May 11, 2021
There are some in America who live in denial about our history, despite the fact it is riddled with violence and contemptuous of democracy. For them the storming of the US Capitol on January 6th is a one-off kind of thing. Something aberrant. Something that can’t happen here. Threats will come to nothing. Charlottesville was triggered by outsiders. Hard edged anti-democratic measures to restrict the vote in Georgia, Arizona, Florida, and Texas are anomalies or portend nothing more dangerous that an inconvenience. Conservative and racist militias supported by weak kneed defenses of the Second Amendment’s right to bear arms are made up of little more than marginal discontents and represent no immediate threats to the country.
Living in New Orleans, a city more than 300 years old, history is everywhere around us. Some of the history is marketed to tourists, but for those of us who pay attention to where we live and how history and culture permeate life here, the alignment of current events and the past doesn’t inspire nostalgia, but serve more as a warning to the present of dark forces that live dangerously near the surface behind these Facebook and Twitter rage festivals.
Almost 150 years ago, a William Pitt Kellogg, a Reconstruction Republican, won election in 1872, partially with the support of newly freed men who could not be frightened from the polls. Kellogg was sworn in and took over the governor’s office the same day as the defeated Democratic rival, John McEnery, claimed to have won and was inaugurated by his supporters in Lafayette Square in January 1973. Not satisfied and still claiming victory, some weeks later several hundred McEnery supporters tried to force their will at a police station opposite Jackson Square in what is now the heart of the French Quarter. The police fired back and with reinforcement from a twelve-pound cannon repulsed the invaders. Fifty were jailed and bond was set at $1000, a huge amount at the time. Tell me if any of this sounds familiar?
It didn’t stop there. There were similar outbreaks around the state. A massacre by white McEnery supporters massacred more than 150 Blacks in Colfax in one of the worse such incidents in the country in April 1873. President Ulysses Grant in September 1873 tried to settle the battles by affirming Kellogg as governor with an executive order, which provoked the organization of the White League, whose stated objective was to terrorize Black voters and keep them from the polls.
With tensions still hot, a year later the police learned a shipment of arms was at the New Orleans docks for the White League and, joined by the state militia, blocked access. The White League gathered 5000 on September 14, 1874 and by that afternoon numbered 8400 who faced off against the outnumbered police at the foot of Canal Street. The White League lost 21 dead and the police and the militia saw 11 fall, as they repulsed them. Nonetheless, only eight years later the City Council, egged on by the Daily Picayune, renamed the site, Liberty Place, and erected an obelisk there in 1891, as a testimony to white supremacy. It stood there and nearby until the 21st century, and was a rallying place for David Duke and the KKK.
Can’t happen here? What are you saying? It has happened here! It will take more than good luck to keep it from happening again.