© 2022 University of Missouri - KBIA
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

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

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.

Copyright 2021 St. Louis Public Radio. To see more, visit St. Louis Public Radio.

Emily Woodbury joined the St. Louis on the Air team in July 2019. Prior to that, she worked at Iowa Public Radio as a producer for two daily, statewide talk programs. She is a graduate of the University of Iowa with a degree in journalism and a minor in political science. She got her start in news radio by working at her college radio station as a news director. Emily enjoys playing roller derby, working with dogs, and playing games – both video and tabletop.