American Social History Project • Center for Media and Learning

Teaching Elections and Mob Violence in U.S. History

What is Sedition?
For this article, the New York Times asked a variety of scholars to reflect on the best terms to use to describe the attack on the Capitol and how those descriptions are informed by historical precedents.

Demagogues and Democracy by Cynthia M. Koch
This essay, by the former director of the FDR Presidential Library, examines the role of President Trump in inciting the attack on the capital and as a demagogic leader.  Looking at several figures from U.S. history, Koch defines demagogues as leaders who promise easy solutions to complicated problems using dubious methods; stir up people’s passions and fears with exaggerated rhetoric and scapegoating; and use slogans, name calling, and misrepresentation. 

How Textbooks Taught White Supremacy
In this interview, historian Donald Yacovone discusses his close analysis of hundreds of 19th and 20th century American history textbooks. Yacovone argues that race and white supremacy have been central to the teaching of American history, the depiction of topics including slavery and emancipation, and the expression of American identity.

Teaching Tolerance Toolkit on White Privilege
This toolkit offers advice, activities and further reading suggestions for educators who want to examine the concept of whiteness and white privilege with students.

White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, by Peggy McIntosh
This article is now considered a ‘classic’ by anti-racist educators. It has been used in workshops and classes throughout the United States and Canada for many years. While people of color have described for years how whites benefit from unearned privileges, this was one of the first articles written by a white person on the topics.

Historians Contextualizing the Capitol Insurrection: A Roundup by Megan Kate Nelson
This site contains an extensive list of historians’ responses to recent events that have been published in blogs, op-eds, and newsletters.

Questions for Discussion and Reflection:

  • How do the terms used in public media shape our understanding of political events and the people involved?
  • Do political leaders who use exaggerated, oversimplified, or untruthful rhetoric undermine democracy and how can such demagoguery be countered?
  • How is the history of white supremacy and white privilege in the U.S. connected to the events of January 6, 2021?


2. Mob Violence, Coups, and Mass Intimidation

The Slave Conspiracy of 1741
Between March and April of 1741, a series of unexplained fires broke out in Manhattan. The arson was quickly attributed to New York’s slave population. After a governmental investigation that relied on heavily coerced confessions, thirty to forty slaves were hung or burned at the stake, while countless more were deported. Known sometimes as the Slave Conspiracy of 1741, this event exemplifies the use of state violence in asserting racial and economic supremacy. The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History created this teaching activity which examines a primary document related to the targeting of slaves. For a longer overview of the event, and insight into how historians have come to understand it, click here for a twenty-minute video interview with historian Jill Lepore, courtesy of the New York State Writers Institute. 

1863 Draft Riots in New York City
In March of 1863, in the midst of the Civil War and months after President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, a national draft lottery was instituted in order to shore up the Union Army. Resentment towards conscription, mixed with racial hatred and economic strife, catalyzed riots in New York City. From July 13 to July 17, scores of Black residents were beaten and lynched, businesses were burned, and civil institutions were attacked. This virtual exhibit, created by ASHP, uses interactive maps and primary sources to explore the 1863 Draft Riot’s causes and aftermath.

Black Citizenship in the Age of Jim Crow, 1865-1919
This collection of classroom materials from the New-York Historical Society explores the Black experience of negotiating citizenship and countering violence in the US. The primary sources and guiding questions probe how white supremacist violence and politics worked to disenfranchise and terrorize African Americans, and in turn, how African Americans responded and fought back. Download as a PDF above, or click here for the exhibit’s website.

Ku Klux Klan Violence in Georgia, 1871 
Following the Civil War, the secret terrorist organization the Ku Klux Klan formed as part of the violent white southern reaction to Reconstruction. Founded by Confederate veterans in Tennessee in 1866, Klan nightriders targeted Black veterans, freedmen who had left their employers, and African American families who succeeded in breaking out of the plantation system. In 1871 hearings, excerpted here from ASHP’s History Matters site, African Americans testified to Congress about the dangers they faced and the Klan’s attempts to suppress black equality and opportunity.

Southern Democrats Declare "a Dead Radical Is Very Harmless", 1876
In 1876, the Democratic Party in South Carolina mobilized to steal the election for governor. Using the Mississippi Plan as their model for taking political power, South Carolinians succeeded to elect former Confederate General Wade Hampton and re-assert Democratic power in the state. As this document from ASHP’s Social History For Every Classroom shows, the Democrats openly embraced violence to intimidate African American voters and keep them from the polls. 

Wilmington Coup d’Etat and Massacre, 1898
This website, produced at East Carolina University, makes available some of the most significant documents, images, and links related to the only known coup d’etat in the history of the U.S. In November of 1898, crowds of white men stormed the streets of Wilmington, North Carolina, terrorized the city’s African American community, and ousted the democratically elected, biracial government from office. Somewhere between twenty and two hundred African Americans were murdered, and countless more exiled. Emboldened by the success of their coup, Democrats in North Carolina wrote disfranchisement into the state constitution, enshrining white supremacy as the law of the land. For more, check out this resource from the Zinn Education Project, which gives a brief history of, and primary sources related to, the coup.

Defending Home and Hearth: 1906 Atlanta Riots
In September 1906, mobs of white Atlantans terrorized the city’s Black residents for over five days. At least ten African Americans were killed. The riots were stoked by prominent Georgian politicians who utilized racial fear-mongering to unite the Democratic party and win votes. The city’s white-owned newspapers backed the riot by relentlessly spreading baseless rumors of African Americans harassing white women. One witness to the riot was 13-year-old Walter White, a future head of the NAACP. In the selection of his memoir from ASHP’s History Matters linked above, White recalled the circumstances leading to the riots, offered a firsthand account of the violence, and described how he and his father defended their home from a white mob. 

The East St. Louis Riot Devastates A Community, 1917
From July 1 to July 3, 1917, the city of East St. Louis was the site of a race massacre. The terrorism, sparked in part by competition between the town’s rising African American population and white laborers, left an estimated hundred or more Black residents dead and countless homes burned to the ground. The article linked above, from the Smithsonian Institution’s magazine, recounts the harrowing events, as well as the generational trauma experienced by the massacre’s survivors. The events in East St. Louis were protested in New York, where activist Hubert Harrison called for armed self-defense of Black communities [Zinn Ed Project] on July 4. Later that month, thousands of people gathered in the city for a silent protest against the racial terrorism. Click here to explore primary source documents related to the march, courtesy of the Library of Congress. 

Chicago and Its Eight Reasons: 1919 Chicago Riots
In the spring and summer of 1919, murderous race riots erupted in 22 American cities and towns. Chicago experienced the most severe of these riots. The Crisis, a magazine published by the NAACP, responded to the Chicago race riot with a major article in October 1919, “Chicago and Its Eight Reasons,” linked above from ASHP’s History Matters. Walter White, who penned the article, asserted that the black population had been made the scapegoat in the wake of the violence. He listed eight causes for the riot, beginning with “race prejudice.”  This report was one of many contemporary analyses of the events. Others who covered the events included poet Carl Sandburg for the Chicago Daily News, who interviewed Black residents (unlike most other white press), and the Chicago Daily Tribune, which held antagonistic views of the African American rioters and valorized white policemen.

Defending Greenwood: 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre
In the interview linked above, from ASHP’s History Matters, W.D. Williams recalled the massacre that occurred in the Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa, Oklahoma. Between May 31 and June 1, 1921, over 300 Blacks were murdered and Greenwood was burned to the ground. By the end, white Tulsans had destroyed and looted over 1,200 homes and 150 businesses owned by African Americans, and countless hospitals, schools, and churches. Different narratives of the massacre’s causes emerged shortly after, like this report from Walter White of the NAACP, and this defensive magazine article from a white Tulsan. For help incorporating the massacre into the classroom, check out this teaching activity from the Zinn Education Project. And for connections between the Tulsa Massacre and the violence at the Capitol on January 6th, see this piece by Anneliese Bruner. 

Terror from the Right Since 1995 
This list linked above, from the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), details major terrorist plots, conspiracies, and racist rampages that have emerged from the American radical right in the years since the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. (Click “Archives” in the bottom right of the page for the entire list.) Also from the SPLC, this interactive map documents the presence of hate groups in each state since 2000.

Lynching is another form of white supremacist violence that has targeted African American and other minorities for decades. The following resources can be used to historicize and explore lynching:

  • In this ten-minute video from Facing History and Ourselves, Professor Paula Giddings discusses the history and origins of lynching in the U.S.
  • For a geographic representation of lynching in U.S. history, check out this interactive map from scholar Charles Seguin. The map was created by sociologists using data sourced from newspapers, and displays lynching victims’ name, race, and place of murder between 1883 and 1941.
  • Lynching was also documented by photographs and postcards taken as souvenirs for the murderous events. Collector James Allen spent a quarter of a century obtaining such imagery; this website contains an image gallery of hundreds of these objects. (Content warning: graphic imagery of lynching.)

Questions for Reflection

  • What are some common elements of white mob violence? What are some of its goals? (Political, economic, hate?)
  • How are white supremacist politics and racial terrorism intertwined? 
  • In what ways are the examples of racial terrorism above related to the events in Washington, D.C. of January 6, 2021?  
  • What are some ways that African American communities have fought against racial violence? 


3. The U.S. Capitol: A Symbol of Government and a History of Violence