would be no safety, no quiet, no peace as long as the freedmen and their allies pressed for justice. Controlling the threat landscape meant the planter class could tar freedmen as disturbers of the peace, a powerful leg up in the fight over Reconstruction.
White terrorism during Reconstruction did not go unchallenged. There was a moment when it appeared that Americans might confront and defeat this wave of white terrorism. Congress passed The Enforcement Act in 1870, giving President Grant extensive new power to confront the KKK and other terror groups.
Grant seized the initiative, firing his Attorney General who had been dragging his feet and replacing him with the crusading Georgian and former slaveholder, Amos Ackerman. Grant’s new AG would take the fight to the terrorists, personally leading the Army and US Marshals into action against the Klan in South Carolina. His effort was defeated from a surprising angle, highlighting the most important force in defining a new mythology: money.