The Violent, Racist Meaning of “Redemption”

In foretelling bloody insurrection in the event of a Clinton victory, Kentucky’s governor invoked America’s history of racial reaction.

Gov. Matt Bevin speaks at the National Rifle Association's NRA-ILA Leadership Forum during the NRA Convention at the Kentucky Exposition Center on May 20, 2016 in Louisville, Kentucky.
Gov. Matt Bevin speaks at the National Rifle Association’s NRA–ILA Leadership Forum during the NRA Convention on May 20, 2016, in Louisville, Kentucky.

Scott Olson/Getty Images

Over the weekend, Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin stopped in Washington to speak at the Values Voter Summit, an annual gathering of social conservatives. In his speech, the Tea Party politician addressed a dark question about America’s future under a second President Clinton:

Somebody asked me yesterday, I did an interview, “Do you think it’s possible, if Hillary Clinton were to win the election, do you think it’s possible that we’ll be able to survive, that we’d ever be able to recover as a nation?” And while there are people who have stood on this stage and said we would not, I would beg to differ. I do think it would be possible, but at what price? At what price? The roots of the tree of liberty are watered by what? The blood of who? The tyrants, to be sure, but who else? The patriots.

Whose blood will be shed? It may be that of those in this room. It might be that of our children and grandchildren. I have nine children. It breaks my heart to think that it might be their blood is needed to redeem something, to reclaim something that we, through our apathy and our indifference, have given away. Don’t let it happen.

Bevin is not the first Republican to suggest armed insurrection in the event of a Democratic victory. And conservative rhetoric around the Second Amendment often takes, as a given, that it was placed in the Constitution as a safety valve against “tyranny,” with the clear implication that a present or future Democratic administration might be reckoned such.

But Bevin is the first to make an explicit case, untempered by euphemism or evasion. Pay attention to his language. “It breaks my heart to think that it might be their blood is needed to redeem something, to reclaim something that we have … given away.” Bevin may not realize it, but in the context of violent insurrection, “redeem” has a particular meaning in the United States.

From their inception, the Reconstruction governments of the postwar South were under constant assault from recalcitrant rebels and supportive whites of various stripes, from secessionist Democrats and Confederate veterans, to the remnants of the old planter aristocracy, and young modernists who saw blacks as a threat to their vision of a new South.

They called themselves “Redeemers,” and backed by a bloody campaign of racial terrorism, they drove blacks and liberal whites from government, “reshaping the South’s legal system in the interests of labor control and racial subordination,” as historian Eric Foner writes in his seminal work, Reconstruction.

Once in power, they worked hard to replicate the conditions of slavery, driving blacks into peonage and sharecropping, dismantling anything that could uplift them (or poor whites, for that matter). “Redemption,” in other words, meant absolute white supremacy.

We don’t know if the Kentucky governor knows this history. He probably doesn’t, and he likely meant nothing by his use of the word “redeem.” But we know that, in the context of American history, “redeem” stands for violent, racist reaction. And knowing that, it’s hard not to hear Bevin’s words in the context of our political moment, when the chief obstacle to the Obama coalition of nonwhites and their liberal allies is a campaign of explicit prejudice and white nationalism.

Given this backdrop, to say that we might need to “redeem” the country in the event of a Hillary Clinton victory is to evoke our vicious past and the campaign of terrorism in the 19th century that toppled this country’s first real experiment in biracial democracy. It blows a dog whistle to the right’s unreconstructed elements, but just as surely it offers an important reminder to the rest of us: Progress isn’t linear, and it isn’t guaranteed. Things can get worse. And when they do, it can take generations to make them better.

Read more Slate coverage of the 2016 campaign.