Tag Archives: Ben Tillman and the Reconstruction of White Supremacy

Joe Wilson and Stephen Kantrowitz’s Ben Tillman Biography

Joe Wilson has received lots of attention since yelling "You lie!" during the President's address last week.  Some have speculated that his comments were motivated in part by race.

Joe Wilson has received lots of attention since yelling “You lie!” during the President’s address last week. Some have speculated that his comments were motivated in part by race.

It’s been a busy week for U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson.

Since yelling, “You lie!” during President Barack Obama’s address about health care reform to a joint session of Congress, the South Carolina Republican has apologized to the president, been formally rebuked by his colleagues in the House and seen both his and his Democratic opponent’s coffers grow substantially.

Both New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd and former President Jimmy Carter have asserted that Wilson’s outburst was not only about health care, but about race.

Dowd speculated that the word “boy,” was an unspoken but real element of Wilson’s statement, while Carter said that there are many Americans who have not accepted that we have a black president.

My dear friend and University of Wisconsin History Professor Stephen Kantrowitz spent nine years studying white supremacy in South Carolina as it was reflected and actively shaped by Benjamin Ryan Tillman. Ben Tillman and the Reconstruction of White Supremacy, his biography of the former Democratic activist, South Carolina governor and U.S. Senator, can help inform a discussion not so much about whether Wilson’s statement was racially motivated or not, but on the historic background from which those elements spring.

I have written before about how many converted dissertations bear the mark of an earnest student trying to jump through the hoops necessary to earn a doctorate, a critical credential to enter the academy.

Kantrowitz’s book is a distinct exception. His first chapter does establish the terrain of slavery and geography in South Carolina, but in a readable and coherent way.

From there, he turns his considerable powers of analysis to Tillman.

The period that may be most germane for the discussion of Wilson is the post-Reconstruction era, when many vanquished Southerners felt that their entire way of life was under siege-a sentiment that was strengthened by the passage of the 14th and 15th Amendments that granted black people equal protection under the law and black men the right to vote, respectively.

Tillman during this period and later used violence to suppress the movement of black people toward their rights, while at the same time vigorously espousing the importance of the rule of law. In a similar and related way, Kantrowitz shows how Tillman espoused an agrarian vision that he traced back to Thomas Jefferson’s yeoman farmers, all of whom were white males. While Tillman occasionally paid lip service to equality, he ultimately advanced a vision that was avowedly white supremacist and thus excluded major sectors of the population. Tillman also had a visceral distrust of the federal government throughout his career.

The connection between Tillman’s justification of lynching and Wilson’s interruption of Obama may initially seem tenuous – some critics say that anyone who disagrees with the president is immediately called a racist – and a closer look reveals a stronger link.

Tillman’s words and actions helped lay the foundation for the violent and oppressive Jim Crow South, the area from which Wilson comes. Wilson’s denunciation of Strom Thurmond’s biracial daughter, who very possibly was the product of statutory rape, after the senator’s death was not a race-neutral statement. Neither is his membership in the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

One can argue that these types of attitudes is are a specific function of South Carolina, where political operative Rusty DePass recently compared an escaped gorilla to “Michelle’s relatives.”

That would be a superficial and unfortunate misreading. The enthusiastic embrace by conservatives throughout the country of Wilson- “You lie!” t-shirts have already become a hot-selling item – has its roots both in Tillman’s deep-seated aversion to the federal government, and, to some degree, in staunch resistance to Obama’s right as a black man to hold the nation’s highest office.

To be sure, 2009 is not 1868, Wilson is not Tillman and Obama indeed was elected president by a majority that included millions of white voters. But his election and governance continues to rouse some of our nation’s unvanquished ghosts.

Kantrowitz’s book helps us understand their origin.

And that’s no lie.


James Von Brunn, Resources about Holocaust Denial and White Supremacy.

Here is a picture of alleged shooter James Von Brunn and a list of resources about the Holocaust and white supremacy.

Here is a picture of alleged shooter James Von Brunn and a list of resources about the Holocaust and white supremacy.

By now, I’m sure you have heard about the shocking murder of a security guard at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, allegedly by 88-year-old white supremacist and Holocaust denier James Von Brunn.

It’s a hard time for white supremacists these days.  

Events like Barack Obama’s election to the presidency, his appointment of a diverse Cabinet, and his recent nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to be the nation’s third woman and first Latina U.S. Supreme Court justice embody all of what the haters oppose.

A sense of losing a battle often triggers desperate acts.

Von Brunn’s attack apparently was triggered by Obama’s recent visit to the Buchenwald concentration camp, which he called the “ultimate rebuke” to deniers. 

Here are some resources that can help give context to some of the issues raised by Von Brunn’s alleged shooting: 

To begin, Von Brunn was a failed artist, according to news reports.  Peter Cohen’s Architecture of Doom is an astonishing film that shows that many of the top Nazis, including Adolf Hitler and Joseph Goebbels, were, too. 

I wrote last weekabout Deborah Lipstadt’s book and blog, as well as  a web site, all of which are intended to counter Holocaust denial.

The Intelligence Report, a publication of the Southern Povery Law Center and where my friend Casey Sanchez works, covers hate groups in America.  The Center more generally is one of the nation’s leading authorities on the issue.

Dear friend and full professor Stephen Kantrowitz’s Ben Tillman and the Reconstruction of White Supremacy is a nimbly written and thoughtfully argued description of the re-emergence of white supremacy after the Civil War and into the 20th century as told through the life of South Carolina politician “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman.  

Kantrowitz and other historians who cover this ground are walking in the very wide road carved by groundbreaking historian and Arkansas native C. Vann Woodward, whose classic work The Strange Career of Jim Crow paved the way for other works like Kantrowitz’s to follow. 

For those people interested in the context that gave rise to the Holocaust Museum where the shooting occurred, I recommend Peter Novick’s The Holocaust in American Life.  Novick argues that the events of the Holocaust have gained importance in America more because of the organization of the Jewish community than because of any change in the genocide’s tragic nature.

James Young is one of the leading authorities of Holocaust memorials; his book, At Memory’s Edge: After Images of the Holocast in Contemporary Art and Architecture should be required reading for those intrigued by that topic.  

People seeking an overview of the Holocaust could do a lot worse than reading journalist William Shirer’s tome, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, or historian Sir Martin Gilbert’s  The Holocaust:  A History of the Jews of Europe During the Second World War.  

Of course, Facing History and Ourselves, where Dunreith works and where I am a consultant, does terrific work around prejudice reduction with students all over the world.  While the organization has expanded from its original look at the Holocaust as its primary ‘case study,’ it still has a tremendous collection of print and video resources on the topic.  

Elements of Time, a collection of survivor testimony, is one of my favorites, while readers of Elie Wiesel’s Night should check out The Challenge of Memory, a video that accompanies the book and has complementary testimony for numerous points in the book.

Facing History’s resource book, Holocaust and Human Behavior, also has plenty of useful information, even as it’s more of a menu than a straight historical narrative.

Unfortunately, education and memory has not yet been a completely successful antidote to haters like Von Brunn and others of his ilk.  Still, actions like his only underscore the importance of continuing to inform people about past atrocities and continue to strive for a world in which events that seemingly were impossible, like the election of a black president, eventually become ordinary.