month, a nearly all-White jury found Kyle Rittenhouse not guilty of
murdering two White men - Joseph Rosenbaum and Anthony Huber - at a
Black Lives Matter protest in Kenosha, Wis., in the summer of 2020.
Rittenhouse killed these men and injured a third as they protested
the police shooting of a Black man named Jacob Blake.
his first post-verdict interview on Fox
with Tucker Carlson (Carlson has a sympathetic documentary on
Rittenhouse forthcoming), Rittenhouse said he is not a racist and in
fact supports the Black Lives Matter movement. He also claimed he was
tricked into posing for a photo with the Proud
a far-right militant organization, and flashing a hand signal favored
among white supremacists. Conservatives -
including Carlson - have argued further
that Rittenhouse cannot be a white supremacist because the people he
killed were White.
here’s the thing. White supremacists have long singled out
White allies of civil rights and racial justice movements - and the
state has failed to defend them when they’ve sided with Black
the 1870 lynching of William Luke, an Irish immigrant and Methodist
pastor from Ontario, who helped found Talladega College in Alabama to
educate freed Black people. Luke, who also taught at the college,
broke the rules of White Southern society in more ways than one. In
addition to supporting Black education, he advocated for equal pay
for Black railroad workers and taught that Black women and White
women were equal before God. For a time, he lived with a Black
family, a violation of Southern anti-miscegenation codes.
Luke sold pistols to Black people seeking protection from White
violence. Black men patrolled the streets in response to the beating
of a Black man by a gang of White men, and shots were exchanged.
White people spread rumors of Black insurrection - the greatest fear
for White Southerners - and accused Northerners and Republicans of
Ku Klux Klan threatened Luke and planned his assassination. Then,
when authorities assisted by a posse of White citizens arrested him
and four Black men, the Klan removed them from the sheriff’s
custody and lynched
According to newspaper reports at the time, the sheriff and his
deputies were overpowered by the armed and disguised Klansmen and had
no choice but to surrender them to the mob.
they hanged him, Luke wrote a letter to his wife in Canada telling
her: “I die tonight. It has been determined by those who think
that I deserve it. God only knows I feel myself entirely innocent of
the charge. I have only sought to educate the negro.” A grand
jury refused to indict the White men accused of murdering Luke,
despite 800 pages of evidence and testimony from 140 witnesses.
Alabama Gov. William Hugh Smith failed to understand that local
officials were unable and unwilling to stop Klan violence and were
complicit, and federal troops rarely did anything to intervene.
later, when White activists mobilized to support Black civil rights
activists, they faced similar violent retributions. Jean
her husband, Robert, a White Lutheran minister, supported the
Montgomery bus boycott in Alabama in 1955 and befriended Rosa Parks,
who used a room in the Rev. Graetz’s Trinity Lutheran Church to
hold meetings of the local
As Robert Graetz preached
in support of
the boycott from the pulpit of his all-Black church, Jean Graetz
helped organize the boycott, arranged child care for participants,
made lunches and arranged media interviews for boycott leaders. The
Graetz couple also stored cars on their property provided by other
supporters, organized carpools, drove
Black residents to
and from work and helped fundraise for the effort.
Graetz family received death threats and found their tires slashed
and sugar poured in their gas tank. When their home was bombed, an
all-White jury acquitted the seven White men charged with the crime.
Robert Graetz recognized what he called “a long pattern”
of injustice. “Any White man who was charged with any kind of
crime against a Black person was freed,” he said,
noting that “a White person who was helping a Black person was
seen as worse than the Black person.” While White civil rights
allies were in harm’s way and some were assaulted, this was
only a taste of the violence visited upon Black activists in the
South and that Black people experienced regularly in the century
between the Civil War and the height of the civil rights movement.
were not alone. During the 1960s, civil rights workers from across
the country - including White activists - descended upon the South to
engage in the battle for racial equality, voting rights and
desegregation. They witnessed firsthand the brutality visited upon
Black Americans under the authoritarian regime of Jim Crow
segregation - and they too experienced white supremacist violence,
Klan attacks and murder.
the summer of 1964, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner joined James
Chaney, a Black Mississippian, to register Black voters in
Mississippi and investigate the burning of a Black church. With the
planned assistance of a deputy sheriff who pulled the men over for
speeding, the Klan abducted, shot and killed all three civil rights
workers. This move reflected how common it was for government
officials, lawmakers and law enforcement officers to join the KKK,
and prosecutors, judges and juries often looked the other way.
Klan similarly murdered Viola Liuzzo in 1965 for supporting civil
rights protesters in Alabama. Following the Bloody
from Selma to Montgomery, in which hundreds of protesters were met
with police violence on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, Liuzzo traveled
from her home in Detroit to the South to join the voting rights
fight. Soon after, as she drove a Black teen civil rights worker
named Leroy Moton to Selma, a car with four Klan members pulled up
beside her and shot and killed her. The four Klansmen, one of whom
was an FBI informant, were found guilty, but after the trial, the FBI
sought to sully Liuzzo’s name by characterizing her as a bad
mother who abandoned her children and slept with Black men. As a
result, the Liuzzo family, mourning the loss of Viola, received hate
mail and found a burning
front of their Detroit home.
Reeb, another White supporter of the voting rights activists in
Selma, was the victim of white supremacist violence. Several men beat
Reeb with clubs, and he died of head trauma two days after the
attack. Four men were arrested and charged with the killing, but an
all-White, all-male jury found three not guilty, while the fourth
assailant fled the state, and the judge ultimately ruled he did not
have to stand trial.
people see Rittenhouse as a hero or a domestic terrorist will hinge
on societal embrace of white supremacy, indifference toward racial
injustice and dehumanization of racial minority groups and their
allies. Historically, the state has provided refuge for white
supremacist violence, with government institutions, police and the
legal system protecting White vigilantes from punishment and
although White allies are vulnerable to white supremacist violence
and injustice in the court system, Black victims - such as the men
lynched alongside William Luke, Emmett Till, James Chaney, the four
little girls killed in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in
Birmingham in 1963, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Elijah McClain and
others - are the primary targets of white supremacist vigilantism and
the most vulnerable to the violence.
commentary was originally published by The