Assassinations and Political Violence, Other

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ASSASSINATIONS AND POLITICAL VIOLENCE, OTHER. Statistically, the United States is one of the most violent nations of the industrialized world. While it is difficult to measure contemporary trends against earlier epochs, it may be said that the use of violence in American culture has deep historic roots. With each new generation, the means and applications of societal violence change. If one constant may be claimed about America's past concerning violence, however, it is its employment against minority groups to attain or maintain economic, social, and political controls.

As with many other arenas of American life, the Civil War was a watershed mark in the use of lethal force for political ends. Prior to the Philadelphia Riot of 1844, a clash sparked by nativism and anti-Catholicism resulting in fourteen deaths and fifty wounded, societal violence in the antebellum period normally took the form of physical assaults to intimidate and instill fear. In Kentucky on 6 August 1855, nativism was again the source of violence

when a group of German immigrants, presumably Catholic, were attacked while attempting to cast ballots in the local may oral race. Bloody Monday resulted in the deaths of twenty "foreigners" and left hundreds wounded. Similar forms of vigilantism spread particularly to the frontier, where, paradoxically, mob violence was the recourse of law-abiding citizens for maintaining the social order.

As animosities over slavery and western expansion grew, so too did the use of violence to solve the nation's political divisions. Two celebrated incidents of violence dramatically widened the political gap between North and South. The brutal caning of Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner by South Carolina representative Preston Brooks in the Senate Chamber of the Capitol on 22 May 1856 deeply alarmed northerners, who viewed it as an example of the great lengths southerners would take to defend the institution of slavery. Three year later, on 16 October 1859, abolitionist John Brown led a raid at Harpers Ferry, Virginia (later in West Virginia), striking deep fear in the hearts of southerners, who believed abolitionists would stop at nothing to achieve their political ends.

In the aftermath of the Civil War, African Americans were the targets of violent reprisals, particularly in the South. Organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan sought to "redeem" the South's former social order through violence. By the 1880s, public lynchings were widespread throughout several regions of the South—as a means of "law enforcement," many whites publicly claimed. The threat of such sporadic violence proved an effective tool used by whites to reconcile the problem of weak local governments while maintaining their social superiority. Two subregions of the South, the Gulf Plain area and the cotton uplands of Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas, witnessed the highest lynching rates in this period.

By the twentieth century, assassinations, premeditated acts of killing—secretively or publicly, and often in a brutal manner—influenced race relations as calls for desegregation and equal rights gained national prominence. Leaders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) were often the target of white reprisals. On 7 May 1955, for example, the Reverend George Lee was assassinated by three unknown assailants while driving his car in the black section of Belzoni, Mississippi. Protests by African Americans soon followed, with the NAACP leader, Roy Wilkins, calling upon the Justice Department to investigate what was deemed the first racial murder since the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Brown vs. the Board of Education of Topeka in May 1954. Other murderous acts soon followed.

On 12 June 1963 Medgar Evers, a field secretary for the NAACP, was assassinated outside his home in Jackson, Mississippi. This crime sparked numerous demonstrations throughout the nation. The continued violence against blacks, particularly in high-profile cases like that of Evers, coupled with public pressure from the movement led by Martin Luther King Jr., prompted federal officials to take stronger action in the fight for civil rights. Nearly two weeks after Evers's murder, FBI agents arrested Byron de la Beckwith, a former marine and a member of the White Citizens Council, for the crime. Following Ever's funeral, his body was transported from Jackson to Arlington National Cemetery, where it was laid to rest.

Militant whites renewed their public efforts to maintain racial segregation in the South in the fall of that same year. A little more than two weeks following the Freedom March on Washington, D.C., and King's "I Have a Dream" speech, a member of the Ku Klux Klan bombed the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, killing four young black girls. The bombing on 15 September 1963 sparked protests that let to further bloodshed in the city. In the wake of Birmingham bombings, six persons were killed and nineteen others injured.

Not all acts of violence were carried out in such a public manner, nor were blacks the sole victims. The following summer, members of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) traveled to Philadelphia, Mississippi, to investigate the burning of a black church. Shortly after their departure, the three-member investigating team was reported missing. Their disappearance captured headlines. Then, on 4 August 1964, the bodies of James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman—the latter two white—were found buried in an earthen dam. While historically such covert uses of violence and murder had proven to be effective tools in maintaining the South's racial status quo, the murder of Evers and the three CORE members exposed the South's use of political violence to maintain white racial supremacy and brought considerable external pressure to bear on the region.


Ayers, Edward L. Vengeance and Justice: Crime and Punishment in the 19th Century American South. New York: Oxford University Press, 1984.

Bellesiles, Michael A., ed. Lethal Imagination: Violence and Brutality in American History. New York: New York University Press, 1999.

Collier-Thomas, Bettye, and V. P. Franklin, eds. My Soul Is a Witness: A Chronology of the Civil Rights Era, 1954–1965. New York: Holt, 2000.

Graham, Hugh Davis, and Ted Robert Gurr, eds. The History of Violence in America: Historical and Comparative Perspectives. New York: Praeger, 1969.

Kent A.McConnell

See alsoCivil Rights Movement ; Ku Klux Klan ; Lynching ; Philadelphia Riots ; Riots ; Riots, Urban ; Vigilantes .

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Assassinations and Political Violence, Other

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