The man authorities say opened fire in a Buffalo grocery store Saturday, killing 10, appears to have left behind a white supremacist document centered on the idea of a plot to replace the White population with immigrants.
This far-right conspiracy theory, known as the “great replacement theory,” has inspired a lot of recent violence, including the 2019 Christchurch mosque shootings in New Zealand, where the shooter warned of “White genocide.” He later pleaded guilty to 51 murders, 40 attempted murders and engaging in a terrorist act.
Some of the torch-bearing “Unite the Right” demonstrators, including Ku Klux Klan members and neo-Nazis, who terrorized Charlottesville in 2017 were also motivated by the theory, which warns that an increase in the non-White population fueled by immigration will destroy White and Western civilization.
The Buffalo gunman, identified by authorities as Payton Gendron, an 18-year-old White man, is believed to have posted online a 180-page document arguing that White Americans were in danger of being replaced by people of color.
More on the history of racial violence
But while the great replacement theory has inspired horrific violence in the past five years, it’s a lot older than that. More than 70 years ago, a U.S. senator published a book warning of the same destruction of White civilization.
Theodore G. Bilbo, a Democrat, had twice been governor of Mississippi before he served in the U.S. Senate from 1935 to 1947, when “the growing intolerance among many whites toward public racism and anti-Semitism” led to his fall, according to an account in the Journal of Mississippi History.
An equal-opportunity racist, he addressed some of his letters with slurs against Italians and Jews, depending on the recipient. But the bulk of his loathing and fear was reserved for Black Americans, as spelled out in his 1947 book “Take Your Choice: Separation or Mongrelization.”
A showboater and self-promoter, he began the book with this modest preface: “For nine years I have read, studied and analyzed practically all the records and everything written throughout the entire world on the subject of race relations, covering a period of close on to thirty thousand years.”
Bilbo saw an existential threat in the growing ranks of American-born descendants of enslaved Africans. His solution? Ship them back.
“The great civilizations of the ages have been produce[d] by the Caucasian race,” he wrote. When Black people moved in, he wrote, mighty societies such as ancient Egypt were destroyed and mongrel races were created. “The mongrel not only lacks the ability to create a civilization, but he cannot maintain a culture that he finds around him,” he wrote.
“A White America or a mongrel America — you must take your choice!”
Bilbo proclaimed in his book and in addresses to followers that he was “convinced, beyond every reasonable doubt, that our race is in jeopardy.” It was a fact, he said in one campaign speech, using racial slurs, that at “the present rate of interbreeding and miscegenation and intermarriage between the [Black people] and the Whites, that in nine generations, which is only 300 years, there’ll be no Whites, there’ll be no Blacks in this country. We’ll all be yellow.” Or brown, he added.
He rebutted experts who disputed any scientific basis for racism. Of Franz Boas, often called the father of American anthropology, he wrote, “For some reason which has never been publicized, this German Jew, a newly-arrived immigrant, wanted to destroy the racial stock which had carved this mighty Nation out of a wilderness.” Bilbo recommended deportation for another academic, a naturalized Italian immigrant, who suggested intermarriage could dissolve the color line.
Though he claimed “no hatred or prejudice against any human being” in the preface to his book, he went on to say that he “would rather see his race and his civilization blotted out with the atomic bomb than to see it slowly but surely destroyed in the maelstrom of miscegenation, interbreeding, intermarriage, and mongrelization.”
But the times were changing, even in Mississippi. Black veterans returning from fighting in World War II didn’t take well to efforts to bar them from voting in the United States. And the Allies’ fight against Adolf Hitler and antisemitism had led many Americans to turn their critical gaze to discrimination at home.
As Robert L. Fleegler noted in the Journal of Mississippi History, most criticism of Bilbo in the press had come from liberal publications. But as Bilbo started campaigning for reelection in June 1946, the conservative and influential Saturday Evening Post published a cover story under the headline “Bilbo: America’s Worst Demagogue Runs Again.” The story called Bilbo “America’s most notorious merchant of hatred.”
The politician nicknamed “The Man” was fighting to retain his Senate seat. He told supporters that “the Negro Council in Chicago sent a telegram to Harry Truman, the president, saying to send the Army down to Mississippi and to see to it that these 100,000 [Black people] are gonna vote,” using a racist slur. He also urged “every red-blooded white man to use any means to keep the [Black people] away from the polls. And if you don’t know what that means, you are just plain dumb.” He fought fiercely against his critics, hurling anti-Jewish and anti-Black slurs at detractors in the press. He won the Democratic primary that July and ran unopposed in the general election.
But growing opposition to his race-baiting demagoguery continued to build. Bilbo’s admission in August 1946 on “Meet the Press” that he was a member of the Ku Klux Klan probably didn’t help.
There were calls to oust Bilbo, including from veterans groups and the Committee of Catholics for Human Rights, which called Bilbo’s conduct “a chilling deterrent to the world-wide belief that America is the symbol of democracy and human rights.” They were joined by politicians, including New York’s Democratic senators and a state senator whose son was killed in World War II, who said, “I hate and despise those bigots” like Bilbo.
In March 1946, Republican conservative leader Sen. Robert Taft of Ohio called Bilbo “a disgrace to the Senate.”
On Sept. 19, 1946, an interracial group of Mississippians filed a complaint with the U.S. Senate Committee to Investigate Campaign Expenditures, asking that Bilbo be removed from office.
The committee “heard from more than 100 witnesses — two-thirds of them Black — who outlined local election practices that systematically restricted black registration and voting,” according to a Senate history. Witnesses told of being turned away, threatened with pistols, beaten and arrested.
A slim majority of the committee found in favor of Bilbo, however, and blamed some of Bilbo’s anti-Black campaign on concerns about “outside agitators,” including the national media.
But Bilbo’s opponents had another card to play.
A second investigation by the Senate war investigating subcommittee heard testimony on charges that Bilbo had helped construction firms win government contracts and had accepted gifts in return that included a Cadillac, a swimming pool and the “excavation of a lake to create an island for his home,” according to a Senate summary.
During the investigation, questions also arose about whether Bilbo was pocketing money in return for allowing a drug addict access to morphine. Bilbo had obtained consent from the Federal Bureau of Narcotics to allow a Mississippi doctor to prescribe the drug. The drug recipient told an Internal Revenue Service special agent that he paid Bilbo $1,000 for the favor, according to the New York Times.
In January 1947, with Republicans in control of the Senate, a fight ensued over whether Bilbo would be allowed to take his seat, with Southern Democrats threatening to stop the Senate from organizing if he were barred.
Then fate intervened. Senate Minority Leader Alben Barkley (D-Ky.) announced that Bilbo would return to Mississippi for oral cancer surgery. He died on Aug. 21, 1947, without retaking his Senate seat.
Bilbo’s career built on racism and anti-immigrant bigotry had ended. But the bigotry lingers on.
A century ago, Mississippi’s Senate voted to send all the state’s Black people to Africa
One hundred years ago, the Mississippi state Senate voted to evict the state’s Black residents — the majority of its total population — not just out of Mississippi, but out of the country.
The Senate voted 25 to 9 on Feb. 20, 1922, to ask the federal government to trade some of the World War I debts owed by European countries for a piece of colonial Africa — any part would do — where the government would then ship Mississippi’s Black residents, creating “a final home for the American negro.”
The act is a reminder of just how long after the end of slavery some White Southerners were pushing not just to strip African Americans of their political rights but also to remove them from the land of their birth.
What opposition there was to the proposal in the all-White Mississippi legislature came not from people who believed in racial equality but from plantation owners who feared losing their cheap, brutalized labor force. And remarkably, the proposal had a few Black supporters: Black separatists who preferred a move to Africa over the violence and abuse that African Americans faced in Jim Crow Mississippi.
Senate Concurrent Resolution No. 21 was written by Sen. Torrey George McCallum, a former mayor of Laurel in Jones County. The county has achieved some measure of Hollywood fame as the “Free State of Jones,” a pocket of Unionist sentiment during the Civil War, but the McCallums were deeply engaged in the institution of slavery. Torrey’s grandfather Archibald enslaved 51 people on his plantation in 1860 and had a net worth of $80,000, about $2.5 million today.
McCallum’s proposal came in the aftermath of World War I. The relatively late entry of the United States into the war and the devastation of the conflict left many of its European allies deep in debt to Washington. In all, European countries owed $10.35 billion, the equivalent of $174 billion today.
Although short on cash, those countries had plenty of colonial territory — particularly in Africa, where the major European powers had scrambled to divvy up the continent’s land and resources. McCallum saw the makings of a deal.
His resolution argued in flowery language that “the spirit of race consciousness” had grown with a postwar increase in nationalistic feelings worldwide and that it was “our most earnest desire to reach a just, fair, amicable, and final settlement” to what some White people then called “the Negro question.”
It concluded with a request that President Warren G. Harding “acquire by treaty, negotiation or otherwise from our late war allies sufficient territory on the continent of Africa to make a suitable, proper and final home for the American Negro, where under the tutelage of the American government he can develop for himself a great republic, to become in time a free and sovereign state and take its place at the council board of the nations of the world.”
McCallum made clear that “the spirit of race consciousness” he cared about belonged to White people. The goal, he wrote, was “that our country may become one in blood as it is in spirit, and that the dream of our forefathers may be realized in the final colonization of the American Negro on his native soil.” The resolution does not specifically state whether the proposed mass migration would be voluntary. But its use of language like a “final settlement,” “the final colonization,” and the United States becoming “one in blood” makes clear the aim was total removal.
Not consulted in this process: Mississippi’s Black residents, who in the 1920 Census made up 52 percent of the state’s population. During Reconstruction, Mississippi’s Black majority had sent three African Americans to Congress and more than 60 to the state legislature. That had all ended, though, first with rampant White violence in the 1870s and 1880s, then with the passage of a new state constitution in 1890 that effectively disenfranchised Black people.
In some ways, it felt like the post-Reconstruction era was returning: Another spike in anti-Black violence had followed World War I, especially during the Red Summer of 1919, and the Ku Klux Klan was suddenly reborn.At the height of its popularity, the Ku Klux Klan brought more than 30,000 of its members to participate in a parade in D.C. on Aug. 8, 1925. (Video: British Pathé)
Black newspapers nationwide mocked McCallum’s proposal, just as African Americans had generally resisted the previous century’s attempts at colonization. “Only one thing seems to have been overlooked by the Hon. Senator, and that is, how even the Mississippi colored people will be induced or enabled by the Mississippi Legislature to go to Africa,” wrote the Broad Ax, a Black Chicago newspaper. After generations of rape of enslaved women by White men, it wrote, “the intervening shades are so numerous and various, it may be a question to determine who is a colored person. Of course, such things don’t bother McCallum.”
“We see that representatives in Mississippi would colonize the American Negro in Africa,” wrote the Southern Indicator of Columbia, S.C. “Poor fools.”
The one exception was Negro World, the national newspaper published by Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association, which embraced McCallum’s proposal. Garvey believed that members of the African diaspora would never be treated fairly in a White-controlled country and that the solution was a new African homeland.
“Hurrah for Senator McCallum,” its headline blared. “Work of Universal Negro Improvement Assn. Bearing Fruit.”
Garvey gave a speech at Liberty Hall in New York endorsing McCallum’s plan: “The Negro should not delude himself … by the belief that the future will mean happiness and contentment for him in this country, since it is the undoubted spirit and intention of the white man that this shall in truth be white man’s country.”
Garvey was becoming known for seeking strange bedfellows in his quest for Black autonomy abroad. A few months later, he went to the offices of the resurgent Ku Klux Klan in Atlanta for a cordial meeting with Imperial Wizard Edward Young Clarke, sparking outrage from Black leaders and newspapers. (Garvey was under indictment on charges of mail fraud at the time, so he also may have been motivated to curry favor with White officials.)
Mississippi’s largest newspaper, the Clarion Ledger—once called “the most racist newspaper in the nation”— happily ran the full text of a telegram Garvey sent McCallum offering his “congratulations” for “the splendid move” he had made.
But Garvey seemed aware of who he was teaming up with. McCallum, he said in a speech, “is the same Southern senator who would object and stand behind the objection, with his whole life and with the last drop of his blood, for a Negro in the United States of America to dine with the President of the United States at the White House.”
McCallum was far from the only racist White leader interested in sending Black people “back” to an Africa they had never seen.
The impulse dates to well before the Civil War, to the early days of state colonization societies, which built colonies in what is today Liberia. The Mississippi Colonization Society created Mississippi-in-Africa on the Pepper Coast, sending several hundred freed slaves there to face what became the highest mortality rates of any society in recorded human history. Some advocates of colonization considered it a more humane option than slavery, but more viewed it as a way to rid their states of free Blacks who might encourage rebellions among enslaved people.
As the Civil War approached, debates over slavery were not limited to the two extremes — continuing and expanding slavery on one hand, and making African Americans free and full political citizens on the other.
Some White people argued for freeing the enslaved but still denying them the vote, just as it was then denied to most free Blacks in North and South alike. Others wanted to create a limitedclass of Black voters, restricted only to the educated or to those who had fought for the Union. And many thought the only solution to the “Negro question” was to send them away — either voluntarily or by force — to a new colony in the Caribbean or “back” to Africa.
Hinton Rowan Helper, the most prominent anti-slavery activist in the South, was nonetheless a virulent racist and advocate of expulsion. As he wrote in the early weeks of the war: “Death to Slavery! Down with the Slaveholders! Away with the Negroes!”
Among those interested in colonization was Abraham Lincoln, who was drawn repeatedly to the idea. In 1862, Congress passed a bill allocating $600,000 for the colonization of formerly enslaved people living in the District of Columbia. Lincoln sent a young free Black man named John Willis Menard to British Honduras (now Belize) to scout it as a potential location; the Danish Virgin Islands, British Guiana, and Dutch Surinam also were considered.
Lincoln struck a deal to set up a colony in the Chiriquí Province of what is now Panama, but strenuous objections from Central American countries led him to scuttle the plan. He eventually signed off on a disastrous experiment that sent 453 free Virginia Blacks to the Haitian island of Île-à-Vache. High rates of disease and a mutiny led to its collapse and 350 survivors sailing back to Virginia less than a year later.
More on Abraham Lincoln
During Reconstruction and afterward, a trickle of Black people continued to leave the South for various promised lands: Liberia, Haiti, Kansas, California. But it took until World War I for the Great Migration of African Americans to Northern and Western cities to start in earnest, driven by job opportunities and the desire to escape Jim Crow.
Still, that was not the end of the idea of colonization, in the minds of either White racists or Black separatists. U.S. Sen. Theodore G. Bilbo of Mississippi, a proud member of the Ku Klux Klan, carried colonization forward to a new generation, proposing in 1939 what he called the Greater Liberia Act. It was modeled on McCallum’s 1922 resolution, offering France and the U.K. relief for their war debt in exchange for 400,000 square miles adjoining Liberia’s borders. Greater Liberia was to be run by a U.S. military governor.
The bill went nowhere — but it again drew the support of an aging Marcus Garvey, as well as the vocal support of Black separatists including Mittie Maude Lena Gordon, the founder of the Peace Movement of Ethiopia.
The Mississippi Senate vote 100 years ago was as far as the state’s attempt to exile its African Americans would go. After passing the Senate, the resolution went to the state House of Representatives. Its Committee on Federal Relations reported the resolution out favorably on March 1, 1922. On March 10, McCallum went to the House floor to advocate for passage.
“He wanted it understood that it was not written, nor was it intended as a reflection in the least on the negro,” a Biloxi newspaper reported, “but was intended to settle him in a country of his own and where he could make himself a home under laws of his own making. He said he simply wanted to settle for all time to come a great problem confronting this country and in the interest of the negro.”
But the speech wasn’t enough, and the House voted the resolution down, 40 to 32.
Most of the chamber’s debate over the bill has been lost to history, but a newspaper reporter did record a representative named John Holmes Sherard explaining his opposition: “He did not like any such propaganda as this meant the loss of labor of his part of the state, the Delta, where the negro was needed. … He asserted that he had 500 negroes on his plantation in Coahoma County, and had never had a quarrel with them.”
One of the regulars at Sherard’s plantation commissary in Coahoma County was a young man named McKinley Morganfield, who picked cotton at a neighboring plantation. At Sherard’s and elsewhere around Coahoma, men like Robert Johnson and Son House were playing what would become known as the Delta blues. In 1941, Morganfield found his own escape from Mississippi — not to Africa, but to Chicago, where he became known as Muddy Waters.
Waters’s songs sometimes romanticized the simpler life back in the Delta, but when asked directly if he ever planned on moving back, his response was clear: “I wanted to get out of Mississippi in the worst way, man. Go back? What I want to go back for?”