Dr. Belew is the author of "Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America."
When neo-Nazi and alt-right demonstrators attacked counterprotesters in Charlottesville, Va., last August, killing one and injuring several others, many Americans responded with surprise that white supremacists were suddenly in their midst. But white-power activism is not new, nor has it been part of an underground history. We knew. And we forgot.
Twenty-three years ago, on April 19, 1995, a Ryder rental truck filled with fertilizer exploded in front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. The bombing killed 168 people, including 19 children — the largest deliberate mass casualty event on American soil between Pearl Harbor and the Sept. 11 attacks.
And yet, in these 23 years, the bombing remains misunderstood as an example of "lone wolf" terrorism. People repeat the words of the bomber Timothy McVeigh, an avowed white-power advocate who before his execution pointed out how scary it was that one man could wreak "this kind of hell."
But in fact, the bombing was the outgrowth of decades of activism by the white-power movement, a coalition of Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazis, skinheads and militias, which aimed to organize a guerrilla war on the federal government and its other enemies.
Its network of activists spanned regional, generational, gender and other divides. Membership numbers are hard to pin down, but scholars estimate that in the 1980s the movement included around 25,000 hard-core members, 160,000 more who bought white-power literature and attended movement events, and 450,000 who read the literature secondhand.
These hundreds of thousands of adherents were knit tightly together. As a historian of the movement, I have spent a decade connecting threads among thousands of documents, including original correspondence and ephemera of activists, government surveillance documents, court records and newspaper reports.
From the formal unification in 1979 of previously antagonistic groups under a white-power banner, through its revolutionary turn to declare war on the government in 1983, through its militia phase in the early 1990s, the white-power movement mobilized through a cohesive social network using commonly held beliefs. Its activists operated with discipline and clarity, training in paramilitary camps and undertaking assassinations, mercenary soldiering, armed robbery, counterfeiting and weapons trafficking.
White-power violence was discussed in major newspapers, on public access television, on talk shows and morning news shows, on the radio, and portrayed in television mini-series and movies. How, then, were white-power activists so misunderstood by so many Americans so that today we are once again stunned to find them marching in our streets?
One answer is Fort Smith, Ark. In 1987, prosecutors indicted 13 white supremacists on federal charges, including seditious conspiracy. Jurors heard testimony about 30 gallons of cyanide seized just before it could be used to poison the water of a major city; assassinations of a talk-radio personality, fellow group members and state troopers; and endless paramilitary training, parading and harassment of various enemies. They saw two huge laundry hampers of the movement's military-grade weapons pushed through the courtroom. Witnesses described how separatist compounds manufactured their own Claymore-style land mines and trained in urban warfare.
The trial was flawed from the start. Two jurors developed romantic pen-pal relationships with defendants, and one of those couples married after the trial. Large swaths of evidence were excluded, as were jurors familiar with white-power activity in the area, which had been widely reported. One juror later spoke of a belief that the Bible prohibited race mixing.
It was such an embarrassment that — along with the calamities that were also public relations disasters at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, and Waco, Tex., in the early 1990s — it clouded prosecutors' approach to Oklahoma City and other instances of white-power violence. Framing such acts as part of a movement, they decided, was too risky; easier to go after defendants individually.
Indeed, the F.B.I. established a policy to pursue only individuals in white-power violence, with, according to F.B.I. internal documents, "no attempts to tie individual crimes to a broader movement." This strategy not only obscured the Oklahoma City bombing as part of a social movement but, in the years after McVeigh's execution, also effectively erased the movement itself from public awareness.
After a brief wave of copycat violence and subsequent small-scale crackdowns, white-power activism largely relocated to the internet. There, it gathered strength even as much of the country came to believe in a colorblind, multicultural or post-racial United States. But the white-power movement reveals a sustained current of overt racism and violence in the years we thought of as peaceful, one that is resurgent today.
White-power activity in the United States is not new, nor has it been as shadowy as we may have imagined. It was known and then forgotten. We must, collectively, recognize its strength and history, or our amnesia will make it impossible to respond to such activism and violence in the present.
An earlier version of this article misstated the month in which far-right protests took place in Charlottesville, Va. It was August 2017, not September 2017.
Kathleen Belew, an assistant professor of history at the University of Chicago, is the author of "Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America."