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What History Tells Us About The Mobilization Of Hate Groups In The U.S.

Alt-right members preparing to enter Emancipation Park at the 2017 "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville.
Anthony Crider
Ring-wing extremists march at the 2017 "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.

At his inauguration last week, President Joe Biden cited “a rise in political extremism, white supremacy and domestic terrorism.” He said America “must confront” this enemy and “will defeat” it.

Washington University Sociology professor David Cunningham supports this goal. But he also cautions that if history is any guide, it may prove incredibly difficult. Done the wrong way, it could cue an even worse backlash.

Right-wing extremist groups, Cunningham said, tend to most successfully organize and recruit new membership in times when their potential followers feel as though their way of life is threatened. He pointed to the civil rights movement of the 1960s as an example.

“What we saw is certainly a pronounced rise in organized white supremacy,” Cunningham said Monday on St. Louis on the Air. “The Ku Klux Klan was the predominant group then, and the Klan used the rising civil rights tide and the passage of the Civil Rights Act in the mid-1960s as a recruiting tool, in effect. Their numbers surged incredibly in 1964 and in 1965.”

Although the government took action against the Klan, Cunningham said, the actions of the FBI and other government agencies ended up having the most pronounced effect on the Klan’s opponents.

“These agencies used this opening — which was really a mandate to target the Klan — as a license to also establish counterintelligence programs against the Civil Rights Movement, against Black nationalist organizations, against the anti-war movement later in the 1960s,” he said.

Cunningham said he hopes that the powers that be today learn from the mistakes of the past.

“One of the things we should caution about is giving increased latitude and power to policing organizations without providing oversight,” he said.

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Emily is the senior producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.