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Seattle historian sees two reasons to hope in the face of hate

Gov. George Wallace, left, attempts to block integration at the University of Alabama on June 11, 1963.
By Warren K. Leffler, U.S. News & World Report Magazine [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Gov. George Wallace, left, attempts to block integration at the University of Alabama on June 11, 1963.

Hundreds of hate crimes have been reported since the recent presidential election, including several incidents in the greater Seattle area.  Many people are scared and uncertain about where things are headed next.

But University of Washington professor Margaret O’Mara says studying history gives her reason to hope.

[asset-pullquotes[{"quote": "Interview Highlights", "style": "wide"}]]A history of anxiety

O'Mara says there’s a long list of similar anxiety-provoking moments in American history. One incident that she’s been thinking about is the infamous speech Alabama Governor George Wallace gave in defense of white supremacy back in 1963. It’s known as the “segregation forever” speech.

O’Mara says in that speech, Wallace reached out beyond Alabamans in an attempt to connect with people all over the country.

He talks about my Southern brothers and sisters who have moved to other parts of the country. You understand our Southern way of life. You understand how these judges and these liberal elites up in Washington are getting in our business, and this isn't the American way.

She says that following Wallace's lead, politicians like Richard Nixon transformed an overt defense of segregation and Southern state’s rights into talk of “freedom and individual freedom." 

This was coded language that played on white racial anxieties. And she says this coded language is the “racial dog whistle” that people spoke about hearing so often in the recent presidential campaign. 

Two reasons to hope

Back in the 1950s and early 1960s, she says, it was often the federal government that stepped in to try to curb “hate speech and the conditions that perpetuate racial inequality and social inequality.”

But O’Mara says at other moments in history, state and local governments have taken the lead in promoting change. O’Mara sees that here in Washington state, where the Seattle mayor, King County executive, and governor have all taken stands against discrimination in the election’s wake. 

O’Mara also looks to the people for inspiration.  

"There is hope in history because at moments of surges in hate speech, there have been popular movements - broad-based movements,” she said.  

O’Mara says these movements have involved not only members of the group that is oppressed but also allies who have stepped forward and said, "This isn't right.”

And she thinks this could be a similar moment, particularly if everyone — no matter who they did or didn't vote for —  stands together to say “the majority of Americans don't feel that way.” 

Year started with KUOW: 2004