Welcome to the 'White Civil Rights' Movement

  • by:
    • Oren Segal, Director of Center on Extremism
  • August 15, 2017
    This article originally appeared in

The would-be rally in Charlottesville and its aftermath appears to have sparked a new refrain: “White civil rights movement.”

The chaos surrounding the “Unite the Right” event in Virginia was significant for a number of reasons, even beyond the violence and hatred on display. The largest public gathering of white supremacists in at least a decade, the group showcased remarkable cohesion among a broad cross-section of the white supremacist movement, illustrating how energized the racist and anti-Semitic movement has become in the past eight months.

Charlottesville was significant because, while it was organized largely by Jason Kessler and other members of groups fashioning themselves as the alt-right, it was very much a “big tent” white supremacist event. Even the racist skinhead group Hammerskins, who generally eschew public gatherings in favor of white power music concerts, showed up.

The event not only brought different types of white supremacists together, it brought them together in greater numbers, including, it seems, people who’d never attended anything like this before.

Whatever their disparities in ideology and uniforms, the white supremacists saw this as an opportunity to come together, very publicly, to voice their beliefs on a national stage. This speaks in part to the successful efforts on the alt-right to motivate communal action, but it also shows a larger willingness among white supremacists to espouse their views in broad daylight. This is a population that's been emboldened by the divisive political rhetoric that gained traction during the 2016 presidential campaign.

And now, in the wake of the tragic events in Charlottesville, white supremacists are holding press conferences, vowing additional rallies, and, most notably, translating their longstanding and false sense of victimhood into a new propaganda tagline: #whitecivilrights.

White supremacist Twitter was ablaze late Saturday and into Sunday with stories and comments from aggrieved racists, angry that their civil and First Amendment rights had been allegedly trampled by the police and other authorities in Charlottesville.

“The white civil rights volunteers are the only people who had a permit to be there,” raged one. “The others were racist and Bolsheviks.” Said another: “Bull Conner is alive and well in Virginia.”

On Sunday morning, the online propaganda arm of the alt-right movement broadcast its plans for moving forward: “Charlottesville Was a Turning Point for White People in America,” bellowed the top headline at Richard Spencer’s altright.com. “The White Civil Rights Movement Began in Charlottesville,” was the sub-heading.

White supremacists, it turns out, are top-level whiners: Their right to speak had been shut down, they claimed.

On the racist website VDare, a headline blared: “The System Revealed: Antifa, Virginia Politicians and Police Work Together to Shut Down Unite the Right.”

For some of the ostensibly victimized racists, even President Trump, who some accused of giving white supremacists a pass in his much-criticized Saturday statements on Charlottesville, was now attacking them, after a more forceful White House statement on Sunday that called out and condemned the white supremacists specifically and follow-up comments by Trump on Monday explicitly calling out racism and the KKK.

Modern white supremacists have always trafficked in the language of victimhood – they are “under attack” from immigrants, there is an ongoing “white genocide” decimating the white race – but the announcement of a “white civil rights” movement, and the absurd historical parities suggested by that term, is evidence that they are taking their rhetoric to the next level.

People of good will in this nation should feel empowered, regardless of faith, race, background, or political persuasion, to take action: Counter the new white supremacist propaganda line with language that speaks to all that is good about America’s inclusiveness.

During this extraordinary, trying time, none of us can afford to be complacent. As Heather Heyer, who was killed by James Fields in Charlottesville on Saturday, posted prominently on her Facebook page: If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.

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