Capitol riot: The 48 hours that echoed generations of Southern conflict

Hours after Mississippi legislators took the final step of removing a Confederate emblem from their state banner, a violent white mob waved the rebel flag as it ransacked the U.S. Capitol. 

The ratification of a new Magnolia flag followed a year in which white Southerners were forced to confront the legacy and symbols of the Lost Cause, an enduring, pernicious myth that the Confederacy had fought for a valiant purpose and a noble way of life had been brought to an end. The removal of the Confederate emblem and the historic elections in Georgia should have signaled a moment of celebration for the South, embracing its multicultural reality. 

Instead, President Donald Trump offered his supporters a new Lost Cause, spreading lies that an election had been stolen from him. And their nation was on the verge of being taken from them. Like in the aftermath of the Civil War, he found a group of supporters willing to enforce that lie through violent ends; and he found a group of politicians committed to enabling it through official channels. 

One hundred and fifty years after the end of the Civil War, 48 hours across Mississippi, Georgia and Washington D.C., demonstrated the promise of the South, the demons continuing to haunt the region, and new dangers looming on the horizon. 

In Mississippi, Southerners removed a symbol of an old rebellion. In Washington, D.C., Southern politicians and insurgents began a new one. And in Georgia, Southerners found themselves at a familiar crossroads. 

Atlanta, Georgia, 2:05 a.m. EST: Associated Press projects Raphael Warnock wins Georgia Senate runoff election

Aimee Castenell watched the Georgia election returns from home. In a normal time, election nights are a moment of shared community, with organizers and activists coming together to celebrate victories or commiserate losses. During the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, Castenell, the southeast communications director for the Working Families Party watched the culmination of years of hard work play out on her own TV.  

Over a Google Hangout filled with campaign staff, she cheered as Democrats Rev. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff took early leads against incumbents Republicans Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue. 

“It was a bit bittersweet, but it was still great,” Castenell said of celebrating the electoral victories remotely.

“Tuesday was exciting and fulfilling in lots of ways. Fulfilling the promise that a lot of people who have been living in the South have seen for so long: Once you invest in the South you will get results.”

It’s an investment decades in the making, according to Don Calloway, CEO of Pine Street Strategies and founder of the National Voter Protection Action Fund. Atlanta’s growth as the dominant economic hub for the Southeast spurred demographic and cultural changes making possible a multiracial coalition for political success.

In the early 20th century, thousands of Black people fled the violence of the South, looking for a better life in Northern cities. At the beginning of the 21st century, many of the descendants of the Great Migration are returning South, especially to Atlanta.

If cities like Birmingham, Ala., continue to be associated with some of the more painful moments of civil rights history, Atlanta has branded itself as a home for Black promise. As the home of Martin Luther King, Jr., the headquarters of civil rights organizations like the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and the eventual home for other leaders from the era like U.S. Rep. John Lewis, Atlanta built an infrastructure of Black success that endured and empowered the city to become a center of music, film and business. Rev. Warnock serves as the pastor of King’s former church, Ebenezer Baptist, and was able to capitalize on the strong network of the Black religious community.

“I would suggest that Georgia’s victories are a result of Atlanta and demographic trends starting 50 years ago finally coming to fruition,” said Calloway.

But Atlanta alone cannot account for Democrats’ political fortunes in Georgia, points out Castenell. Part of Warnock’s appeal, in fact, was not being a native Atlantan, empowering him to reach Georgians weary of the attention sucked up by the South’s largest city.

“Being from Georgia is a very important thing to Georgians. Not only is [Warnock] from Georgia, he’s from Savannah,” said Castenell. “He has an all-of-Georgia sensibility about him.

It’s an all-Georgia sensibility embraced by politicians like Stacey Abrams, and the thousands of organizers she’s come to represent, that made the difference. If organizing infrastructure existed in Atlanta, political infrastructure in Georgia had evaporated following the political realignment of the late 20th century and election of Jimmy Carter.  Abrams’ plan involved reaching voters other campaigns hadn’t spoken to and expanding the electorate.

The ability to turn out new Black voters proved pivotal for Warnock, even more so than it had for Biden. 100,000 new Georgians had registered since the November elections.

But even as Castenell celebrated she was anxious about the response victories in Georgia could bring.

“There’s always a backlash when we see progressive things happen,” she said. “There’s a certain group that’s very excited about it and there’s another group that is terrified of it. As a Black person from the South, it is truly hard to watch.”

Jackson, Mississippi, 11 a.m. EST: Mississippi’s legislative session begins

For more than a century, a Confederate battle flag had been the symbol of the white backlash to Black liberation.

That Wednesday morning, Mississippi legislators approved the state’s newly designed flag, one which did not contain Confederate symbolism but a magnolia blossom, a symbol of endurance and nobility.

Mississippi didn’t incorporate the Confederate symbol into its state design until after the Civil War. In 1894, white lawmakers changed the flag in response to an influx of Black leadership during Reconstruction. Throughout the civil rights movement, Mississippians and others across the South waved the flag in defiance of federal desegregation orders.

Mississippi was the last state in the country to use Confederate symbols in official state imagery.

During the racial reckoning of summer of 2020, citizens forced local and state governments to reevaluate their roles in the country’s foundation of white supremacy. For Mississippians, that meant demanding the removal of the Confederate battle flag, long associated with hate and division, from the state’s official flag. Wednesday’s vote was a culmination of that effort and decades of activism.

“We’ve been trying to get rid of that confederate flag in Mississippi forever and it’s finally being taken down,” said Castenell. “We need to be in a place where we can lay down the divisive, racist symbols of the past.”

For years, some Mississippi legislators had worked behind the scenes to change the state flag. But it was a long, slow effort. In 2001, 64 percent of voters chose to keep the Confederate emblem on the flag. But in the wake of George Floyd protests, with timing on their side, legislators again seized the task of removing a long-held symbol of oppression.

Sonya Williams Barnes, Mississippi state representative and former Black caucus chair, was a major player in the 2020 efforts to update the state flag. She said she was not surprised by use of the flag in the capitol rebellion.

“To see that flag, them doing what they were doing, it didn’t surprise me. It was in the midst of the way I’ve always seen it: In the middle of hate, in the middle of suppression, in the midst of rebellion,” Barnes said.

“You know, it was just where I expected it to be,” she added.

In response to Black progress, white Southerners have historically clung to symbols of past power. In the years since the civil rights movement, some have worked to neutralize the impact of the flag, tying it to vague ideas of “Southern heritage.

While Mississippians worked to remove a symbol of past rebellion, Alabama Congressman Mo Brooks whipped a modern crowd into a frenzy. Thousands of Trump supporters had poured into Washington, D.C., believing the election had been stolen from Donald Trump. Brooks called for the assembled crowd to “start taking down names and kicking ass,” and Trump directed them to march on the Capitol and show strength. 

Washington, D.C., 1:15 p.m. EST: Trump supporters begin advancing on the U.S. Capitol

In the aftermath of the Civil War, Congress passed a series of Constitutional amendments, expanding citizenship rights for Black men. After 200 years in bondage, African Americans were able to vote and hold office for the first time. Protected by the occupation of federal troops, a coalition of voters sent Black representatives to Congress, where they expanded services like public schools.

White Southerners retaliated, violently attacking the very foundations of local and state democracy. For decades, Black voters were beaten and lynched by white mobs from New Orleans to Memphis. In 1898, a white mob in Wilmington, N.C., mounted the only successful coup in American history, killing black leaders and establishing a new government. Southern governments cycled through constitution after constitution, increasingly marginalizing Black citizens and concentrating power in the hands of the wealthy whites.

White Southern governments were enabled by a federal government and Northern states that were, at best, indifferent to the pains of Black Southerners and, at worst, complicit in their suppression.

“There is this long history in the South of violence and intimidation and fraud to overturn elections, particularly in the Reconstruction period,” said Dr. Kathryn Tucker, who teaches history at Troy University. “But I would also argue that’s not just a Southern thing. If only Southerners wanted Jim Crow, it wouldn’t have existed.”

The backlash to civil rights fights in the South has always come from a combination of extrajudicial and official channels. Wednesday’s assault on American democracy was no different.

Washington, D.C., 2:20 p.m. EST: Sen. Ted Cruz speaks against certifying the election of Joe Biden

Led by Southern Republican politicians like U.S. Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas, Cindy Hyde-Smith of Mississippi, Josh Hawley of Missouri and Tommy Tuberville of Alabama along with U.S. Reps. Brooks and Marjorie Taylor Greene of Alabama and Georgia, respectively, a faction of the Republican Party attempted to decertify the election results of some states that voted for Joe Biden. They had spent weeks fanning the flames and sowing doubt about the integrity of the country’s democracy.

Cruz proposed an emergency commission be formed to audit the election, citing the electoral crisis of 1876 as precedent. In 1876, Democrat Samuel Tilden defeated Republican Rutherford B. Hayes in the popular vote but the Electoral College results were disputed. 

A commission was formed – similar to the one Cruz has proposed – and the parties struck a deal: 

Name Hayes, the Republican, as president and in return remove federal troops from the South, ending Reconstruction.

Over the next decade, Southern governments used claims of election fraud and voter integrity to eject Black leaders and pass harsh voting laws. For nearly 100 years, Black Southerners lacked voting rights and representation in government. African Americans’ attempts to achieve either were often met with violence. 

The votes targeted by Cruz and his colleagues in the Senate were overwhelmingly cast by Black and brown Americans. It was an official effort to undermine the power of minority voters in American democracy.

Outside the Capitol, the effort grew much more violent. 

Washington, DC, 2:30 p.m. EST: Violent mob breaches the U.S. Capitol

Hours after Mississippi had voted to rid itself of the Confederate flag, a pro-Trump mob broke into the U.S. Capitol with weapons, some waving that same rebel banner. 

One unidentified man was photographed standing with the flag in front of a portrait of Charles Sumner, a congressman who was beaten on the floor of the Senate Chamber in 1856 by fellow Rep. Preston Brooks for criticizing slaveholders in a speech. Another example of violent backlash on questions of race and justice. 

“You have this really striking image of the man waving the Confederate flag in front of Charles Sumner, who was beaten nearly to death on the floor of Congress over some of the same issues that we’re looking at today; race and state sovereignty,” said Tucker. 

The man depicted in the other portrait behind the flag is John C. Calhoun, a former vice president and vocal defender of slavery.

“A lot of the same issues that fed into the Civil War are still things we’re grappling with today.”

The Trump march in Washington had been planned weeks in advance. Since the November election, the president has fed lies and conspiracy theories alleging the presidency had been stolen from him and America had been stolen from his supporters. Trump was the key motivator behind the attack on the Capitol, but Georgia’s election results may have contributed to the fervor of the crowd.

“The fact that it would manifest in 48 hours in that way, it’s like a snapshot of 50 years in 48 hours,” said Dr. Angie Maxwell, Director of the Diane Blair Center of Southern Politics and Society at the University of Arkansas.

Pipe bombs were found outside the headquarters of both the Democratic and the Republication National Committees. Many in the mob were armed and at least five people have died as a result of the attack. Some, dressed in combat fatigues, carried zip ties, the kind law enforcement uses to restrain people. A makeshift gallows was erected on the National Mall, noose swinging ominously. 

The bombs, the flags and the noose all felt like echoes of a violent past. 

Throughout the 20th century, Black Southerners continued to organize in the face of violence and tyranny. Each step of progress was met with a violence and pushback from state and federal forces.

“One of the reasons was that Southern whites were so terrified when they thought that Black people would treat them the same way when they were in power,” Maxwell said.

As a violent mob of Trump supporters stormed the Capitol building, Don Calloway, the Democratic strategist, saw direct connections to history.

“There has always been a backlash, a visceral and violent backlash to progress in the civil rights space,” he said. “We would be silly to not recognize that it was violent on the day after a Black man and a Jew were elected in the Cradle of the Confederacy.”

Atlanta, 4:16 p.m. EST: AP projects Jon Ossoff wins Georgia Senate runoff election, giving Democrats a Senate majority

Jon Ossoff had trailed Warnock’s vote total for much of the night but still managed to beat true incumbent, David Perdue, with a slightly narrower coalition.

As the son of Jewish immigrants, Ossoff embodies another chapter of Atlanta’s success story. With one of the world’s busiest airports, Fortune 100 companies and the home of the 1996 Summer Olympics, the city has become a hub of global immigration, spurring an influx of residents from Europe, Asia and Africa all of whom played a pivotal role in the 2020 political fortunes of Warnock, Ossoff and Biden.

Ossoff may also represent the importance of Southern emigration. The youngest senator newly elected since 1976, Ossoff capitalized on the enthusiasm of thousands of millennial southerners flocking to the city from nearby states like Alabama, South Carolina and Mississippi.

“All my friends in Missouri and Alabama politics are saying ‘We’re next,’ but Missouri and Alabama do not have an Atlanta and that should be recognized,” said Calloway, expressing some doubt that Georgia’s results could be replicated in other parts of the South.

“If I look at Missouri, St. Louis plus Kansas City plus Columbia times two, does not give you what Atlanta gives you. In Alabama, Birmingham plus Montgomery plus Mobile plus Huntsville does not give you what Atlanta gives you. Atlanta has emerged as one of the five cities in this country that matters.”

Maxwell suggested the political realities differ from state to state. “What I see in Georgia is that they looked at their state and tailored a plan to how to turn their state blue,” she said. 

“Do I think there are options in other states? Yes. Do I think they all look the same? No. When I look at Georgia, they really analyzed their state thoroughly.”

Washington, D.C., 5:50 p.m. EST Officials declare the U.S. Capitol complex “secure” after a nearly four-hour violent occupation by violent Trump supporters.

As the National Guard cleared the Capitol grounds of the violent Trump supporters, politicians and pundits issued statements claiming, “this is not who we are.”

Maxwell grew frustrated. She offered a message to people who were shocked at the brazenness of the rioters to show their faces, taking selfies with each other and with some members of the police.

“I saw so many people shocked that people [participating in the riot] would take selfies and were not masked. But that’s exactly how the lynch mobs were in the South,” Maxwell said. “Everyone knew who these people were. They created spectacle lynchings. And people took pictures with the bodies.”

While a few people may have been willing to participate in lynching, many were willing to watch. And even more were willing to turn a blind eye.

Maxwell said the fact so few rioters faced immediate arrest or consequences could have dangerous consequences in the future, with the potential for copycat movements to occur as state legislatures begin their 2021 sessions.

In the years following the Civil War, Confederate luminaries such as Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee received relatively little official punishment. As a result, they were able to reshape the public perception of the war and its cause. 

Washington, DC, 8:10 p.m. EST Senate resumes debate on Republican challenge to the election of Joe Biden

In the wake of the violent assault, the Republican Party was divided. Some planned to move forward with plans to contest the election. Others saw an opportunity to affirm Biden was the president-elect and distanced themselves from Trump and his supporters.

Kelly Loeffler reversed her plans to vote against certification. 

The infighting and disarray of the Republican Party had likely hurt her chances in the election of the day prior, observed Matthew Stokes, a conservative writer living in Birmingham, who has publicly expressed frustration with Trump and his political enablers. Stokes noted that some Republican voters broke with their party and voted for Democrats, even if they don’t expect to find a long-time political home there. Others just stayed home. 

“I don’t think anybody should underestimate what happened in Georgia,” Stokes said. “Especially because of the way Trump belittled the state and Loeffler and Perdue went along with it — that some [Republican voters] said I just can’t affirm you two. That should probably be humbling to both parties. Democrats need to remember they had some really weak competition.”

If Georgia Democrats had focused on expanding the electorate and building a coalition, Republicans defined themselves by opposing it.

“The biggest danger Republicans face is they’ve become an identitarian party identified around an undefined grievance against the rest of the world, even when a lot of voters are doing very well,” said Stokes. “[Republican politicians pushed] a belief that ‘real’ Americans only behave a certain way.

That’s not how you build a political party.”

“You can have a lot of varying views on Southern history, but that imagery of the guy in the Capitol with the Confederate flag is one of the most disturbing things I’ve seen in a long time,” Stokes continued. “And it’s inexcusable for United States congressmen to not know what they’re conjuring up.”

“What’s happened over the last five years requires taking a political price. There has got to be a political price to be paid for what happened here. It is anti-democratic in the most severe way,” he said.

The political strategy of the GOP had also developed over decades, as the parties reorganized following the passage of the Voting Rights Act and Civil Rights Act in the 1960s.

“I keep thinking about the appeals that Republicans could have made fifty years ago,” said Maxwell.

“Where could the pro-Civil Rights Republicans have led the party if strategists hadn’t decided to define themselves in opposition to everything the Democrats stood for?”

Instead, Republicans courted disaffected white Southern voters from the Democratic Party, deepening an ideological split and establishing an unsustainable strategy. Maxwell said civil rights issues did not have to become wedge issues. There could have been political solutions developed in both parties. 

“The problem with the path the Republican Party went is that it’s unsustainable in the long term because it’s a house of cards,” Maxwell said.

Washington, DC, 9:55 p.m. Republican Sen. Josh Hawley reaffirms his objection to the Electoral College results in Pennsylvania despite the violence

Even after the violent attack on the Capitol, 147 Republicans still committed themselves to furthering the narrative Trump’s election had been stolen by voting to decertify the results.

In the days since the attack, some have tried to build newer, more unbelievable false scaffolding, casting doubt about who was responsible for the terrorism. Brooks, the Alabama congressman, and others made unsubstantiated and dubious claims that the crowds of people proudly professing to be Trump supporters were members of Antifa, a radical left-wing movement.

The ever expanding network of lies serves one grand aim: Trump’s presentation of his stolen victory as the new Lost Cause. In the new narrative, the mob in Washington envisioned themselves as his heroes of valor.

“That is the whole Lost Cause thing: There was nobility in the fight. And the infamy in the fight. That’s why I was upset when I wasn’t seeing people arrested immediately,” Maxwell said. “The Confederacy was not condemned fully and harshly enough for long enough to squelch any kind of resurgent Confederate sympathy. We never put out the fire for real. This is that in a microcosm.”

Washington, DC, 3:41 a.m. EST, Thursday, Congress formally certifies the election of Joe Biden.

In the end, after months spent howling about the election results in Georgia, Republicans did not move forward with an objection of their election results. 

“They’ve counted and recounted the votes in Georgia so many times that if they had done an official challenge to the results in Georgia, it would’ve been pure comedy,” said Castenell.

The election of Joe Biden was certified and he will take office on January 20. President Trump has said he does not plan to attend the inauguration. In the days after last Wednesday’s assault, American businesses and technology companies moved swiftly to denounce the president’s ability and limit his ability to incite further damages. 

Congressional Democrats are moving forward with a second impeachment effort — to send a message to Trump’s supporters and future presidents about the consequences of insurrection. 

The Republican Party, however, is at a crossroads. Some have begun to distance themselves from Trump and his supporters. Others are true believers and still others have made the calculation they cannot win without his base. Most have said removing Trump from office would cause more harm than good. 

If the split continues, Georgia’s political reality may be a harbinger of America’s future: Democrats continuing to eke out narrow victories in the popular vote through coalitions built on a multiracial majority, even if white Americans remain increasingly divided with each other. Republicans furthering an identity politics message and limiting access to the ballot, losing the center-right as they cater to an increasingly vocal fringe. 

Democrats are walking a fine line, keeping a tent big enough to win future elections in historically conservative states, while also being led by the people who have done the infrastructure-building work for years, if not decades: The Black, brown, Asian, LGBTQ organizers who have been pushing for a better South.

“Mainstream Democrats have to follow the people they have marginalized because a big part of this is bringing new people into the fold,” said Calloway, the Democratic strategist. “They know what it’s like to be excluded and know what it’s like to bring new people into the fold. Everybody has a space here. We have to be willing to be led.”  

A brief, violent moment in America captured an entire history of Southern conflict. In the wake of the Civil War, the South chose a path of myth making and violence. On Wednesday, Mississippi demonstrated how long it can take to recover from that path, even if only symbolically. In Washington, a mob illustrated the terrors of making a similar choice today. And in Georgia, an election captured the difficulty of two parties wrestling with their futures.

“The South is the blueprint,” said Castenell. “Good and bad.”

The Reckon Report.
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