The Long, White History of “Law and Order” Rhetoric: From Nixon to the Original Klan

In the midst of ongoing outrage over the murder of George Floyd, and now Rayshard Brooks, and with calls for criminal justice reform growing louder than ever before, Donald Trump has repeatedly doubled down on his pledge to be the “law and order” President. This perks the ears of anyone who has followed or studied Twentieth Century American politics. But few appreciate the full history of that phrase’s strange career in this country’s political lexicon. And none of it is pretty.

Trump’s team is presumably playing the “law and order” card in order to paint hundreds of thousands of peaceful protestors all over the country, including those violently herded out of Lafayette Park to make room for Trump’s ludicrous Bible photo op, as one and the same with the rioters and looters who took to the streets to unleash their rather understandable rage in the days immediately following Floyd’s death.

The president’s regular Tweeting of “LAW AND ORDER!” seems to be an attempt to channel the success of Richard Nixon in 1968. Nixon was keen to tap into white fears of black protestors rioting in the streets of cities across America in the wake of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., and those who had taken to the streets in the previous three years in Newark, Detroit, Watts, and elsewhere, enraged by systemic poverty, systemic racism, and militant policing.

Last week, even in announcing his forthcoming executive order vaguely and supposedly aimed at police reform, Trump explained, “The overall goal is we want law and order, and we want it done fairly, justly, we want it done safely. But we want law and order. It’s about law and order.” Later that afternoon, the President again Tweeted “LAW AND ORDER!” and this time added, “The Silent Majority has never been stronger,” making the Nixon connection even more explicit.

On Tuesday, when Trump signed the order, which is predictably toothless and wholly lacking any acknowledgment of systemic racism, he spent the majority of his Rose Garden speech tossing around “law and order” yet again, commending law enforcement, arguing that a “very tiny” number of bad seeds were to blame, and veering off topic, tellingly, to insist that “school choice,” the obsession of his most incompetent and probably most racist cabinet member, Betsy Devos, is the civil rights issue of our time.

Just as “school choice” is a colormasked way of advocating the rollback of court-ordered integration, Nixon’s law-and-order message suggested, without using overtly racist language, that he would get tough on black rioters and unleash police, or perhaps troops, on not only the looters but their New Left liberal allies like the Weather Underground, whose antics had given the Chicago police the excuse they needed to violently attack peaceful protestors outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention.

While some Trump supporters seem to think his similarly inflammatory response to the unrest will garner him a “landslide” victory in the fall, historian Kevin Kruse has argued that such a strategy in Trump’s case seems puzzling at best, given that Nixon was the outsider in 1968, and Trump is now the incumbent. Nixon was criticizing the Democratic establishment, eight years after John Kennedy assumed the presidency and four years after Lyndon Johnson won in 1964.

When Nixon used the same message in the 1970 midterms, Republicans lost seats in Congress. His team back-peddled the rhetoric in 1972, and Nixon won big again. If Trump is trying to emulate Nixon, he might have picked the wrong time and seems only to be criticizing himself and his own party, whether or not his base sees it that way.

Regardless of the Trump team’s rationale, many have taken note of not just the connection to Nixon, but the racist undertones of the law-and-order rhetoric, in general. What they might not realize is how far back such rhetoric can be traced and just how insidious its history is.

Nixon probably adopted the phrase from George Wallace, the third-party thorn in his side who inspired Nixon’s so-called “Southern Strategy” – win over disaffected whites in the formerly “Solid” Democratic South by talking about matters of race in ways that they would recognize and appreciate.

Southern whites were angry about school desegregation and had been mulling the durability of their national party affiliation since at least the passage of the Civil and Voting Rights Acts in 1964-65, if not since the Dixiecrats refused to support Harry Truman in 1948 due to his (extremely limited) civil rights overtures. Nixon’s people convinced him that strongly denouncing the unrest and standing firm on busing could win with these people and with anxious whites outside the South. It worked. And Nixon latched onto “law and order,” specifically, as a way to play to white’s fears of, and disgust with, the rioting.

The Politics of White Rights: Race, Justice, and Integrating ...

Wallace had, up to that point, used “law and order” differently, though. As I argue in my book, The Politics of White Rights (UGA Press, 2018), he employed it in the same way that most white southerners did in the 1950s and early 1960s: as a way of distancing themselves from violent acts, like the murder of children in a church, while at the same time committing themselves to fighting the civil rights movement, specifically the integration of public schools, by all “legal” means possible. 

In the late summer of 1963, Wallace used the Alabama state troopers to block the court-ordered entry of a small handful of black pupils at white schools in several cities. In defense of his actions, he stood atop a podium with violent white supremacists Bull Connor, Art Hanes, and Edward Fields and urged white citizens to “observe law and order,” so that he and others could “take any risk … within the law” to “resegregate any desegregated schools.”

When Wallace failed at that and several black students were enrolled in white schools that fall, associates of Fields planted the bomb beneath the side steps to Birmingham’s 16th Baptist Church that killed four young girls preparing for Sunday school. Many segregationists responded by calling for law and order.

In this case, that meant decrying such extreme white violence, primarily because it was counter-productive to the cause of protecting segregation and white supremacy, in the same vein that Birmingham businessmen had negotiated a settlement that spring with King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, agreeing to take down Jim Crow signage and hire a few black clerks if King would call an end to economically ruinous demonstrations and leave town.

The federal judge who convened a grand jury to look into the church bombing opined in court that the bombers were “traitors to their cause” of preserving segregation and had done “the [white] South a great disservice.” No one should “murder, or intimidate, or mock the judgment of the law,” he insisted, “no matter how distasteful or unpopular the law may be.” He argued, “Each of us has on occasion felt that a particular case should have been decided differently,” referring to desegregation rulings, “but whether we agree or disagree with the result in any case, the court’s decision is the law and must be obeyed.”

That was the law-and-order ethos for segregationists at that time: school desegregation was abhorrent and ought to be fought in every way short of violence, which had become self-defeating. From this, segregationists could fall into a milquetoast acquiescence to minimal changes (like token desegregation of a few schools), while fighting more substantial changes (like actual integration), tooth-and-nail, all without repudiating white supremacy or segregation on moral or ethical grounds.

Newspaper editors across the state of Alabama responded to the church bombing by admitting that child murder was bad and insisting that law and order were foundational principles, while at the same time registering opposition to desegregation orders and without condemning the prevailing order. They had “never endorsed integration,” but they were “certainly for law and order.” They insisted that no one had to “abandon principle to maintain a stand for law and order.” And they agreed that “senseless slaughter” was wrong, while warning that if activists continued protesting, then the “tree of civil rights” would “bear a bitter fruit indeed.”

White flight to safely-white suburbs and segregated private schools increased substantially over the following five years, while legislative efforts to forestall desegregation demanded expensive and endless litigation. When little had changed towards the end of the decade, federal courts began to grant relief when plaintiffs in school desegregation cases called for compulsory assignment plans that would achieve actual integration and not just base tokenism. Whites revolted, and the clarion call was law and order.

This time, such pleas coupled the denunciation of violence with calls to protect white rights to freedom of choice, something whites had just spent 20 years fighting as it related to black students, and freedom of association, meaning one ought to be able to live next to and go to school with people of one’s own choosing.

In lamenting the failure of what had seemed to be judicial decisions that portended real change, a decade since Brown, the Southern Regional Council observed, “We teach our children, all children, that the United States of America is dedicated to law and order. We lie.” The council condemned the calls to obey what white opponents characterized as “distasteful” judicial decisions while seeking to thwart them all the same, wondering, “What will be the awful effects of this lie upon children, black and white alike . . . when they hear us say ‘law’ and observe only ‘order.’”

Southern officials, including not just Wallace in Alabama but also the man thought to be his more moderate protégé, then-governor Albert Brewer, adopted an adjusted law-and-order stance that allowed them to continue to denounce violence, but to pledge to fight all compulsory assignment decisions, to demonize federal judges who abided by and enforced them, to criticize black plaintiffs, to accept white flight as a fait accompli, and to begin deploying more colormasked rhetoric in crafting durable legislative protections for white rights. Brewer, who received hundreds of thousands of dollars in secret campaign contributions from the Nixon campaign, at one point characterized federal integration orders as “intolerable” and suggested that perhaps white Alabamians might go to court and ask “for equal protection of the laws.”

At that time, a few black pupils were being educated in formerly all-white schools throughout the South. One thing they were able to enjoy that had not been commonplace in black schools was textbooks. Black schools typically had a minimal supply of out-of-date texts. When black children brought home their history textbooks from white schools, though, their parents were appalled by what they read. History texts were imbued with what historians now call the Lost Cause Mythology.

One such text, which was the only state-approved textbook for 4th grade pupils in Alabama as late at the mid-1970s, began its chapter on the Antebellum period by describing plantation life as “one of the happiest ways of life in Alabama before the War Between the States.” Slaves “helped with the work,” were treated well, worked enthusiastically, and had “rows of bright white teeth.” The mistress of the Big House was “the best friend [the slaves] had,” and they knew it.

Regrettably, it went, all of that was destroyed by the “War of Northern Aggression,” and a period of “Black Reconstruction” began (and in this case, the connotation of black was negative, unlike as used by W.E.B. Dubois in describing the “splendid failure”). According to the text, written by a university professor who openly admitted that his goal was brainwashing children, government was put in the hands of blacks who could not even read or write and “carpetbaggers” and “scalawags” who wanted to lie and cheat people.

Fortunately, the narrative continued, a group of white men in Pulaski, Tennessee decided that they should “do something to bring back law and order.” And a “band of white robed figures appeared on the streets.” They “rode through the towns like ghosts and disappeared.” They targeted men who did “bad, lawless things” and they “held court in the dark forests at night,” where they passed sentence on the bad, lawless people. Children read, “The Ku Klux Klan did not ride often, only when it had to.” Once “law and order” were restored, there was no need for the Klan. The children raised on this literature were the leaders of the 1970s and 1980s, when “law and order” had come to mean cracking down on disaffected black people in America’s then-blighted urban areas.

And it was not one textbook and not just Alabama. There were enough such texts to inspire the U.S. House Subcommittee on Education to hold hearings looking into the matter. Litigation ultimately led to the removal of most such books. But the implications for the current moment seem clear.

Every time white populists and nationalists have called for “law and order,” they have deployed this as colormasked language intended to support the suppression of basic black rights. And if we look again at the rhetoric of the current president, we might more closely connect past with present.

When Klansmen and other white nationalists recently marched in Charlottesville, where one man murdered a peaceful protestor with his vehicle, the president called those white folks “very fine people.” He has said the same of white nationalists who have brazenly occupied statehouse steps armed with AR-15s in opposition to COVID-19 quarantine orders, while at the same time black people are being shot for holding toy pistols, or shot in the back while running away, unarmed, or shot doing any number of non-life-threatening things that people from Trayvon Martin to Philando Castille to Botham Jean to Brianna Taylor were doing when they were killed.

Perhaps what the president really wants is a reinvigoration of white supremacist vigilante groups, and/or a renewed focus on durable legislation that protects white rights. He has already warned that if his (almost exclusively white) base is angered enough they might lash out violently. And they have, in his name. And his sycophants in Congress seem willing to turn a blind eye to anything he does, perhaps even up to his hypothetically shooting someone in the street, and to pass whatever he puts before them. Either way, as his reelection campaign falters, he has the weight of history behind him, whether he knows it or not.

Dr. Joseph Bagley is an Assistant Professor of History at Georgia State University, Perimeter College. He studies Twentieth Century American politics and law, particularly as these intersect with race and education. His work has been cited in the New York Times Magazine by MacArthur “Genius” grant winner Nikole Hannah-Jones. His book, The Politics of White Rights: Race, Justice, and Integrating Alabama’s Schools was published in 2018 by the University of Georgia Press.