From the Fringe to the Mainstream: The Disturbing Rise of American White Supremacy

Angelo Franco


On April 8, 1988, a jury in federal court in Fort Smith, Arkansas, acquitted 13 white supremacists who had been charged with conspiring to overthrow the government and murder a federal judge and a federal agent. Jurors heard testimony about how the defendants allegedly planned to use gallons of sodium cyanide to poison the water supply of major U.S. cities, illegally acquired military-grade weapons, and their plans to form an all-white nation in the Pacific Northwest. After a two-month trial, the all-white jury acquitted all defendants of all charges.


One of those acquitted was Robert E. Miles, a former Grand Dragon of the Michigan Ku Klux Klan and still considered one of the most influential American white supremacists (more on his Christian Identity movement later). When asked how the Fort Smith trial would affect the white supremacist movement, “Pastor” Miles replied: “Who knows? What movement? What’s left of it after this?” 


The question is important, more so than the response, which of course turned out to be unprophetic babble. This is because, especially now and possibly on account of the Fort Smith trial, we often fail to see white supremacy as a social movement. One in which leaders emerge, groups are formed and disbanded, different ideas are floated, carried out, and discarded; much the way any modern social movements work. Instead, we tend to think of white supremacists as single actors, as “lone wolves” who maybe read the wrong literature once or were bullied just a bit too much or rejected by a woman just one too many times who then go on to commit heinous acts of domestic terrorism and hate crimes. But the truth is that white supremacy is just an umbrella term for the many different sects and groups that subscribe to some theory or concept of race supremacy, and for some of them, the term doesn’t even apply within the semantics of their beliefs. 



When we think of white supremacy in America, we tend to visualize the obvious conceptualization of the term. Something like the Ku Klux Klan with their immediately recognizable robes and pointy hats and their fantasy-themed titles of dragons and wizards and orcs. The Klan first came into the scene during the Reconstruction era, as a direct response to the results of the American Civil War and the emancipation of Black slaves. Back then, it was confined entirely in the South and it was found mostly in rural areas.


From then on, the Klan has had a steady presence in the American landscape, although its influence seems to ebb and flow depending on the needs of the time. The Klan virtually disbanded shortly after Reconstruction, but reemerged in the 1920s immediately following the First World War. This time, its national presence was in response to industrialization, urbanization, and the first huge wave of immigration to the U.S. that resulted from World War I. While African-Americans were always their source of affliction, the Klan now also targeted immigrants, Jews, and Catholics who migrated to the U.S. The 1920s Klan were mostly men who basically sought to terrorize anyone who wasn’t white and Protestant. The famous pictures of Klansmen freely parading through Washington DC are from this era, as the Klan enjoyed widespread national support and political clout. Birth of a Nation was a hugely popular film that was sympathetic to the Klan that even had a private screening in the White House.


These comings and goings of the Klan reflect some of the most basic ways in which America deals with white supremacy, in that the Klan only popped up when it thought the country needed saving. In fact, analyses have shown that most Klan chapters emerged in areas where police activity did not enforce Jim Crow laws; in other words, the Klan did not go where it was simply not needed because the government was already fulfilling its goals by enacting and enforcing racist laws. This, along with anti-Klan protests and campaigns launched by social organizations and Catholic and Jewish congregations, are some significant reasons that the Klan practically disappeared in the late 1920s. They would remerge again in the 1960s to fight against the Civil Rights Movements that was overtaking the nation. And it seems they are having another renaissance now during these modern times of social unrest and fierce civil activism. 


And in many ways, the Klan and its origins offer us a study on the most visceral ideologies of American white supremacy: an irrational hatred of non-whites (particularly Blacks), and a deep-rooted desire to return to and maintain the social hierarchy of the Antebellum South and keep Blacks subjugated. For the Klan, there was no literature to be inspired by besides some Biblical passages specifically selected and contextually twisted to fit its narrative; no (unfounded and disproved) theories of eugenics to base their ideologies on; and, at least in their genesis and not as one of their founding principles, no fear of the “others” that were coming to take jobs away from hardworking white Americans. Their raison d’etre, in essence, was that they missed a time when white men could make money off unpaid labor and rape women of color with impunity.



But of course, white supremacy goes beyond your local Klan chapter. And perhaps because the KKK is a distinctively American faction, it may be easy to dismiss it as sort of a fool’s white supremacy group; dangerous and violent to be sure, but disorganized, underfunded, plagued by endless in-fighting, and with silly-looking uniforms. When in truth, many members of the Klan committed some of the best known acts of domestic terrorism and figure in many historical events of the nation, some with worldwide reach.


We have several examples of this far-reaching influence from the defendants of the Fort Smith trial alone. David Lane, for example, became an iconic figure in the global white supremacy movement after he penned what is perhaps the best-known slogan of their crusade, commonly known as the “14 Words.” Frazier Glenn Miller Jr., who was a key witness of the prosecution during the trial, had previously founded the White Patriots Party, ran for governor of North Carolina (he placed third in the primaries) where he also started the state’s KKK group, and would later go on to murder three people in the Overland Park Jewish Community Center shootings in Kansas; he was 73 years old by then and accidentally ended up killing three Christians when his intended targets had been Jews.


Robert Miles himself had run George Wallace’s Michigan campaign for presidency in 1968 (yes, that George Wallace), and after the trial would go on to found The Mountain Church of Jesus Christ the Savior, a site of numerous cross-burning events that preached, among other things, Christian Identity, another form of white supremacy with some pretty unique ideologies, such as the belief that white people—specifically of Caucasian descent—are the real Israelites favored by God in the Bible, and that only Aryans are capable of blushing (Christian Identity is pretty niche and its presence has been diminishing, and yet there are still at least 11 active Christian Identity groups in the U.S. alone).


Richard Snell, who also subscribed to the Christian Identity ideology and was already serving a life term in prison for the murder of two people (a black trooper and a store clerk he mistakenly thought was Jewish), would be executed the same day of the Oklahoma City bombing -- which is almost certainly a coincidence and a bleak display of the universe’s sense of irony. Timothy McVeigh himself said that he bombed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in 1995 primarily as retaliation against the government for the Waco Siege that had taken place exactly two years prior. And apparently, Snell himself had planned to bomb the building back in 1983 because he was angry at the IRS, which is almost certainly another coincidence, although McVeigh never did explain why he targeted specifically the Alfred P. Murrah building.



All of these seemingly random acts point to the fact that white supremacy isn’t just a “white is better” belief ingrained in misguided and stubborn opinions; but rather that white supremacy takes many forms. Some white supremacy groups are specifically anti-government; others don’t mind other ethnicities too much, but despise Jews; others are rooted in religious fanaticism (see Christian Identify above); while others still renounce the rigidity of religion (see Hitler and his ambivalent stance on Catholicism and religion in general).


So we have groups like the KKK and the Aryan Brotherhood, your classic white supremacist groups, if you may. There’s also the Racist Skinheads, which originated in Great Britain in the 1960s and 70s and are now a major facet of the movement worldwide (and this refers to the actual Racist Skinheads groups, not the whole subculture of skinheads in general, of course). There are the White Nationalists, who crusade for an all-white nation to promote the interests of whites. White Separatists are a cousin of the Nationalist, but they would be OK with either an all-white nation or just removing all non-whites from their midst somehow. Although many civil rights advocates consider these pretty much indistinguishable, there are rhetorical discrepancies that have landed even tech giants in hot water.


Neo-Nazism, a favored facet of white supremacy gaining more popularity around the world, reveres Adolf Hitler and tries to emulate the beliefs, economy, and social structures of the Third Reich wherever they happen to be in the world. Neo-Nazism is probably one of the easiest ideologies to fall into; the trappings, symbology, and mythology of the Third Reich can be easily alluring: a racist doctrine claiming the superiority of the white race with (debunked) scientific legitimacy, the extermination of the lesser that could lead to another Holocaust, and there are no more Jews. Because let’s remember that Jews are never white, they’re Semitic. And let’s also remember that if you think that it’s a weird contradictory dilemma that a tenet of white supremacy is that Jews have too much power and are secretly running the world for their own benefit and are definitely not white, but white is the actual master race, it’s because it is indeed a weird contradictory dilemma. Similar to how Christian Identify supporters somehow managed to keep Jews as resolutely Semitic and make themselves the actual descendants of the Levantine Israelites but still remain very white, thank you very much. It’s… just best if we don’t think too much about it. 


Then, of course, we have the modern alt-right movement, now part of mainstream political platforms, news organizations, and the everyday American design of life. Shrouded in the guise of civility, the alt-right rejects mainstream conservatism in favor of a more direct approach to racism and anti-semitism, but with mostly kind words and white boys clad in chinos and loafers. In short, they mostly demand that white people (read: white men) be given a fair share of the capitalist pie (read: the economic systems that already benefit white men), since minorities are becoming non-minorities and they see their way of life (read: systemic structures that mimic the Antebellum South) threatened.



Extremists go even further and usually seek radical changes in the nature of government and social structures, although it is perhaps best to label this specifically as right-wing extremism, since not all extremist movements are bad (the abolitionist movement was extremist at the time in that it sought radical changes in the nature of government and social structures as well, after all). The Patriot Front is a three-year-old extremist organization that has grown into one of the most active hate groups in the nation. Their leader is 20 years old, and they like bomber jackets and Mussolini.


White supremacy comes in all shapes and sizes, from all walks of life. Cordelia Scaife, a philanthropist and heiress to the Mellon banking and industrial fortune, funded a new translation of Le Camp des Saints, a French novel loved by white supremacists for its explicit racism and fictional tale of the fall of Western Civilization due to mass migration. Ms. Scaife was also an ardent environmental activist and funded early birth control initiatives, although that may have been largely to invest in population control as she became increasingly preoccupied with nativism and immigrants who “breed like hamsters.”


 Le Camp des Saints has been praised by the likes of Marie Le Pen and Stephen Miller (yes, that Stephen Miller). Dr. William Luther Pierce, an American physicist educator, famously penned The Turner Diaries and founded and led the National Alliance until his death in 2002. The Turner Diaries has become a seminal piece of literature for the white supremacy movement. It depicts a fictional overthrow of the American government that eventually leads to a race war in which all non-whites, including Jews, are exterminated. The novel has inspired numerous hate crimes and terrorist acts, including the Oklahoma bombing committed by Timothy McVeigh—he was found with pages from The Turner Diaries after the attack. “The Order,” the group at the center of the Fort Smith trial, is named after the political organization discussed in the novel and the book was the motivation for the murder of Jewish radio host Alan Berg orchestrated by The Order. The 1999 London nail bombing perpetrator was inspired by the book. The list goes on.



The idea of white supremacy, of course, isn’t new, and it’s likely going to stick around for a while. In fact, there has been a rise in hate crimes, and who knows what kind of race wars 2021 has in store. But what it’s important to remember is that these hate crimes are not one-offs; they are not random acts of violence committed by a sad and angry lone wolf. They are part of huge, well-structured systems -- organizations with bylaws and specific sets of goals that are funded by multimillionaire philanthropists and your next door neighbor.


White supremacists are not only out on the streets protesting with tiki torches, but are also in our governments driving and cementing policies. We do ourselves (and especially our BIPOC brothers and sisters) a disservice when we lose sight of that, and discard groups like the KKK as mostly misguided white people in funny clothes. This will be important especially as we crawl past the first term of the Trump presidency, whatever comes next.


Author Bio:


Angelo Franco is Highbrow Magazine’s chief features writer.


For Highbrow Magazine



Image Sources:


--Cool Revolution (Creative Commons)


--Anokarina (Wikimedia, Creative Commons)


--Shawn Breen (Creative Commons)


--Microchip08 (Wikimedia, Creative Commons)


--Paul M. Walsh (Wikimedia, Creative Commons)


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