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Among the early images that emerged from the attack on the capitol on Wednesday was footage of a Black Capitol Hill police officer being chased up the capitol steps as he was pursued by a mob of armed white supremacists. The video shows the police officer, armed only with a baton, running backward up a staircase, as the mob closes in. Several times, he confronts them and pushes a man at the front of the mob. Though they can be heard assuring him that it’s not him they are after, the mob continues to pursue him as he shouts, “back up!” repeatedly into his radio. The video ends when the officer reaches the landing and is joined by other capitol hill police officers, and they make the crowd stand down.
Anyone who watches that video who knows anything about U.S. history imagines a very different ending, one where back-up does not arrive and where the solitary uniformed man dies pleading for his own life.
Just over a minute long, the video captures much about our current historical moment—democracy under assault with a lone Black body defending it. In fact, with a few tweaks, we could play it on repeat to make the point that Nikole Hannah-Jones did in her essay in the New York Times’ Pulitzer Prize winning 1619 Project, “Without the idealistic, strenuous and patriotic efforts of black Americans, our democracy today would most likely look very different—it might not be a democracy at all.”
Last Monday we learned that the man in the video footage who placed his body between our democracy and the raging white supremacists was Eugene Goodman. He was not alone. There were many acts of bravery that day by police officers and others. New videos have surfaced showing how Trump’s thugs dragged and beat various members of the Metropolitan Police who stood in their way.
Over the next few weeks, we will continue to hear their brave stories—about how they stayed at their posts despite the odds. Already, we are hearing how high a price they paid for doing their jobs with integrity. All Americans who value democracy owe a debt of gratitude to each of these uniformed officers—white, Black, and Brown—who did their jobs, who placed their bodies between the democracy and the howling mob that sought its destruction. Without them, this truly horrific day would no doubt have been much worse. Without them, the White Supremacy might have successfully captured the legislative branch as it did the executive four years ago.
We are currently witnessing a dramatic replaying of the events that followed the U.S. Civil War. At first, White Supremacy was in retreat as a dramatic expansion of democracy was made possible by a series of postwar amendments that embraced human freedom, delivered birthright citizenship to all Americans and the protections that come with it, and enfranchised Black men.
At the time, there was no shortage of naysayers and obstructionists in Washington whose sympathies lied squarely with the White Supremacy. Chief among them was President Andrew Johnson who liked nothing more than making speeches about how he was a victim of the Washington elite, that he was a man of the people (arguably, he was), and how he was the only one who stood between white Americans and a race war in which they would be the losers.
But there were powerful congressional Republicans who saw this for what it was, a betrayal of the cause of human freedom for which the nation had just fought and won a war and a strike against the bulwark of democracy that would be needed to protect that freedom. Joined by members of the opposition Democratic Party, they impeached and nearly removed the president and then got down to the work of creating a multiracial and more egalitarian form of American democracy.
In coming days, we will see if on this second go-round, members of the opposition party—this time the Republicans, in a bitter irony of history—will stand up for that vision of American democracy by voting to impeach President Trump for his role in inciting Wednesday’s failed coup.
In the years after Johnson was impeached (though not convicted), newly enfranchised Black voters in the 1860s and 1870s made Reconstruction possible when they elected local leaders committed to expanding democracy, and President Ulysses S. Grant who repeatedly sent in the U.S. Army to stand against white supremacy. Seeing them as allies, Grant would not betray the Black men who had made electoral victories like his possible. Neither would white Americans who voted for him and endorsed measures designed to reinforce democracy, such as passage of the Enforcement Act and the Klan Acts that gave the federal government broad powers to prosecute white supremacists for their crimes and the creation of the Department of Justice to oversee these prosecutions.
But Grant’s army and administration could only do so much, particularly when popular support for these measures began to wane. As anger over the high costs of the Civil War and the assassination of that war’s hero began to cool, northerners moderated the moral outrage that they had once felt about slavery and the institutions that had sustained it. Fewer and fewer white voters were prepared to fight for multiracial democracy, emboldening white supremacist mobs in the South that began to storm capitol buildings defended now only by Black men and occasionally white allies.
In Colfax, Louisiana, for example, in 1873 a white sheriff sent Black men to defend the courthouse from a white supremacist mob that claimed to be the winners of the fall election. According to the Congressional investigation, on April 13 (Easter Sunday), “a large body of whites rode into the town” demanding that the men “give up their arms and yield possession of the courthouse.” The Black men refused, first putting up a fight behind the “small earthwork” fortification they had built out front. They then took refuge inside the courthouse. The better armed mob fired their guns and cannon setting the courthouse on fire. The Black men inside surrendered, but when they tried to escape the burning building, members of the white supremacist mob shot them dead. And in the days before and after, they shot their wives and children. Congressional investigators concluded that what happened at Colfax was “barbarous, cold-blooded murder. It must stand… a foul blot on the page of history.” (“Condition of the South,” Report No. 261, Committees of the House of Representatives for the 2nd Session of the 43rd Congress, Washington, D.C., 1875, 11-14.)
Twenty years later, in Wilmington, North Carolina, white supremacists who had won an election (through fraud and threats of violence) seized the Black majority city, murdering men, women, and children and forcing fairly elected officials to resign at gunpoint. Before the slaughter was over, the mob had killed at least sixty people, and perhaps considerably more.
The historians David S. Cecelski and Timothy B. Tyson have described the event as “a revolution against interracial democracy.” The difference between that coup and the one last week is that we know the one in Wilmington in 1898 succeeded.
It will be some time before we can be sure that the one that happened last week in Washington, D.C., failed.
In Charles Chesnutt’s 1901 novel about the Wilmington massacre, The Marrow of Tradition, Black North Carolinians make their final stand in a Black-built hospital. Before that building too is burned to the ground, the character Josh Green, wounded and bleeding from the white supremacists’ bullets, seizes their leader—a Captain McBane—and stabs him in the heart with his bowie-knife, killing the man. “One of the two died as the fool dieth,” Chestnutt writes, “Which was it, or was it both?”
Before he dies, Josh Green makes clear that he was no fool, having sized up the intentions of the white supremacist mob, even before it had formed, and planned to take the opportunity to exact revenge. When another character reminds him of the biblical injunction to forgive and forget, Green dismisses the idea as one-sided and deployed only against African Americans. Green insists that, instead of getting “down on his marrow-bones, an’ eat dirt,” a Black man must fight.
Watching as Eugene Goodman drew the white supremacists away from the senate chambers and up the staircase seems a stark reminder that, as Chesnutt wrote, “our boasted civilization is but a thin veneer, which cracks and scales off at the first impact of primal passions.” When it cracks, it has often been Black men—and women and children—who have stood between democracy and the White Supremacy. (Chesnutt called the white supremacist movement in his fictional Wilmington “the great steal.”)
In the next few days as we wait to see who will stand up for multiracial democracy, we might think about the work that needs to be done to fix the cracks. As Chesnutt said in 1901, in words that still ring true today, “There’s time enough, but none to spare.”
Judith Giesberg is the Robert M. Birmingham Chair in the Humanities and Professor of History at Villanova University. Director, Last Seen Project.