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Relics From White Supremacy: Why Historians Need to Reevaluate Their Use of the Word “Riot” to Describe Racial Violence in the South During the Reconstruction and Post-Reconstruction Eras

By Brett Kunkel


Using the Memphis race riot of 1866 as a case study, this essay argues that historians need to reevaluate their use of the word “riot” to describe the racial violence of the Reconstruction and Post-Reconstruction eras. Although most historians agree about the nature of the violence in Memphis and events like it, they nevertheless continue to refer to them as “riots” rather than “massacres.” This essay hones in on three qualities the word “riot” connotes: spontaneity, mutual aggression and justification, while noting their inconsistencies with the massacre in Memphis and suggesting that similar discrepancies may characterize similar events during the Reconstruction and Post-Reconstruction eras in the south. Moreover, it suggests that use of the word “riot” to describe the massacre in Memphis likely found its origins with the white newspaper publishers who first covered the event and wanted to justify the killing of blacks. Therefore, historians need to reinvestigate events during this time period to ensure the mistaken histories of whites who aimed to stigmatize blacks and justify violence do not inform their own constructions of historical narratives. Recent polling shows that blacks’ distrust of American institutions including public schools and law enforcement have grown over the last decade. Moreover, this increase in racial tension has corresponded with an increase in political tension where mutual distrust has allowed postmodern skepticism of objective truths to matriculate into the political sphere. This phenomenon has compromised news credibility and facilitated increasing distrust between political opponents. Because America’s history of misrepresenting its past with regard to racial conflict lends credence to this skepticism, this essay argues that historians in particular have an imperative to speak about America’s racial history with precision and accuracy, and that use of the word “riot” to describe the massacre in Memphis 1866 does not meet that standard

Topics: Riot, Massacre, Memphis, News credibility, Political tension, United States History
Publisher: Digital Commons @ West Chester University
Year: 2019
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