Historian James Campbell on White Backlash

Photos, clockwise from left: Thure de Thulstrup/Public Domain; Public Domain; Library of Congress, U.S. News & World Report Magazine Photograph Collection; Public Domain. Illustrations: Getty Images (2)

A Stanford professor of history and prize-winning author, James Campbell, PhD ’89, researches African American history as well as the long history of the Black Atlantic and of the interconnection between Africa and North America. His work increasingly engages with “public history”—the stories societies tell about their pasts not only with textbooks but also with museums, memorials, movies, historical sites and political movements. His book Middle Passages: African American Journeys to Africa, 1787–2005, explores African American journeys back to Africa and the important role of Africa in the African American imagination. He is also the author of Songs of Zion: The A.M.E. Church in the United States and South Africa and a co-editor of Race, Nation, and Empire in American History. Here, he speaks with Stanford about social change in the context of the George Floyd protests as well as white resistance to racial justice and equity for Black Americans.

Headshot of James CampbellJames Campbell (Photo: Leslie Campbell) 


STANFORD: Can you share a little about the path you took to your current field of study?

Campbell: I’m not sure I followed anything like a path, but my experience in South Africa, where I lived and taught for five or six years, certainly contributed. My first book, which began as a PhD dissertation here at Stanford, examined a trans-Atlantic Black religious movement, which was how I initially got there. Living through the violent death throes of apartheid, attending some of the hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, getting to see and hear Nelson Mandela—those experiences made a pretty big impression on me. A lot of the questions I ask in my research today—How do human beings move forward in the aftermath of grievous injustice? What stories do societies tell about their painful pasts? What do we choose to remember and what do we contrive to forget?—can be traced back to South Africa.

In terms of your upbringing in the United States, do you bring a cultural perspective to your research from the region where you grew up?

As a white scholar who works on race, I’m often asked about my background. I wish I had some tidy biographical bit to offer, but I really don’t. I grew up in rural Illinois. There were no Black people in my town. There were no Black people in my county, as far as I know. It’s the same county that produced Ronald Reagan, by the way. On the other hand, I did grow up in the United States, and race touches all of us, even people growing up in an all-white community in the rural Midwest. My first vivid set of political memories come from 1968—Martin Luther King’s assassination, the ghetto uprisings, Bobby Kennedy’s assassination—all of which I watched on TV. I only had a child’s perspective, but it felt like the world was spinning apart, sort of like it does today.

The other thing I’d mention is books. Maybe it’s self-indulgent to tell this story, but there was a bookstore in the next town over, about 15 miles away, and my mother, bless her, was always happy to take me there. The bookstore had a little table dedicated to works in what we would now call African American studies. I have no idea how it got there or how I found it, but I started to read those books. I was, I don’t know, maybe 11, 12 years old. I remember reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Manchild in the Promised Land, Coming of Age in Mississippi, Black like Me—now that’s a strange book. I even took a crack at Soul on Ice, though I didn’t finish it. So I guess it was that combination, books and television, that first provoked my interest in the strange Black-whiteness of America.

The reason I asked that question is that, as white people in America, we often have these incredible blind spots, these narratives we’ve inherited, and there’s a process of peeling back those narratives. Which leads me to a question about the moment we’re in now: Is this an inflection point where people are getting a different view of our history? Are we able to see our blind spots a little better?

Certainly, we are living through a period of heightened attention to race. We are talking about aspects of our past and of our present that, for the most part, white Americans have contrived not to talk about for a very long time. I think that’s good. As a historian, you’re always cheered when people discover that the past matters. The spate of police killings of Black people that we’ve witnessed in recent months have been horrifying, but they have also offered us an opportunity to look honestly at our history, at slavery and Jim Crow and all the rest, and perhaps to begin to repair the extraordinary damage that it did to all of us, white and Black. So, yes, we may be living through an inflection point. But without wanting to be pessimistic or discouraging, I think you should keep your powder dry. This is not the first time we’ve stood at this crossroads, confronting the gulf between the values of liberty and freedom and equality that we profess as a society and the lived experience of African Americans and, indeed, of all people of color. Think about the American Revolution, Radical Reconstruction, the transformations unleashed by the First and Second World Wars, the civil rights era. There have been other moments of racial possibility in our history. And, at risk of greatly oversimplifying complicated processes, I think it’s fair to say that every time the nation has come to this fork in the road, it has ultimately taken the path of racial reaction. There are many people in our country today who hope for the same outcome now, people who are actively working to stoke white backlash. I’d like to think this time will be different, but, as I said, keep your powder dry.

So, if we’re looking at this backlash you mentioned, what drives it? Where do we get these narratives of white grievance and white struggle?

The book I’m working on right now is about Mississippi in the early 1960s, and a great deal of the focus is on white reaction. I’m trying not only to document the extraordinary violence that was directed against civil rights workers but also to explain it—to understand that stew of fear and guilt and cowardice that allowed people who in most respects were as decent and law-abiding as anybody else to participate in or at least tolerate acts that were truly abhorrent. When I started, I didn’t imagine how relevant this question would be to our current political moment. America in 2020 is obviously not Mississippi in 1964, but you see some of the same impulses, the same sense of white grievance, the same zero-sum logic, in which the extension of equal rights to Black people is somehow interpreted as reducing the rights of white people.

Take the case of Congressman Elijah Cummings, who recently died. He was in the news a few years ago, as the target of a particularly ugly tweetstorm from the president. In one of the obituaries I read, it mentioned that he had a scar on his face, which he got it in the early 1960s, when he was 11 years old. He was part of a group of kids trying to integrate a municipal swimming pool in Maryland. They were attacked by white counterdemonstrators, one of whom hit him in the face with a rock. Those demonstrators were holding up signs that read ‘White people have rights too.’ And that, in a nutshell, is what I’m trying to get my mind around. How do we make sense of that? What is it about the idea of extending equal rights to Black people that immediately ignites these fears of white dispossession, these feelings of white persecution? I guess I’m not so much answering your question as circling around it. But it really is the $64,000 question here.

I spent part of my childhood in rural Virginia, and when we were studying the Civil War, the teacher told us it wasn’t about slavery, that it was a war of northern aggression by northern industrialists overrunning the pastoral Southern people who had their own system in which things worked. And I remember trying to reconcile this narrative with what I later read about poor whites in the South after the Civil War and their resentment of plantation-owning whites. So did this narrative of white dispossession come after the Civil War? Do we know where its roots lie?

There is a lot in that question. One issue is why poor white people would ally themselves with a political and racial order that clearly hurt them too. I suppose the short answer is that race can work as a kind of social glue. One of my dissertation supervisors at Stanford, George Frederickson, was a big proponent of the concept of “herrenvolk democracy”—the idea that having a permanently subordinate caste makes it possible to sustain the illusion that everyone else, in this case white people, is essentially equal, even though some of them too might be horribly exploited and victimized. Understanding these dynamics is a big question for historians of the South, and I suspect it will be a big question for future historians looking back at our era. Why do poor and working-class whites remain susceptible to racial appeals from politicians whose policies once in office benefit them not at all?

As for the causes of the Civil War, I guess what I’d say is that your teacher had lots of company, and not only in the South. If you read the various state ordinances of secession, they could not have been more explicit in identifying slavery as the cause of secession. In his famous Cornerstone Speech, Confederate Vice President Alexander Stevens went so far as to say that the Declaration of Independence was wrong, that the claim that all people are created equal was a fallacy. The Confederacy, he proudly declared, was the first nation to base itself on the “self-evident truth” that people were not equal, that slavery was the natural condition of the Black race. So how do you then get from there to this claim that secession wasn’t about slavery at all but instead a defense of states’ rights or other high constitutional principles? The short answer is that there was a concerted campaign by white supremacists in the late 19th century to rewrite history. Confederate filial organizations like the Sons of Confederate Veterans and the Daughters of the Confederacy, the same groups who were busy erecting Confederate memorials and monuments on every courthouse square in the South, waged a “textbook crusade,” a campaign against what they called “long-legged Yankee lies.” It was a concerted, utterly self-conscious attempt to erase the role of slavery in the coming of the war, to ennoble the Southern cause by elevating it to a principled defense of constitutional rights.

One of the points I make when I teach about secession in my own courses is that most states’ rights arguments, indeed most of the constitutional arguments that Americans make, are situational. A decade or so ago, the state of Arizona announced that it was going to defy the Obama administration and pursue its own, more draconian immigration policies. It got sued by Obama’s Justice Department and I applauded: Immigration policy is clearly a federal rather than state prerogative. But a few years later, when the state of California announced that it was not going to enforce President Trump’s executive orders on immigration and Attorney General Jeff Sessions sued the State of California, I found myself on the other side. Had I suddenly changed my philosophy on states’ rights? Of course not. The point is that most people don’t actually care about states’ rights, per se. We care about immigration, gun control, reproductive rights, auto-emission standards or whatever, and we adapt our constitutional arguments accordingly. The same thing was true about slavery. The safest harbor for those wishing to preserve and defend their right to own property in people was the state governments they controlled rather than a federal government they didn’t necessarily control. Ironically, when the debate over the fugitive slave law erupted in the 1840s and ’50s, the two sides flipped. Now you had defenders of slavery insisting that the federal government had the power, indeed the obligation, to apprehend and return fugitive slaves, while abolitionists and their Republican allies insisted that this was purely a state matter, since there was no enumerated power in the Constitution that authorized the federal government to apprehend fugitive slaves. So even in the context of the slavery debate, the two sides sometimes switched positions on states’ rights.

I want to get back to this idea about white victimization. I remember reading about how the novels of Thomas Dixon were popular not only in the South but throughout the North. Those books are full of images of white people being unfairly discriminated against by the federal government, which is meanwhile lavishing all kinds of favors on undeserving Black people. So is this a post–Civil War narrative? Is this a Southern narrative that got exported to the North?

There certainly was a Southern white victimization narrative about Reconstruction, and novels like Dixon’s The Clansman: A Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan, distilled it to its essence. In this telling, Reconstruction was not a principled attempt to extend full citizenship to the formerly enslaved but instead a harebrained attempt by northern racial fanatics to grant Black people rights they were manifestly unequipped to bear. The real goal was to humiliate defeated white Southerners, to grind the proud but prostrate South under the bootheel of “Negro domination.” (You read enough of this stuff and you begin to pick up the vernacular.) Millions of people read Dixon’s novels, and millions more saw the film adaptation, D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, the first epic of Hollywood’s silent era and also the first film ever screened in the White House. “History written in lightning,” Woodrow Wilson called it, adding, “it is all so terribly true.” Which was a pretty predictable reaction, given that many of the intertitles in the film, long disquisitions on the horrors of Reconstruction and the heroism of the Klansmen who overthrew it, were direct quotations from a U.S. history textbook that Wilson himself had written. It’s hard to believe now, but this cartoon version of Reconstruction remained the standard account in U.S. history textbooks right through the 1950s and early ’60s, though the romancing of the Klan fell away a bit earlier. This was what Americans learned in school, North and South.

Which gets us back to some of what we were talking about earlier, not only questions about historical memory, what stories do we tell ourselves about the past, but also about the dynamics of white racial reaction. This notion that extending equal rights to Black people somehow means dispossessing white people of their rights is as close as you’ll find to a perennial in American politics. You can certainly see it in the period I’m currently studying, the 1960s, which saw not only the signature legislative achievements of the civil rights era but also the rise of a white backlash that would alter the face of American politics. Everyone talks about Nixon’s 1968 campaign, his so-called Southern Strategy and coded appeals to the “silent majority,” but they go back even earlier, to George Wallace. In 1964, just a year after “standing in the schoolhouse door” to prevent the integration of the University of Alabama, Wallace ran in several Democratic presidential primaries, basically as a protest candidate against Lyndon Johnson, who was in the process of pushing the Civil Rights Act through Congress. [Wallace] won more than one-third of Democratic primary voters in Wisconsin. Those voters may or may not have favored segregation, but they certainly resonated with Wallace’s claim that white folk were being pushed aside by Black people and their elite, “pointy-headed” white allies. Turn on cable news tonight and you’ll see people saying pretty much the same thing. We’ll see what comes of it this time.

I’m not exactly sure how we get out of this box, but maybe history can help. Not only can it help us understand where these kinds of racial appeals come from and how they work, but it may also offer us examples on how creatively to respond to them. Martin Luther King was eloquent on these matters: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” Freedom, justice, equality are not terms in a zero-sum equation. They’re more like loaves and fishes, which, by the way, is one of the only stories that appears in all four Gospels. When we share our bounty, there is more than enough to feed us all.

Deni Ellis Béchard is a senior writer at Stanford. Email him at dbechard@stanford.edu.