White Violence and Black Response: From Reconstruction to Montgomery

By Herbert Shapiro | Go to book overview

INTRODUCTION

THE EVENTS of recent decades have made abundantly clear the falsity of the lingering myth that violence has been of only marginal significance in American society. The assassinations of the 1960s, the dozens of violent confrontations evoked by the civil rights movement, the terrible violence manifested in the Vietnam War, all have revealed to Americans the heritage of violence that exists as a major component of the American tradition. The view that orderly progress is the American characteristic, with violence merely some peculiar, temporary departure from the norm of national conduct, has been less tenable. In one of his last works, Richard Hofstadter, writing at the end of the 1960s, noted that "what is impressive to one who begins to learn about American violence is its extraordinary frequency, its sheer commonplaceness in our history, its persistence into very recent and contemporary times, and its rather abrupt contrast with our pretensions to singular national virtue." Americans, Hofstadter wrote, had become frightened by violence and "are now quite ready to see that there is far more violence in our national heritage than our proud, sometimes smug, national self-image admits of."1 The writing of American history is beginning to recover from what the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence described as a "historical amnesia" about violence.2

The violence generated by white racism is one of the obvious realities of American society. Yet it is one of the ironies of contemporary experience that many Americans have been conditioned to associate violence with the behavior of black people, to concentrate their attention and their fears upon the crimes against property or persons committed by black individuals. The stereotype is perpetuated that Afro-Americans are a criminal people. The nation's political leadership, its educational institutions, and its news media do not educate us to comprehend that the committing of desperate criminal acts has its roots in oppressive social conditions. White people have also been encouraged to overlook the fact that the dominant institutions of American society have by precept and example taught the principle that violence is a justified and appropriate means of achieving desired ends.3

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