The alt-right movement in America gained national headlines last fall when a rally in Charlottesville, Virginia turned deadly.
But to UChicago historian Kathleen Belew, the rising tide of white nationalism and white supremacy is far from surprising, but instead part of a long and dark history of white power activism in the United States.
In her new book, Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America, Belew has completed the first complete history of that movement—from its beginnings following the Vietnam War to the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building in 1995.
“What seems new is not new, and I think there is a sense of astonishment that belies the long story of how these groups formed and furthered their actions,” said Belew, assistant professor in the Department of History and the College.
The impetus for the book sprang from Belew’s research on a 1979 anti-Ku Klux Klan rally in Greensboro, North Carolina in which five members of the Communist Workers Party were murdered. A comment by one the killers, who was among a group of Klansmen and neo-Nazis, stuck with her.
“The commentary was, ‘I shot communists in Vietnam. Why wouldn’t I do that here?’ I couldn’t stop thinking about that,” Belew said. “It collapsed peace time and war time, front lines and home fronts, and different kinds of enemies. I looked through the archive generated by this movement, and that was pervasive throughout the materials. The Vietnam War was a major force in uniting this social movement.”
Although hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazis trace their roots farther back, the 1970s marked a turning point when these disparate groups rallied under the banner of what Belew labels as “white power.” Belew said that the Vietnam War fomented a group of veterans that felt betrayed by politicians and the government. Previously divergent groups, including neo-Nazis and Klansmen, banded together over a common enemy, and many of the structures and even weapons were taken from army training.
Working with archives at the University of Oregon, the University of Kansas and Brown University, Belew pored over previously classified documents, white power newspapers and documents from the movement—some collected by activists who had infiltrated the movement.
Over the course of her archival research, Belew said her understanding of the movement changed.
“Along the way I thought of it as the ‘racist right,’” Belew said. But in fact, the group actually shared many similarities with radical fringe groups of the 1980s and 1990s on the left, including embracing ideas like midwifery and organic gardening. “The movement isn’t conservative. They are trying to create a world in very violent and apocalyptic terms. All white people in this view would have a united purpose and a united power.”
In the book, and in a recently published op-ed in The New York Times to mark the April 19 anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing, Belew highlights the fact that these acts of violence, often categorized as machinations of a “lone wolf” terrorist, are in reality the “outgrowth of decades of activism by the white power movement.”
Belew writes in the epilogue that, “Knowledge of the history of white power activism is integral to preventing future acts of violence.” While the news portrays “nonsensical” acts of violence, and popular media paints images of the stereotypical poor, white Southerner, Belew paints a far more expansive portrait that she hopes readers will take away from the book.
“It was across the country,” Belew said of the well-connected network of white power activists composed of men, women and children. “The more we understand the history of the white power movement, the better we can respond to white power violence in the present.”