While black America continues to endure the impact of racism and violence, the fight against racial injustice and brutality is being fought both through the ballot box and in the streets. The upcoming vote has been framed as a referendum on whether institutional racism will be addressed. Meanwhile, activists are confronting one another publicly: some mobilized to oppose racist violence and oppression, others dedicated to preserving the status quo. A new battleground has emerged in the Midwest, where voters could swing the outcome for the whole country and where the violence of organized groups and lone vigilantes, many pouring in from other states, threatens to spiral out of control. Though these battles are ostensibly about the plight of black Americans, the conflict has largely devolved into fights between angry, disaffected white men.
In Kenosha, Wisconsin, outrage over the shooting of Jacob Blake by police has been overshadowed by violence between mainly white activists, culminating in vigilante Kyle Rittenhouse killing two white Black Lives Matter activists and injuring a third. In Portland and Seattle, groups ranging from Antifa to right-wingers like the Proud Boys have engaged in public street fights and authorities have been unable or unwilling to curtail the violence. Kenosha and other cities have become lightning rods for the political divisions in our country. And the current situation eerily echoes events that took place nearly 150 years ago in Kansas, then a federal territory preparing to gain statehood, in which the fight over slavery became so violent and chaotic that the conflict got its own graphic label: Bleeding Kansas.
As the United States expanded westward in the mid-nineteenth century, the issue of whether slavery would be permitted in the newly established states exacerbated the dispute over slavery that bitterly divided the country. In 1854, the Kansas–Nebraska Act placed the issue directly in the hands of voters—settlers in Kansas and Nebraska were given the power to decide whether these territories would become slave states or free states. In Kansas, residents spent the next seven years fighting one another over this issue, both politically and physically.
Then as now, it was overwhelmingly white people who violently clashed, and many of them had come from elsewhere to join the fight. Thousands of pro-slavery “ruffians” and anti-slavery partisans poured in from neighboring states, beating people in the streets, burning buildings and even murdering opponents. In one notorious sequence of events in 1856, ruffians looted and burned an anti-slavery stronghold in Lawrence; in retaliation, a band led by radical abolitionist John Brown kidnapped and murdered five pro-slavery settlers.
Both then and now, it was primarily white interests that motivated the violence. In 1850s Kansas, pro-slavery advocates sought to expand a system of extreme racial oppression that brought them enormous economic benefit. But many of the anti-slavery forces were also looking out for their own interests. Some free state advocates were committed abolitionists, but many were simply (white) small farmers and workers who did not want to be crowded out by large plantations and forced labor. Many of today’s white activists are also motivated by issues other than racial justice—such as restlessness from the shutdowns, anxiety over the ongoing economic crisis and the bitter partisan divides that have festered for years.
There is another disturbing parallel between Bleeding Kansas and the current situation in Kenosha and elsewhere—a president fanning the flames and both unwilling and incapable of containing the violence. During the 1850s, President Franklin Pierce’s role in the Kansas turmoil was a combination of ineptitude and divisive rhetoric. Pierce, already opposed to abolition, had been convinced to support the Kansas–Nebraska Act by pro-slavery and states’ rights advocates within his Democratic Party, including two future rivals of Abraham Lincoln: Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas, who would defend his Senate seat against Lincoln, and Jefferson Davis, eventual president of the Confederacy who served as Pierce’s secretary of war.
Once Kansas became bitterly divided—pro and anti-slavery advocates even set up rival governments within the territory—Pierce exacerbated the divisions by recognizing only the pro-slavery faction as legitimate. The president also blamed the violence in Kansas on “Northern” (that is, anti-slavery) outside agitators and excused the violence of pro-slavery ruffians as a “counteraction” in response to Northern intervention. I doubt President Trump has studied the Pierce presidency, but his tactics have been similar: allowing the white St. Louis couple who waved guns at Black Lives Matter protestors to make a speech at the Republican National Congress, and perpetuating the idea that Kyle Rittenhouse was the victim of the people he killed and wounded.
President Pierce’s attempts to ally with white nationalists failed politically. The violence of 1856, an election year and by far the bloodiest year of the conflict, hurt Pierce so much that he became a one-term president. The Kansas affair also radically altered the general political landscape. The opposition Whig Party, which failed to adopt a cohesive strategy for dealing with Kansas or with slavery more generally, fell apart completely, and some of its members migrated to the new Republican Party of Abraham Lincoln. Pierce’s successor, fellow Democrat James Buchanan, continued to support the pro-slavery factions of his party, a decision that contributed to his 1860 loss to Lincoln.
Tragically, Bleeding Kansas only exacerbated national divisions over slavery. By the time of the last Bleeding Kansas deaths in 1860, the country was on the verge of civil war. The current violence in Kenosha and other cities similarly threatens to overshadow the underlying aims of achieving racial equality and ending police brutality, and leave our country violently divided through the upcoming election and beyond.