The assassination of Martin Luther King Jr marked the end of an era, but not the end of a fight: Even 50 years after his death, the white supremacist beliefs he strove to dismantle are still alive and well in America, though espoused by a few new faces.
While racism can exist everywhere, from the classroom to the White House, many people still associate American white supremacy with the Ku Klux Klan – white hoods, burning crosses, and all.
Today, however, the power and size of the Klan is declining. According to a report by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), the Klan boasted approximately 3,000 members across the US in 2016 – down from more than 4m members at its peak in the 1920s.
Today’s white supremacists are organised in a more scattered patchwork of groups, hiding under different names like “white nationalists,” “neo-Nazis,” or a popular catchall, “the alt-right”. But these groups are no less dangerous: According to the Southern Poverty Law Centre (SPLC), members of the racist “alt-right” have killed more than 100 people in the last four years.
Leonard Zeskind, a founder of the Institute for Research & Education on Human Rights, described the difference between these groups and their predecessors as one of objectives: The white supremacists of the 50s and 60s wanted to preserve the system of legal segregation in place at the time. Today’s white nationalists want to tear it all down and start over.
“[The white supremacist groups of King’s time] were trying to preserve segregationist Jim Crow,” Mr Zeskind told The Independent, referring to a set of laws requiring the public separation of blacks and whites.
"Today, white supremacists and certainly white nationalists want to overthrow the system they live under," he said. "They do not want preserve it. They want to destroy it. “
According to some experts, these new objectives are likely a result of changes King himself helped bring about. Today’s America, while far from perfect, is much less amenable to white supremacists than the Jim Crow South.
“I think that’s why [modern white supremacists] are advocating for a white ethnic state,” explained SPLC outreach director Lecia Brooks. “Before, [the state] was all theirs.”
The face of modern white supremacy has also become also more varied in recent years, expanding to include members of Atomwaffen – a small neo-Nazi organisation linked to multiple recent murders – as well as buttoned-up white supremacist “academics” like Richard Spencer.
At last summer’s Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, it seemed as if the groups might be able to combine their efforts. But after the rally, where one counter-protester was killed after being struck by a car, the groups descended into infighting and internal scandal. At least one group, the Traditionalist Worker Party, shut down completely.
This loss of cohesion, however, does not always mean a loss of influence. In fact, according to Carla Hill, a researcher for the ADL, the diversity of these groups shows how wide-spread their sentiments are.
“Every demographic is kind of represented right now, even if they're not working together,” she explained. “They all feel like this is their time. There's not been a time in recent history where they felt like they had a chance.”
While there are many reasons white supremacists are feeling emboldened these days, Ms Hill says she saw the strongest surge after the election of President Donald Trump – a man who has referred to Mexican immigrants as rapists and drug dealers, and reportedly called certain African nations "s***hole countries".
“It’s just part of our culture right now to be politically incorrect, to be very vocal in that way,” Ms Hill said. “...The white supremacists don’t view the leadership as perfect for what they’re going for, but they think it’s the best shot they’re going to have.”
Another cultural shift bolstering these groups is the rise of the internet, which has granted modern white supremacists the gift of both broader reach and increased anonymity. While the white supremacists of King’s day had to meet in person, today’s racists can organise online, in forums like Reddit or on social media sites like Gab.
Ms Brooks pointed to the example of Dylann Roof, a teenage white supremacist who opened fire on a predominantly black church in Charleston, South Carolina in 2015, killing nine people. Roof didn't even have to leave his house to become enamoured with white supremacy: He was "self radicalised," according to prosecutors, after reading the rantings of racists online.
White supremacists have had a field day overrunning certain websites, like 4chan, and even making their own – like Gab and Voat – to propagate their viewpoints. But according to Ms Hill, they are also increasingly espousing their views on more mainstream platforms as well.
“When I first started, extremist were on extremist websites,” she said. “Now they are on mainstream platforms using all of them, and pushing their rhetoric harder than ever”.
Despite the modern technologies available to today’s white supremacists, however, Ms Brooks believes that the best means of fighting them are still those used in the civil rights movement.
Ms Brooks used the example of Parkland school shooting survivor David Hogg, who – while not fighting white supremacy directly – successfully shut down a Fox News host by calling for a boycott of her show on Twitter. The host, who had mocked him for being rejected from certain colleges, lost at least eight advertisers on her show. She later apologised for her remarks.
“I believe that the strategies used during the civil rights movement – and the notion of nonviolent resistance – was good and still is good,” Ms Brooks said. “Boycott as strategy is still effective. Demonstrations as strategy are still effective.”
She added: “The road map is there. We just have to commit to it and be more bold about it.”
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