Those who dismiss Sarah Palin as historically ignorant are wrong. In the coming weeks, as the former Alaska governor on her national roadshow exhorts members of her Tea Party fan club to “reload,” the gun reference will have peculiar resonance in light of another time in our history.
On Christmas Eve, 1865, right after the end of the Civil War, the first chapter of the Ku Klux Klan was formed by a half dozen middle class Confederate vets from Tennessee. Many think that the name itself came about because “ku” and “klux” closely simulate the sounds of loading and locking a rifle.
Apart from the image of reloading, the parallels between the founding of the KKK and the establishment of the Tea Party are striking. Once again, America is dealing with a rapidly, and drastically changing social climate. Tea Partiers, the reactionaries of our day, are the heirs of the white supremacists who tried to take back what they thought was their country in the days immediately following the Civil War.
The fact that the Tea Party is almost exclusively white doesn’t make it necessarily white supremacist, but like the founding chapters of the KKK, the Tea Party, and their newfangled leader, Sarah Palin, oppose moderate Republicans in state elections in much the same way the Klan organized a southern resistance to Reconstruction using intimidation.
The difference, of course, is that the KKK spoke openly about racism and anti-semitism, and that they didn’t just use violent imagery, or threats. They actually killed those Republicans whose politics were thought to be progressive, meaning those southern Republicans who favored emancipation. Tea Partiers, by contrast, hide behind code phrases, but when they speak of the expansion of “big government,” and say that the public option is really reparation for slavery, the underlying meaning is the same.
But, if you think the Tea Party has nothing to do with race, or white supremacy, consider this: would there be a Tea Party if John McCain and Sarah Palin won in 2008? And, not coincidentally, descendants of Fred Koch, one of the original founders of the John Birch Society, are the ones financing the Tea Party movement.
Congress should not look to the Supreme Court for leadership, but consider expanding hate crimes legislation to include threats, or violence against individuals under the rubric of political participation.
The federal government wasted no time in responding to Klan violence when, in the 1870’s, Congress passed “the Force Acts,” designed to “enforce the rights of citizens of the U.S. to vote in the several states of the union.” It was on Ulysses S. Grant’s watch that this measure passed, and the immediate effect was to curtail Klan violence. Ultimately, though, the Force Acts led southern segregationists to establish Jim Crow laws.
If the Tea Party movement is allowed to take hold, in this country, it is not inconceivable that, in a few decades from now, we will see the rebirth of a Jim Crow mentality, and a renaissance of segregationism..
Anyone who witnessed, or participated in the campaign for civil rights in the 1960’s should not only be shocked by the recent attacks on Rep. Lewis, and others, but must also be on heightened alert when hearing terms like “reload,” not just because it is extremist rhetoric, but by the inescapable, and haunting way it resonates with the signature white supremacy movement immediately following the Civil War.
Those who think Sarah Palin doesn’t know her history are wrong. She knows it well enough to repeat it.
JAYNE LYN STAHL is a widely published poet, essayist, playwright, and screenwriter, member of PEN American Center, and PEN USA.