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Incitement to Assassination Has a Special Place in the History of Racism

When Liz Trotta, Fox News analyst, recently suggested on the air that assassinating “Osama, um, Obama—well, both, if we could,” would be a good idea, she followed a century-old playbook used to intimidate African Americans by warning that violence would follow if they exercised civil rights. Her comment became a popular You Tube viewing experience over Memorial Day weekend. Then she said, “I apologize to anybody I’ve offended. It’s a very colorful political season.” Her “apology” turned the next page in that venerable playbook: when caught advocating violence, act as if your target is simply too thin-skinned to play on a rough and tumble political field. If she won’t be clear, we must. The person she most offended is Barack Obama, but she also offended our democratic system.

For almost 150 years, inciting political violence has robbed African Americans of their rightful place in the nation’s politics. In 1897, Rebecca Latimer Felton, a white Georgia woman, suggested to southern white men that they “lynch a thousand a week if necessary.” The next year, her call became the rallying cry for white men who went on a murderous rampage in Wilmington, North Carolina. Felton’s was just one voice among hundreds of other white southerners, male and female, who advocated lynching and then stood back and watched their neighbors murder black people. During the violence that legitimized southern white supremacy at the turn of the century, the federal government refused to protect its southern black citizens. In the aftermath of the Wilmington racial massacre, one black woman wrote straight to the Attorney General of the United States and begged for federal protection. If the government did not come to their rescue, “How can the Negro sing ‘My Country ‘tis of Thee?” she wondered.

A little over three decades later, Adolph Hitler admired the American South for its incitement and deployment of violence. In fact, he called it “popular justice.” The Nazis evoked lynching and murder in the southern states in self-defense. Julius Streicher, publisher of the stridently anti-Semitic magazine Der Sturmer, bragged to an audience of 25,000 Nazis in 1935: “We do not kill Jews in Germany. . . . In America Negroes are killed by mobs without fear of punishment and for the most trivial reason . . . . As we do not bother about executions of Negroes, … [Americans] should not bother when we lead a race desecrator through the streets.”

On May 27, the New York Times ran Trotta’s apology under the headline, “Same Joke, More Regret.” This was no joke, despite the fact that Trotta giggled after she said, “somebody knock off Osama, um, Obama—well, both if we could.” This kind of talk comes with consequences.

Liz Trotta incited violence against a candidate for president of the United States. Fox News broadcast that incitement. They crossed the line from free speech to shouting “fire” in a crowded theatre. Trotta’s vague apology, “to anybody I’ve offended,” cheapens the civic life of the American people. These actions place all of us in danger.