Teaching Elections and Mob Violence in U.S. History
The events of January 6 were exceptional, but they are connected to a long history of attempts to prevent the exercise of voting rights, particularly among African Americans and other people of color. Along with Jim Crow-era poll taxes and literacy tests, more recently the implementation of voter ID laws, purging of inactive voters, and the selective closure of polling places in minority precincts have severely limited political participation. At other times in U.S. history, state and federal officials have encouraged or sanctioned violence and intimidation to drive potential voters away from the polls and, sometimes, to overturn election results. These activities were on full display at the Capitol and state houses in January.
It will take years to fully understand what happened on January 6th and the impact of these events. But we hope the materials compiled below offer a variety of ways to contextualize and understand the siege at the Capitol.
Table of Contents:
1. Concepts and Definitions
2. Mob Violence, Coups, and Mass Intimidation
3. The U.S. Capitol: A Symbol of Government and a History of Violence
4. Elections and Voter Suppression
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?
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?
Capitol Design Competition: Guidelines
In 1792, with the new nation in need of physical structures to house its newly-elected government, Thomas Jefferson decided that the design for the Capitol building should be chosen by an open competition. This newspaper announcement from ASHP’s Social History for Every Classroom specified the size and number of rooms for the Capitol, suggested that it be made of brick, and announced a prize of $500 for the winning entry.
Out of the Ashes: A New Library for Congress and the Nation
This online exhibit from the Library of Congress examines the burning of the U.S. Capitol by British troops during the War of 1812 and the structure’s subsequent rebuilding. On August 24, 1814––in retaliation for the destruction of the Canadian city of York by American forces––the British Army and Navy set fire to the U.S. Capitol and numerous other public buildings in Washington. Mordecai Booth, an American eyewitness to the burning of the Capitol, described the events as “an Additional Monument of our Countrys disgrace and dishonour” and a “Stain can never be blotted from the recollection of Americans.”
Political Divisions Led to Violence in the U.S. Senate in 1856
This article from JSTOR Daily describes the caning of Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner, an avowed abolitionist, by South Carolina congressman Preston Smith Brooks on the floor of the Senate. This event is symbolic of the political and cultural divisions apparent in the United States at the eve of the Civil War.
Thomas Crawford, Statue of Freedom, 1855-63
In this brief essay from ASHP’s Picturing History, art historian Vivien Fryd examines how the design of Washington, DC’s architecture reflects the country’s racial politics. Fryd explains how the Statue of Freedom, the bronze statue atop the U.S. Capitol dome in Washington, D.C., was altered to accommodate the sectional politics of antebellum America and the era’s debates over slavery and abolition.
The Klan Marches on Washington, D.C.
Founded in 1915 and inspired by the Reconstruction-era organization of the same name, the second Ku Klux Klan shared with its nineteenth-century namesake a deep racism, a fascination with mystical regalia, and a willingness to use violence to silence its foes. It also professed anti-Catholicism and anti-Semitism as strongly as it affirmed racism. This photograph from ASHP’s History Matters was taken in 1925 and shows more than 40,000 members of the Klan marching in full regalia in Washington, D.C. (with the Capitol rotunda in the background) to display white supremacist political power.
The “Bonus Army” at the Capitol and “Bonus Army” Buildings Burned
These two images show a mass protest at the Capitol building and the protest’s aftermath. After World War I, Congress passed a bill promising each military veteran of that war a cash bonus that would be paid in 1945. In the summer of 1932, facing record unemployment and poverty because of the Great Depression, veterans began demanding that the bonuses be distributed immediately. Nearly 20,000 veterans marched to Washington and camped out in the Anacostia Flats section of the city; newspapers called them the “bonus army.” In late July, President Hoover used the army to force the demonstrators out of their main campground and set fire to their tents. Americans were horrified by this treatment of the poor and desperate veterans.
Newsreel Footage of the Shooting in the House Chamber
This newsreel footage details an attack in the U.S. Capitol by Puerto Rican Nationalists. On March 1, 1954, Lolita Lebrón, Rafael Cancel Miranda, Andres Figueroa Cordero, and Irvin Flores Rodríguez opened fire from a balcony into the House of Representatives chamber, injuring five congressmen. All five congressmen recovered, and the shooters were arrested. The nationalists’ goal was to promote Puerto Rican independence from the United States, which had been (and remains) a territory of the U.S. since 1898. In 1979, President Jimmy Carter commuted the sentences of the nationalists and they returned to Puerto Rico.
Questions for Reflection
- Why have certain groups used the U.S. Capitol as the location to stage their protests? What did the Capitol represent to each group?
- What role has violence played in protests at the Capitol?
- How are the recent events at the U.S. Capitol similar to previous mass gatherings at the building? How are they different?
The events of January 6, 2021, provide another example of the long history of voter suppression as a means to maintain white power. Last year we compiled a set of resources from our collections that relate to the history of elections in America. These include materials that document efforts to register African American, Mexican American and other voters and to expand the franchise to allow more people to participate in electoral politics.
One Person, No Vote: How Voter Suppression is Destroying Our Democracy
In her new book, historian Carol Anderson examines the role of institutional racism in electoral politics. She links present day voter ID requirements, gerrymandering, and purged voter rolls to Civil War era poll tax and literacy tests as fear tactics to exclude black people from the democratic process. Anderson also highlights the 2013 Supreme Court ruling, Shelby County v. Holder, which overturned key provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act as another form of voter suppression that contributed to the slow erosion of our democracy by allowing some southern states to enforce stricter voter requirements.
Fighting Back: A Black Lawyer Argues Against Disenfranchisement
In this 1895 speech from ASHP’s History Matters, African American lawyer, William J. Whipper, opposed southern attempts to disenfranchise African American voters and solidify white supremacy behind the Democratic Party. A delegate at the South Carolina Constitutional Convention of 1895, Whipper appealed to other delegates to halt restrictions on African American voting rights.
Disenfranchisement: An American Tradition
In this 2021 essay in Dissent magazine, historian Julilly Kohler-Hausmann discusses how American elections maintain the pillars of capitalism, colonial rule, and white supremacy through continued voter suppression.
Why Do We Still Have the Electoral College?
In two recent elections, the winner of the popular vote lost the Presidency (2000 and 2016). But this was not a coincidence. In his new book, historian Alex Keyssar argues that the electoral college was designed to empower a privileged white minority over a more diverse majority and give disproportionate power to more rural and less populous states. Since the 1970s, the GOP -- an increasingly white party – has been the primary beneficiary of this system. Coupled with efforts to discourage participation through passing voter ID laws, closing polling places, and other acts to make it difficult for working people to vote, the electoral college is not a quaint relic of the founding fathers but a powerful tool of voter suppression.
United States Election Project
This site by political scientist Michael McDonald of the University of Florida presents a compilation of national presidential and midterm general election voter turnout data from 1787 to the present, broken down at the state level.
Teaching the Truth About Gerrymandering
This article by Teaching Tolerance proposes nonpartisan ways that educators can talk about gerrymandering, and reasons they should include it in discussions of voting and voter suppression. The Choices Program at Brown University also includes a lesson plan and links to more resources for teaching about gerrymandering. The Public Mapping Project is an electoral district project developed by Dr. Michael McDonald and Dr. Micah Altman intended to assist communities in the process of drawing relevant boundaries and generating redistricting plans.
Questions for Reflection
- How does the history of African American voting rights from the post-Civil War era to present reflect the ideals of American democracy?
- In what ways does gerrymandering impact the distribution of resources and political power to communities of color?
- Do you think the electoral college is the best way to determine presidential elections? Why, or why not?
The January, 2021, House vote in favor of impeaching President Trump for a second time raises many questions about how and why this action was taken and what the consequences may be. A recent article by the National Museum of American History, illustrated with political ephemera, discusses the previous impeachments of President Andrew Johnson (1868) and President Bill Clinton (1998) and explains the political process involved.
Several organizations offer useful resources for educators who want to include impeachment in classes. This site by Educators 4 Social Change and another by Education Week compile resources for teaching about the Constitutional process and the historical context for impeaching a president. Facing History also provides suggestions for managing political divisions that may arise when discussing the topic.
Questions for Reflection
- How do the reasons and the processes for President Trump’s impeachment compare to those of previous presidents?
- What is the impact of impeachment on American politics? How have previous impeachments shaped Americans’ views of the president? Of Congress? Of democracy?
- If you worked for a history museum, what objects would you collect to document the events of January 6, 2021 and President Trump’s impeachment?