In the History Corner… September 14, 1874 looms like a shadow over September 18, 2021

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On September 14, 1874 an organized militia of white supremacists, mostly Confederate veterans and Democrats, staged an attack and attempted a coup d’etat of the elected Republican government of the state of Louisiana. It is known in history as the Battle of Liberty Place.

The insurrection and attempted coup d’etat was organized and carried out by more than 5,000 members of the White League of New Orleans. The White League was a paramilitary group created after the South lost the Civil War. Like the Ku Klux Klan and other terrorist groups, it existed across the South and was determined to return conservatives, former slave owners, and their supporters to power.

The 1872 gubernatorial race was disputed between Democrat John McEnery and Republican William Pitt Kellogg. Both men were certified, but by different boards, as the winner of the election. Both men had inaugurations. Afterward, members of the White League, supporters of McEnery, 5,000 strong and fully armed, overwhelmed the New Orleans Metropolitan Police and the state militia. They proceeded to occupy the statehouse, the arsenal, and downtown New Orleans for three days, determined to seat their candidates. They only retreated when they learned that federal troops were on the way.

Meanwhile, Governor Henry Warmoth was impeached and suspended from office for having “stolen the election” for McEnery, leaving Lieutenant Governor P.B.S. Pinchback, a Black Republican, to serve as governor for the last 35 days of Warmoth’s term. Also, during that period, the federal government certified Kellogg as the legitimate winner of the race.

The Battle of Liberty Place, however, had clearly demonstrated the lengths to which the ex-Confederates and other die-hard white supremacists were willing to go in order to seize power and “keep Black folks in their place.” They were willing to intimidate Black men to prevent them from voting; willing to conspire to have their election board certify their candidate; and willing to take up arms and fight against the local and state police to have their candidate and office-holders placed in office.

If any of this sounds familiar, it is because one can see the same scenario being played out today in one aspect or another in many communities. Texas, for an example, has passed a law that gives civilians the right to monitor and confront voters at the polls as did the White League members in 1874. Other states are likely to pass the same type of laws. Arizona and Georgia are among states that have passed laws that would enable local election officials to be replaced or their decisions over-ruled, throwing elections into chaos or making them meaningless. That is the kind of thing that made it necessary for the federal government to have to step-in and certify the 1872 Louisiana race. Finally, in many states, white militia groups, such as the Proud Boys, the Oath Keepers, the Three Percenters, and Q-Anon, have armed themselves to carry out the same kind of deeds as the White League of the late 1800s.

In October of 2020, such white militia attacked the Michigan State Capital, attempting to seize, kidnap and perhaps execute Governor Gretchen Whitmer and otherwise control the state government. They then engaged in another violent act by storming the U.S. Capitol January 6, 2021, wherein they attempted to prevent the counting of the electoral college vote, certifying the election of Joe Biden as president.

The FBI warned during the Barack Obama administration that domestic white terrorism was the greatest threat to American democracy. Domestic white terrorism is exactly what not only led to the ending of Reconstruction in the 1870s. It did so by destroying democracy there for the next 100 years.

Despite the FBI’s warning and the violent events of October last year and January this year, many do not seem to be taking it seriously. This attitude on the part of some officials reminds one that the insurgents in the Battle of Liberty Place were not arrested nor punished in any way. Then, as a consequence, violent attacks, led by the White League and their bedfellows, spread like wildfire to places like Vicksburg, Mississippi in 1874, Eufaula, Alabama in 1874, and Hamburg, Cainhoy, and Ellenton, South Carolina in 1876. White supremacists across the country are willing to do the same today.

On September 18th this year, these spiritual followers of the White League plan to meet in Washington, D.C. to protest the arrest and imprisonment of the Capitol insurrectionists of January 2021. Given the strong white supremacist views of many of the organizers and supporters, given the abundance of weapons available to them, and given the rehearsals that many have had, what is there to prevent the September 18th event from becoming a reflection of the 1874 Battle of Liberty Place? Worst still, it could become a repeat of the coup d’etat in Wilmington, North Carolina in 1898, that is, the Capitol itself being taken over by the openly die-hard white supremacists that some thought no longer existed. History is still speaking to Americans who will listen.

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In the History Corner… September 14, 1874 looms like a shadow over September 18, 2021

By Dr. Ivory Phillips
September 17, 2021