Though we’ve known for four years that the 2020 US election cycle would be even more fraught than the strange and painful fall of the 2016 elections, most of us still find ourselves a little disoriented these days. For some, the urgency to remove Trump from office has immobilized us. For others, it’s fortified us into action to get out the vote and to sway those who are undecided, apathetic, and reluctant.
In the final five weeks before the election of a lifetime, we asked writers to consider the undecided voter and contribute compelling arguments and ideas for making the world right. Some contributors sent us work that takes on issues with precision and gravity. Others sent us different work, perhaps an even more visceral snapshot of this alarming moment — a one-act play, an open letter, a story of exile. New writing will be published weekdays; we believe its wisdom and strength will help us all navigate the uncertainty ahead.
Down in the basement of my suburban home, I’ve filed away a little collection of documents I found in an archive many years ago, about a dozen sheets of paper from the spring of 1968. Fragments of an American nightmare.
The documents come from the Rumor Control Center that Detroit’s mayor set up in March of that year to manage the swirl of stories running through neighborhoods still panicked by the cataclysmic rebellion that had burned through stretches of the city the summer before. In its first weeks of operation, the center averaged 132 calls a day. Then Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered down in Memphis. The next day 915 people called in, the day after that a thousand, and the third day at least a thousand more. Of all the rumors they reported, the most common said that African Americans were going to march into the suburbs to kill all the white children.
That’s the fear Donald Trump tries to tap into when he tells you that your suburbs are in danger. Not the particulars of that rumor from half a century ago but the emotions that bubbled beneath it: the terrifying thought that there are people out there — rioters, anarchists, looters — who want to rip from you the most precious things you have.
And there was something else bubbling beneath the rumor. You can see it in the story’s peculiar ending. African Americans weren’t going to break into suburban stores or torch suburban homes or attack suburban homeowners. They were going to slaughter the children. What those panicked people in suburban Detroit feared in the fevered days of 1968 wasn’t the anger they’d seen on TV suddenly surging out to their streets. What they feared was a modern American Passover, with their kids turned into the first-born of Egypt, victims of a furious God determined to set His people free.
In that thought lay the deepest fear of all. There’d come a day, the story said, when African Americans would turn on whites. When they did, the violence wouldn’t be irrational. It’d be just.
The thing is, that fear has haunted white America since the first slave ship sailed into Jamestown harbor in the now controversial year of 1619. In the centuries since, whites repeatedly beat it back with fierce rounds of repression that were personal, political, and brutal. Now the president is asking us to endorse another round of repression, to be carried out by federal agents dressed in black, white supremacists waving flags of rebellion, and a mythic re-imagining of our nation’s past, so we won’t have to face the fact that we – you and I – enjoy our suburban lives partly because of injustices so great we fear that we deserve an awful retribution. But that’s the fact we must face if we’re ever going to be free of our American nightmare.
If you enjoyed this essay, please share it with an undecided voter in your life, and please consider contributing to the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
Kevin Boyle teaches American history at Northwestern University. He is the author of Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights and Murder in the Jazz Age.