In March 1892, three Black business owners were lynched near Memphis, Tennessee. Black journalist Ida B. Wells condemned the white supremacist killers in her newspaper, Memphis Free Speech. Wells rejected racist allegations that the victims were planning to rape a white woman, writing that no one “believes the old threadbare lie.”
The local press called her a “black scoundrel” and warned that “there are some things the Southern white man will not tolerate.” When she left town, racists sent letters to Wells warning that “trains were being watched” and if she returned, she would be “hanged in front of the courthouse.” A mob of white supremacists then went to her Memphis office and destroyed Free Speech. Wells did not return to Memphis, but she did go on to start and lead the half-century-long fight against lynching.
In May 2017, Black Princeton professor Keeanga Yamahtta-Taylor gave a commencement address at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts. She remarked that the students were “graduating into a world … that is increasingly dangerous,” especially given that “the president of the United States … is a racist, sexist, megalomaniac.”
Fox News ran several stories condemning Taylor and published video excerpts focusing on her denunciation of President Trump. In Taylor’s words, Fox did this “to incite and unleash the mob-like mentality of its fringe audience.” It worked: she immediately received over fifty hateful threats, including “lynching and having the bullet from a .44 Magnum put in my head.” Taylor canceled her upcoming speaking events in Seattle and San Diego. However, she vowed to “not be silent” and in July gave her planned speech to thousands of supporters at the Socialism conference in Chicago.
On Sunday, fascists and white supremacists are meeting in Berkeley to continue their campaign of intimidation and violence. They must not go unopposed, and thousands of Bay Area residents are planning to rally against hate on Sunday at 10:30AM on Crescent Lawn. The Berkeley City Council, however, has advised people to “stay away” from all of downtown Berkeley and, effectively, give in to fear. Mayor Jesse Arreguin has wrongly stated that the best way to respond to white supremacy is “by turning your back.” Not content with simply arguing that Bay Area residents shouldn’t exercise their right to free speech through protest, the City Council has granted an unelected official, the city manager, additional powers to restrict unpermitted protests.
The history of free speech and violence in this country is remarkably consistent. The oppressed use free speech to fight for social justice, and the oppressors respond with violence. The murder of Heather Heyer, who demonstrated against the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, is only the most recent example. However, the effective response has never been to cower and hide. Residents of Boston outnumbered the white supremacists by about 800 to one last Saturday. They took Heather’s mother very seriously when she remembered her daughter’s commitment to justice: “They tried to kill my daughter to shut her up. But guess what? You just magnified her. I’d rather have my child, but by golly, if I’ve got to give her up, we’re going to make it count.”
Everyone in the Bay Area who opposes white supremacy must take her words and history — from Ida B. Wells to Keeanga Yamahtta-Taylor — to heart. It is time to come out and turn the tide against hate in our home!
Mukund Rathi is a law student at UC Berkeley.