Hours after Georgia elected its first-ever Black and Jewish senators, a mob of white Trump supporters stormed the US Capitol. They set up a gallows on the west side of the building and hunted for lawmakers through the halls of Congress.
As he monitored the attack from his home in South Carolina, the local historian Wayne O’Bryant was not surprised. He recognized the 6 January attack as a return to the political playbook of white mob violence that has been actively used in this country for more than a century. Mobs of white Americans unwilling to accept multi-racial democracy have successfully overturned or stolen elections before: in Wilmington, North Carolina, in 1898, in Colfax, Louisiana, in 1873 and New Orleans in 1874, and, in Hamburg, South Carolina, in 1876.
O’Bryant, who lives just five miles from the ruins of Hamburg, once a center of Black political power in South Carolina, has become an expert on the 1876 massacre. He has relatives on both sides of the attack: one of his ancestors, Needham O’Bryant, was a Black Hamburg resident who survived the violence, while another, Thomas McKie Meriwether, was a young white man killed while participating in the mob.
O’Bryant has spent years researching how the Hamburg massacre unfolded, and how, despite national media coverage and a congressional investigation, the white killers were never held accountable. Now, he is watching history repeat itself. The attack on the Capitol, he said, was “almost identical” to the way white extremists staged a riot in Hamburg during the high-stakes presidential election of 1876.
The Hamburg attack and other battles successfully ended multi-racial democracy in the south for nearly a century. Black Americans, who had filled the south’s state legislatures and served in Congress after the civil war, were forced out of power, then barred from voting almost altogether, as white politicians reinstituted a full system of white political and economic rule. The south became a one-party state for decades. It would take Black Americans until the 1960s to win back their citizenship.
Now, as Republicans have shut down any attempt to hold Trump and other politicians accountable for inciting the attack, historians like O’Bryant are warning of the known dangers of letting white mob violence go unchecked, and about the fragility of democracy itself.
Read more of Lois Beckett’s interview with O’Bryant here: ‘The past is so present’: how white mobs once killed American democracy