We All Saw Today Coming, But It Was Not Inevitable
Updated: Jan 2
I’ve recently been working on an editorial for the journal Professional Educator, along with my fellow Iowa graduate students Jin Chang and Peter W. Clancy, and Dr. Leslie Locke of Iowa and Dr. Kamden Strunk of Auburn University, on the relevance of Mississippi’s history to President Trump’s recent Executive Orders attacking history education and educational institutions. I wanted to share a few bits of this editorial today and draw some connections to the currently ongoing violent insurrection happening in the nation’s capital.
To many critics and opponents of President Trump, myself included, a day like this has felt almost inevitable. As my history professors love to point out, however, nothing is inevitable and history does not operate mechanistically. So it’s worth taking a moment to stop and think about how and why it came to this. How—when we had so many clear signals that President Trump and many of his supporters (voters and Congresspeople alike) would be willing to use the authoritarian tools of bullying, harassment, and violence to maintain power—did we as a democratic nation do so little to stop it? When it's been so clear for so long that this is where we were heading, why didn't we remove Trump from power? How did we even elect him in the first place?
There's a whole psychological drama to be told for the Trump supporters who participated in today's siege that I'm not able to fully articulate. It includes, for sure, delusion and a strong commitment to white supremacy.
For other, purportedly "sane," Trump voters—who voted for him for tax cuts or deregulation or conservative judges or whatever, but "dislike" the whole "Trump thing"—putting Trump in power and then allowing him to stay in power these last four years was essentially a Faustian bargain, a deal with the devil to get something they wanted. The events of today are one clear sign among many that the deal was rotten from the very beginning.
In working with my colleagues on the editorial, however, I began thinking of another factor that has prevented people from seeing the true potential for evil and destruction that a President Trump has always presented. Part of the story, I think, is that too many Americans have not learned the lessons of American history. Too many Americans see and understand history as a long arc bent towards progress. They see the right outcome as inevitable, think that the good guys will, of course, win in the end, implying that, if someone in winning, they obviously can’t be the one history will label as the bad guy. Put simply, they see good outcomes, in the long run and for the country as a whole, as nearly inevitable.
This attitude can mostly be summed up as the “end of history” view. The view that the world is now stable and nothing big and awful like the historical evils of slavery, Jim Crow, or the Holocaust could possibly happen again. Put in such stark terms, few people would probably say that they see the world this way, but it is a viewpoint that I think drives many American’s general lack of political awareness or activism.
But history is not inevitable, nor an unrelenting march in the right direction, nor are the evils that created and drove slavery, Jim Crow, and the Holocaust gone from our world. The good guys don’t always win (ignoring for a moment the fact that its a bad oversimplification to sort everyone into good guys and bad guys). Political institutions don’t always do the right thing. Our history as a nation is full of examples of bad guys winning. Looking back, it’s easy to see such backslides as temporary hiccups in the inevitable march towards progress. But those temporary hiccups have real, awful consequences, and it was not inevitable that the "hiccups" ended. Even when they do end, for the people who lived them, these “hiccups” play out not as history but as their day-to-day life. Lives have been ended, families destroyed, unnecessary pain and suffering inflicted during such "hiccups."
The editorial we've been writing discusses two recent Executive Orders by President Trump, EO 13950, stealthily titled “Combating Sex and Race Stereotyping,” and EO 13958, “Establishing the President's Advisory 1776 Commission.” We put the rhetoric and policies of these executive orders in historical perspective by looking at the activities of Citizen’s Councils and the Mississippi state government’s Sovereignty Council during the Civil Rights Era. This history, I think, is relevant to today’s insurrection. I’ll quote from our editorial for a bit here:
The Spies of Mississippi
There have been multiple governmental attempts to obstruct and destroy civil rights and antiracist movements in the past. Some—such as COINTELPRO, a program in which the FBI attempted to undermine the work of civil rights organizers including Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcom X, Huey P. Newton, and others (Weiner, 2012)—have received media attention and depiction more prominently. A less known effort, however, was that of the State of Mississippi to surveil, obstruct, disrupt, and eliminate civil rights movements and organizers (Strunk, Locke, & Martin, 2017). Mississippi used a network of organizations known as Citizen’s Councils (McMillen,1994) and the state government’s Sovereignty Commission (Irons, 2010; Katagiri, 2001) to plan, organize, fund, and carry out such activities. Much like the EO, Mississippi’s efforts often pitched the work of as well as civil rights organizers themselves as Communists/Marxists, outsiders, and anti-American (Strunk et al., 2017).
Tactics evolved over time, but often included surveillance, recording names and license plate numbers of those attending organizing meetings, and keeping careful records about organizers and participants (Porter, 2014). Mississippi also paid people to attend civil rights meetings so they could report back to the State about the plans and activities of civil rights groups. Via these paid-for spies, the state was then able to disrupt those plans and intimidate participants. The state was also able to prepare for some mass demonstrations to ensure they were met with violence and arrest. The Citizens Councils and Sovereignty Commission often worked with local law enforcement and even Ku Klux Klan chapters. One notable instance of such coordination between the state, local law enforcement, and the Klan was the murder of three civil rights workers Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner in 1964 (see image of Mississippi State Historical Marker in Strunk et al., 2017, p. 132).
Only recently did some of the efforts of the state via the Sovereignty Commission come to light thanks to unsealed archives. These efforts came to be described as “the spies of Mississippi,” as chronicled in a documentary of the same name (Porter, 2014). Beyond the efforts described above, the state Sovereignty Commission also worked to fund private and religious schools in the aftermath of Brown v. Board of Education in an effort to maintain school segregation (Eckes, 2005). Ultimately, however, the efforts of Mississippi slowly wound down, thanks in large part to federal intervention in the state; federal troops were called in to force integration at the University of Mississippi (Elliot, 2012), public K12 schools gradually integrated (Bolton, 2007) via desegregation orders, and federal intervention made some of the Sovereignty Commission’s goals impossible via actions like the desegregation of transportation (Gayle v. Browder, 1956), the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In total, the Sovereignty Commission operated from 1956 to 1977 (Irons, 2010; Katagiri, 2001), and the (at least officially) non-governmental Citizens Councils also gradually dwindled in number and strength (McMillen, 1994). Ultimately, the state’s efforts to suppress civil rights and antiracism work were stymied by federal intervention.
One of the lessons from this bit of little known history, I think, is that “the bad guys” can win. The Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission, which was overseen by the governor of the state, fought civil rights legislation, terrorized civil rights activists (and people simply trying to help with voter registration), and conspired to commit multiple murders. State institutions can be used for evil, especially when this evil is hidden behind agreeable language, when much of the public supports what they’re doing, or, as is relevant to today, when much of the public convinces themselves that such awful things couldn’t really be happening.
Much of President Trump’s language about the insurrection today and about non-white people throughout his presidency justifies and hides oppressive policies behind innocuous, largely agreeable language, just as Mississippi used the largely agreeable language of “state sovereignty” to justify the violent use of state power to oppress citizens.
And, as we point out in our editorial, “the frightening historical parallel, though, is that Mississippi’s efforts ultimately failed thanks to the tireless work of Black organizers and thanks to federal intervention. While the Trump administration may be in its waning days, the ideologies that lifted this President to the White House have not faded. More than 74 million U.S. voters supported the continuation of his administration and their policies (Andre, et al., 2020)…. In short, while Trump is leaving office and a Biden administration is likely to rescind the EO, the ideology that drove it remains. That is, the anger, resentment, resistance, white emotionality, white rage, and claims of reverse racism are still present and will not go away just because the EO may be withdrawn.”
I hope that one day we are able to look back on the violent assault on the Capitol, and the Trump Era itself, as a temporary hiccup in the march of American progress and democracy. But if we are able to do that, it will because many people, voters and representatives alike, will have put in a lot of hard, careful work to rebuild and move us in a better direction. Such an outcome is not inevitable. It wasn't even inevitable that today ended as it did. Several of the rioters entered the Capitol carrying zip ties, apparently meant to take hostages. Things could have gone much worse.
We should not ignore that this did not need to happen and that many saw it coming. Let today’s events and the events of the last four years remind us that good things are not inevitable, that they need to be fought for, and that sacrificing decency and democracy in the name of tax cuts and deregulation will (almost) inevitably result in ruin.
Andre, M., Aufrichtig, A., Beltran, G., Bloch, M., Buchanan, L., Chavez, A., Cohn, N., Conlen, M., Daniel, A., Elkeurti, A., Fischer, A., Holder, J., Houp, W., Huang, J., Katz, J., Krolik, A.,. Lee, J.C., Lieberman, R., Marcus, I., Patel, J., Smart, C., Smithgall, B., Syam, U., Taylor, R., Watkins, M., & White, I. (2020). Presidential Election Results: Biden Wins. New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/11/03/us/elections/results-president.html
Associated Press. (1990, January 30). Unsealed Files Unveil a Part Of Mississippi's Racist Past. New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/1990/01/30/us/unsealed-files-unveil-a-part-of-mississippi-s-racist-past.html
Bolton, C. C. (2007). The Hardest Deal of All The Battle Over School Integration in Mississippi, 1870-1980. University Press of Mississippi.
Eckes, S. E. (2005). The perceived barriers to integration in the Mississippi Delta. The Journal of Negro Education, 74(2), 159–173.
Elliot, D. (2012, October 1). Integrating Ole Miss: A Transformative, Deadly Riot. NPR. https://www.npr.org/2012/10/01/161573289/integrating-ole-miss-a-transformative-deadly-riot
Exec. Order No. 13,950, 85 FR 60683 (2020).
Gayle v. Browder, 352 U.S. 903 (1956). https://www.oyez.org/cases/1956/342
Irons, J. (2010). Reconstituting whiteness: The Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press.
Katagiri, Y. (2001). The Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission: Civil rights and states’ rights. University Press of Mississippi.
McMillen, N. R. (1994). The citizens’ council: Organized resistance to the second reconstruction, 1954–64. University of Illinois Press.
Porter, D. (Director). (2014). Spies of Mississippi. Trilogy Films. https://www.pbs.org/independentlens/films/spies-of-mississippi/
Ravitch, D. (2020, November 7). Why the 1776 Commission is a bad idea. The Hill. https://thehill.com/opinion/education/524856-why-the-1776-commission-is-a-bad-idea.
Strunk, K. K., Locke, L. A., & Martin, G. L. (2017). Oppression and resistance in Southern higher and adult education. Palgrave Macmillan.
Trump, D. (2020). Remarks by President Trump the White House Conference on American History, Washington D.C,, USA.
Weiner, T. (2012). Enemies: A History of the FBI (1st ed.). Random House.