The Prehistory of the Muslim Ban

Banning all Muslims was a popular campaign slogan for then-candidate Donald Trump. People cheered at the simple logic: all Muslims pose a ...
Protest in Cumming, Ga.

Banning all Muslims was a popular campaign slogan for then-candidate Donald Trump.1 People cheered at the simple logic: all Muslims pose a threat, because so many hold hate in their hearts and bombs in their vests. On January 27, 2017, Trump made good on his pledge. He signed an executive order denying entry to all travelers coming from seven countries with majority-Muslim populations. Shortly after, the courts struck down the ban. On March 6, 2017, he signed a new, improved order designed to withstand legal challenge.

However odious, Trump’s actions are neither novel nor new. America’s history is rife with cases of mass banishment, exile, and even killing. Following Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt signed a much more drastic order than Trump’s. Executive Order 9066 authorized the forced removal of all Japanese American citizens from the West Coast and their imprisonment during the war. In the century before Roosevelt, the US government supported westward expansion through a policy of forced removal and extermination of any Indian tribe living on land that white settlers coveted.

What ties these disparate moments together is a common logic: that certain categories of people—as a whole—pose a danger because of the innate predilections of all those who fit the label. Whether “Jew,” “Jap,” or “Muslim,” these people threaten a certain way of life and, therefore, must be eliminated. What has varied are the solutions that leaders have fashioned. Trump began with a ban and is now ramping up deportations. Roosevelt went for mass incarceration. Leaders in Germany and Rwanda resorted to genocide, or the extermination of entire groups defined in racial terms. In the former Yugoslavia, Serb nationalists used mass terror and killing to expel all non-Serbs from certain territories, a technique euphemistically dubbed “ethnic cleansing.”

Many now feel that the highest elected official in the country has given them permission to express their whiteness in the time-honored way—through acts of intimidation and terror.

It is against this bloody backdrop that past and present commingle so seamlessly in Patrick Phillips’s Blood at the Root: A Racial Cleansing in America. The book focuses on a single county in Georgia—Forsyth—and the process by which local whites, including the mayor and sheriff, used unrelenting terror and a rigged judicial system to drive out nearly every black resident in 1912. The impetus for the violence was two separate alleged assaults on young, white women that occurred days apart. The first involved a woman who awoke screaming that she had found a black man in her bed. The second was the disappearance of another white woman, whom a search party located the next day. She was found lying in the woods, barely conscious, less than a mile from her home.

Whites in the community responded to each “outrage” with an explosion of violence aimed at black residents. A crowd beat a local preacher within an inch of his life. A mob lynched a man who had been seen with one of the alleged “suspects.” The “suspect” was a young boy who had been subjected to a “mock lynching.” A well-known white man had taken the boy aside, tied a rope around his neck, and squeezed it until the young man “confessed.”2 Whites also targeted the black community at large. At night, armed raiders attacked black households. They shot into their homes and lit houses on fire.

Like ethnic cleansers during the Bosnian war—who destroyed not only lives, but also symbolic structures such as churches and mosques—vigilantes in Forsyth County were not content to drive out all black residents. They, too, were bent on destroying all vestiges of black life. Vigilantes roamed through the county and burned all black churches to the ground. In doing so, they destroyed the only center of communal life for numerous poor, black families.

Phillips’s account is riveting. It follows a long line of fine scholarship on racial violence in America. In this year alone, two other books have been published that focus on similar themes. Timothy Tyson’s The Blood of Emmett Till sheds new light on the 1955 lynching of 14-year old Emmett Till in Mississippi. For the first time since the brutal murder, the woman to whom Till allegedly talked “smart” discusses the incident with Tyson. She admits that she lied on the stand at the trial of her husband and brother-in-law. Till never grabbed her around the waist or threatened her physically, as she claimed in court.

The second book is Jason Morgan Ward’s Hanging Bridge: Racial Violence and America’s Civil Rights Century. Ward’s book looks at a different part of Mississippi than the region where Till met his brutal death. His focus is on a single structure in Clarke County dubbed the “Hanging Bridge,” the site of multiple lynchings. In 1918, whites hanged four black siblings—two brothers and two sisters. The two women were visibly pregnant; two of the four were teenagers. In 1942, the bridge became the site of yet another lynching. As black troops were fighting for democracy in Europe, lynchers were stringing up two more teenagers by the neck.

What is striking when reading Phillips’s book alongside those of Tyson and Ward is how violence from the past never seems to come to a final end. Rather, moments of atrocity take on a life of their own. They stand for white supremacy anywhere and everywhere, as if whiteness were so fragile that only the most extreme violence could shore up its meaning and might.

What these books also underscore is that the process of violent race-making unfolds over decades, not days. Phillips deftly traces this process for Forsyth County. Until the mid-19th century, the area had belonged to the Cherokee. The discovery of gold in 1828 lured prospectors of every kind, who, in short order, stole the land from its inhabitants. Whites made bogus land claims. Local agents stamped them as “official.” In 1839, the last of the Cherokee set off on an 800-mile march to Oklahoma.

Fast forward to 1915, three years after the “ethnic cleansing” of 1912: whites are still holding fast to the color line they have drawn in blood. A convoy of rich, white sightseers are driving through northern Georgia. Their planned route includes Cumming, Forsyth’s county seat. But locals in the next county warn the tourists that their black chauffeurs will not be safe there. As the party debates whether to skip Forsyth altogether, Cumming’s mayor sends a messenger to assure them they will all be safe. When the group arrives in town, however, the same “mob spirit” that took hold in 1912 comes alive again. Local whites descend on the visitors with guns blazing. The white tourists take over at the wheel. They gun their vehicles as their chauffeurs crouch low to avoid being shot.

As a young boy, Phillips regularly encountered the deep-seated pride that locals had in keeping Forsyth County white for all time.

Subsequent generations of whites in Forsyth County continue to maintain the racial purity of their land through violence. In May 1968, black schoolchildren try to camp at Lake Lanier. White men drive them out, telling the youngsters, “We don’t allow niggers in this county after dark.” In 1980, an Atlanta firm holds its company picnic at the same lake. Local white men shoot at the lone black couple in the group, hitting the man in the head. In 1987, a local white man (and recent transplant from San Francisco) organizes a peace march to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the events of 1912. In response, counterprotestors organize a White Power rally “by loading pistols, [and] tying lengths of rope into nooses.” When the march begins, thousands amass, ready and eager to use techniques of yore. They gather on each side of the road, forcing the marchers to walk through a gauntlet. Screaming, “Go home, niggers,” they pelt the marchers with dirt, broken bottles, and rocks. Badly outnumbered, police quickly herd the marchers back onto their buses, unable to ensure their safety.

Phillips himself grew up in this world. His family moved to the county in 1977 when he was in the first grade. As a young boy, he regularly encountered the deep-seated pride that locals had in keeping their county white for all time. He remembers classmates schooling him as to why “there were no niggers” in the county, in the same way their parents had schooled them and their grandparents and great grandparents before them. He also recalls going along to get along. When his classmates told “nigger jokes,” he remained quiet. When the Ku Klux Klan walked beside his Little League team during a Fourth of July parade, he said nothing.

While it might be tempting to think of Forsyth County as an aberration, it is anything but. The Forsyth way is as much a part of American culture as McDonald’s, baseball, and jazz. It flows from our country’s founding through its current story. It speaks to why so many Americans found comfort and hope in the slogan “Make America Great Again.” It is the word “again” that gives this phrase its powerful appeal. With a wink and a nod, it affirms the aspirations of all those who believe it is their right to live in a world where being white means being great. It also works to silence those like Phillips and his family, who lived in such communities but did not support the dominant way of thinking or acting in the world.

The story of Forsyth County is also emblematic of a certain kind of American spirit, one that is newly emboldened. Many now feel that the highest elected official in the country has heard their cries. He has given them permission to express their whiteness in the time-honored way—through acts of intimidation and terror. They spray paint swastikas and topple Jewish gravestones. They assault hijab-wearing women and shoot at turbaned men, telling them to “go back to your own country.” In this, they are not unlike generations of people from Forsyth County asserting their own white supremacy. The difference is today’s enforcers are expressing themselves not in rural communities in Georgia or Mississippi, but on the streets of New York City, St. Louis, and Philadelphia, places we would not normally look for such overt performances of white nationalism.

But white supremacists do not get the last word. They, too, must face opposition to their violent folkways. In every era, courageous individuals have responded to these atrocities by putting their bodies on the line. Famed civil rights leader Hosea Williams participated in the first, aborted commemorative march in Forsyth in 1987, and then again in the rescheduled march months later. Moses Wright, the great-uncle of Emmett Till, not only testified at the killers’ trial, he stood up in open court and identified both men. In Clarke County, Mississippi, and countless other places across the country, nameless black citizens continued to exercise their right to vote, even in the face of unrelenting violence intended to keep black people from the polls. Today, immigration lawyers offer their services for free; cities declare themselves sanctuaries; millions march and organize against race-based bans, deportations, and hate crimes. All these actors are also part of the story of ethnic cleansing in America. They, too, are shaping its content, for they, too, have the power to bend history toward a more hopeful and less hateful path. icon

  1. His press statement read, “Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.” Quoted from “Donald J. Trump Statement on Preventing Muslim Immigration,”, December 7, 2015.
  2. Jason Morgan Ward also writes of a mock lynching in Shubuta, Mississippi. In this case, lynchers applied pliers to the victim’s genitals and squeezed them until the man “confessed.”
Featured image: Protestor against the 1987 March for Brotherhood in Cumming, Georgia. Used with permission. Photograph by J Michael /