Past Is Prologue

White Vigilantism Is American History


Since this country’s founding, white people have taken the law—that they created—into their own hands to terrorize and brutalize Black people.



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The Ku Klux Klan. Kyle Rittenhouse. The extrajudicial killing of Black people by the police. Dylann Roof. George Zimmerman.

They show up under different names and labels, but the premise is always the same: white people, mostly white men, exacting violence on Black people.

Some people call it white vigilantism. It has also been called white terror.

Cleveland Sellers, Jr. prefers to call it “state terror.” “That’s the correct name because the folks that did all the shooting were state troopers, who all ended up getting promotions and raises when it was all over,” Sellers says.

He’s referring to an incident known as the “Orangeburg Massacre.” Sellers was just 23 years old in February 1968 when a student demonstration on the campus of South Carolina State University—a historically Black college—turned deadly. State troopers opened fire on student demonstrators who were trying to integrate a local bowling alley, killing three and injuring 28—most of whom were shot in the back as they tried to flee—including Cleveland.

At the time, the town of Orangeburg, South Carolina, was home to two Black colleges—SCSU (then South Carolina State College) and Claflin University—and had a majority Black population, but four years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, things still looked the same as they always had in Orangeburg, and the whites in charge of the town were reluctant to fall in line with the “new normal.” A local bowling alley refusing access to a Black Vietnam war veteran was the catalyst for a series of peaceful demonstrations by hundreds of students from both of the Black colleges.

Sellers was an experienced organizer, having worked with Fannie Lou Hamer, Stokely Carmichael, and John Lewis, serving as a program director for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and as such, he was already a target for law enforcement.  Students seeking his guidance, came to tell him about the demonstrations that were happening over the segregated bowling alley. After several confrontations between the students and law enforcement, the governor ordered the National Guard to come in to “maintain order.” Sellers said when he woke up on the morning of February 8, he looked out the window to see an Army tank parked across the street, its turret pointing at his home.

“I immediately put out a call to find somewhere else to stay for the night,” he says.

A student living on campus offered an extra bed to Sellers. He was sleeping when another student came at around 9 p.m. and told him there was gunfire on campus.

“I went down to the back of the campus, but I didn’t see anything. Then I went up to the front of the campus, and near the front gate, I looked down the hill and there were police with white helmets standing on the side of the hill. When they left, you could see their heads and the weapons up on their shoulders,” he says. “It looked ominous to me and like it was dangerous to the students.”

Sellers then saw about 75 students standing in a circle nearby, and he went to warn them away from the area. Just as he was about to warn the students, the police began firing their weapons. He hit the ground, but was shot under his left arm. He was taken to the hospital, and it was there that Black sheriff deputies were sent to arrest him.

He was charged with an array of felonies, but ultimately none of them would stick. When it became apparent that the state was not going to be able to make its case against him, the judge allowed them to change the date of the alleged incident he was arrested for, and he was charged and convicted of “inciting” the riot days before it happened.

Because law enforcement and local government officials viewed Sellers as “an outside agitator,” they were willing to go the extra mile to send him to jail.

Cleveland Sellers, Jr. was the only person to be convicted as a result of the Orangeburg massacre. Although nine police officers admitted to firing their weapons blindly into the crowd of students and were subsequently charged with abuse of power, two juries failed to convict them.

State terror was used in this case to silence a community leader who was just trying to help Black people get what was owed to them—their basic civil rights.

I recently had a conversation with my friend, colleague and contemporary, Michael Harriot—an award-winning essayist, columnist for both theGrio and The Guardian, and author of the upcoming book Black AF History: The Un-Whitewashed Story of America. I asked him if he thought white vigilantism was an integral part of the fabric of America.

“Before there was an America, the colony of Virginia passed an act in 1669 that allowed for the casual killing of slaves,” Harriot said. The law he is referring to empowered members of the colonies to kill any slave who “resisted his master” or the orders of someone acting on behalf of his master.

Think about that for a moment. There was a law on the books that allowed Black people to be killed simply for wanting to be freed from chattel slavery.

Of course, we know that modern-day policing is at its root based on the slave patrols started in the 1700s that allowed everyday citizens to pursue, capture and return enslaved people to the masters who “owned” them.

After the Civil War, slave patrols were replaced by militias that enforced so-called “Black codes,” which were laws at the state and local level that prevented freed Black people from buying property or voting and getting decent jobs at fair wages and any other number of basic freedoms that whites felt Blacks didn’t deserve.

And when the Black codes were abolished in 1868 by the 14th Amendment, they were replaced by Jim Crow laws which were in turn enforced by newly established police departments and law enforcement agencies. Those police and sheriff departments did not hesitate to use terror tactics to “keep Black folks in line” as they saw fit.

While Jim Crow legally ended in the 1960s, its legacy and the legacy of the white vigilantism and terror that preceded it still lives on in both our criminal justice system and our everyday society.

It is a simple fact: White people—both men and women—feel wholly empowered to police and adjudicate the behavior of Black people as they see it. While white women tend to weaponize the police against Black bodies ( BBQ Becky, Amy Cooper aka “Central Park Karen,” Miya Ponsetto), white men have been emboldened to take the law into their own hands, oftentimes with deadly results. Ahmaud Arbery, Trayvon Martin, and Jordan Davis, were all killed by white men who deputized themselves as law enforcement, judge, jury and executioner.

It was not until after Arbery was murdered that the state of Georgia finally repealed its “citizen’s arrest” law. There are, however, still laws on the books in other states that give a pass in some ways to vigilante justice, and those laws are based on foundational laws that built this country.

“When you talk about vigilantism, you are talking about extrajudicial punishment,” Harriot says. “It happened all through the early history of America. The police force is a fairly new thing in America. Prior to police forces, it was frontier justice, and it was up to the community where the perceived injustice took place to handle it. That is vigilante justice.”

Throughout American history, we have heard similar tales of white men, whether law enforcement or not, taking up arms to issue justice to Black men or Black people in general. Recall Emmett Till, or the Rosewood massacre, the “Robert Charles Riots,” or the 1898 Wilmington massacre, all incidents that began because a white person harbored a grievance against a Black person—real or imagined—that resulted in Black people being killed and no justice being served for their murder(s).

“The right to defend yourself that was used in the Trayvon Martin killing was just legalized vigilantism,” Harriot said. “A random white dude with a gun decided he was going to take the law into his own hands, and that is legal in a bunch of states. Castle doctrines, ‘stand your ground,’— all these types of laws are basically legalized vigilantism.”

“With vigilantism, one of the things you have to think about is that it appeals to people because it is so immediate,” Harriot continues. “You don’t have to wait for someone to tell you that something or someone has done you wrong. You can take the law into your own hands. Throughout the history of America, the American aesthetic is that.”

Harriot said the “We are going to decide what the law is, and we are going to take the law in our own hands” stance is what America was built on.

Civil rights attorney and former South Carolina State Rep.Bakari Sellers—son of Cleveland Sellers, Jr.— agrees.

“You cannot decouple white supremacy and domestic terror,” Bakari Sellers said. “That type of violence is pretty much foundational.”

As Bakari Sellers noted, sometimes the victims haven’t done anything more than just be Black, as in the case of the Mother Emanuel shooting, where a 21-year-old radicalized white boy named Dylann Roof walked into a Bible study, was welcomed by the churchgoers, listened to their Bible study, and then gunned them down as they stood holding hands and praying.

“In 2015, how does that even happen,” Sellers asked, saying that he believes Roof may have been filled with more hate for Black people than Bull Connor himself.

Whether you look at it on a macro level or a micro one, white people policing Black people in America has been a thing since there has been an America. The idea that Black people need to be kept in their place is one borne out of slavery, and it continues in present time in ways big and small. Some people pull guns on Black people, others weaponize the police against them.

The most chilling aspect of all of this, Harriot explains, is that vigilantism is only available to white people. For anyone else, it is looked at as savagery.

“All these kinds of acts of vigilantism were admired by white Americans, but they were careful not to let that sentiment spill over to black people,” Harriot says. “After all, what is a slave insurrection but an act of vigilantism?”

White vigilantism is a result of white fragility, and white fragility leads to white violence.

Because whiteness built this country, and because the groundwork for building America included exerting white violence over people who were not white, whiteness operates with a fear that the kind of terror it has rained on others will come back to bite. Whiteness fears that those who have suffered its violence will turn around and bite back, and whiteness wants to prevent that at all costs.

As long as white people can claim to be in fear for their lives, as long as white people are allowed to see people of other races and religions as a threat (think Muslims, Mexicans, Black people, and anyone else who has been targeted by our polite, racist society), there will be a way to excuse the treachery of white terror.

And the long legacy of white violence will continue, because deep down, America doesn’t want to change.

This constant of American history, with laws on the books to back it up, is not going away anytime soon.

As long as the law can protect white people who commit these acts of violence while simultaneously punishing others who “stand their ground” or defend themselves, the thread of white vigilante justice will continue to be woven into the fabric of American society.

It is the secret flag that they do not salute.

This is the first installment in our series on American vigilantism. Part two will be published on March 14, 2022.

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