Heil Trump: The Reemergence of White Nationalism Today and the Call for Ubuntu

By Chris Lahr

Swastikas, white supremacy, “Heil Trump” spray painted on the wall, racist propaganda, and a white nationalist convention…what is going on? Though this is not 1920 anymore, we can learn something from history. I’ve been reading about the rise of the KKK in Indiana in 1920 and I see some parallels in our society today. [1] 

The Klan first busted on the scene 1865-1872. The movement was a response by white, protestant “Americans” from the South who were not happy about the end of slavery. The secret society was formed with white supremacy as the goal. Lutholtz wrote that the aim of the new movement was three-fold, “to strike back at the Federal Reconstruction government, to put the blacks ‘back in their place,’ and to chase the white carpetbaggers[2] back North.[3]  The Klan movement was a middle and upper-middle class movement. The original Klan was a violent movement and was eventually disbanded by the government.

The second rise of the Klan began in 1915 after the release of the movie, Birth of a Nation. Southerners believed the 3-hour silent film was a “true story of the South’s betrayal and a stirring defense of white supremacy.”[4] It wasn’t until President Woodrow Wilson said the movie was “true” that it gained traction and the film became so popular and accepted on a large scale. The KKK 2.0 was a little different as it was more of a social club for white supremacist when it first started back up.[5] 

When WW1 started in 1917, patriotism was on the rise and so was the Klan. The American way of life had to be protected against the Germans, Jews, Catholics, blacks, socialist and anyone else who were outside the norm.”[6] The KKK was at the forefront of a nativist movement who wanted to remove all who were different. The foundation of the KKK was a desire to live in a country that was made up of people who were “real Americans.” Their view of the “real American” was typically made up of white Protestants. Catholics during this time were mostly immigrants who spoke with thick accents and dressed a little different, thus making them stand out from the “American norm.” 

What’s interesting about this second wave of KKK, was that it was no longer a Southern thing.  In fact the KKK not only grew in the North, but also had its strongest presence in the United States in Indiana (the North).[7] Lutholtz wrote, “The Knights were successful in recruiting members in Indiana because they found fertile soil in this rurally-oriented 'native' American, white, and protestant stronghold… It found ready acceptance among Hoosiers who were confused by change and angry over what they felt to be a breakdown of authority.”[8] 

So a couple things I take away from my little research….

  1. The KKK movement wasn’t a movement of uneducated white folks with nothing better to do. The KKK was a movement of the middle class and upper-middle class in an effort to protect their way of life. There were policemen, and politicians who joined the ranks of the KKK, and in fact at one point, 30% of white Protestant males living in Indiana (about 250,000) were a part of the group. It should be noted that these 250,000 were not all monsters, but were “normal” dads, grandpas, sons (mostly male movement) caught up in the times. My fear is that if we do not have a critical eye on our current racial atmosphere there will once again be normal people caught up in the times.
  2. This movement had its foundation in trying to maintain the “American way of life.” For Klansman there was only a limited category of people who could be deemed worthy of being true Americans. The KKK was a nationalist movement. They defined what it meant to be a true American, and no one else belonged. There is nothing wrong with being proud to be an American, but we need to be careful to a) make sure we do not have too limited of a view of what an American is, b) make sure our patriotism doesn’t insulate and isolate ourselves from the rest of the world. As a follower of Jesus I have a hard time believing God thinks America is the greatest country in the world. 
  3. The second wave of KKK was brought on by the movie, Birth of a Nation. It wasn’t until the president stated that it was true that it got such notoriety. Woodrow was the most powerful man in the country and he didn’t have a problem with the film. Woodrow didn’t organize the KKK or endorse the movement, at least as far as I can tell, but his acknowledgement of the movie opened the door for the movement. I wonder if the same is not occurring today with the Make America Great Again campaign? In the campaign I heard…we will be greedy for America, we will take what is ours, we will worry about ourselves, we will build walls, we will deport immigrants, we are the best, and on and on. I feel like the campaign was the new version of the Birth of a Nation. The president-elect has painted a picture of what it means to be great again and it has opened the door for white nationals to interpret it and act in racist manners. The racist acts are not new; they are a reflection of a deeper nationalist worldview that far too many people hold on to. 
  4. So how do we make America great? What does it mean to you to be an American? While traveling in South Africa I learned a word called, “Ubuntu.” Whereas the American worldview calls for strong individualism, the term Ubuntu is an African concept of community. Ubuntu is the call for community even among those who are different.  Martin Luther King Jr. used to talk about the interconnectedness of all humanity when he would say, “I cannot be all that I need to be until you are all that you need to be; and you cannot be all that you need to be until I am all that I need to be.” To make America great we need to embrace Ubuntu. We need to stop drawing a line between us and “the other,” whether that other is of a different political party, race, country etc.  This spirit of divisiveness in 1920’s made a lot of good people do bad things. If we are not careful to embrace Ubuntu, as a lifestyle, I am afraid history will repeat itself. 

 

[1] M. William Lutholtz, Grand Dragon: D.C. Stephenson and the KuKlux Klan in Indiana, Purdue Research Foundation, 1991.

[2] Carpetbagger was a Northerner who moved to the South after the Civil War.

[3] Lutholtz, p22-23.

[4] Lutholtz, p23

[5] Lutholtz, p24

[6] Lutholtz, p24

[7] Lutholtz, p35

[8] Luthholtz, p43

Chris and Lara Lahr live in Philadelphia, where they raise three daughters. They have been married twenty years, with 17 of them taking place in the city, where they reside. Lara is a community nurse working with babies and mamas in their neighborhood. She is currently going to school to become a midwife. Chris works with a non-profit called Timoteo (www.timoteosports.org).Timoteo is a mentoring program that uses flag football as a means of mentoring urban youth. Timoteo serves over 300 youth in the neighborhood and over 150 adults. Chris is a graduate of Asbury Seminary and Eastern College. Lara is a graduate of Asbury College.

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