Last 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.
In his first post-verdict interview on Fox News with Tucker Carlson (Carlson has a sympatheticdocumentary 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 Boys, a far-right militant organization, and flashing a hand signal favored among white supremacists. Conservatives - including Carlson - haveargued further that Rittenhouse cannot be a white supremacist because the people he killed were White.
But 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 activists.
Consider 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.
Furthermore, 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 inciting it.
The 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 them.
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.
Before 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.
Decades later, when White activists mobilized to support Black civil rights activists, they faced similar violent retributions. Jean Graetz and 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 NAACP chapter.
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.
The 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.
They 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.
In 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.
The Klan similarly murdered Viola Liuzzo in 1965 for supporting civil rights protesters in Alabama. Following the Bloody Sunday march 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 cross in front of their Detroit home.
James 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.
Whether 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 accountability.
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.
David A. Love