When the Far-Right Wooed Black Panthers
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because modern militia movements are leaning on old tricks while hoping to diversify their ranks.
By Mark Hay
Picketers greeted the Ku Klux Klan with jeers and signs telling them to get out when they descended on the Missouri town of Lone Jack in 1996. Pushback against a public Klan meeting was not surprising — but the folks behind this protest were. They weren’t from a civil rights or racial justice group. They were members of the Missouri 51st, a local, far-right, anti-government militia primarily made up of about a thousand rural, mostly white, members.
“It’s almost impossible to imagine a militia rallying against the Klan today,” says Robert Churchill, a University of Hartford historian who recounted the incident in his 2009 book on militia groups, To Shake Their Guns in the Tyrant’s Face.
Such groups have more recently made headlines for darker, racially charged reasons, like their presence at the 2017 Unite the Right rally that also featured neo-Nazis and modern KKK members. But in the mid-’90s, the Missouri 51st wasn’t the only far-right militia rallying against racists. One Midwestern group claimed its members broke into the homes of racists suspected of working with domestic terrorist Timothy McVeigh, leaving convulsing, mechanical rats next to menacing notes. Their message was clear, Churchill says, that “any future terrorist attacks would be met by retribution from the militia movement.”
Beyond these aggressive protests, the 51st created a unit to operate and attract recruits in Black neighborhoods in Kansas City. Similarly, some members of the Michigan Militia cozied up to card-carrying Black Panthers at public events in Detroit. One of their leaders claimed that he’d drawn inspiration from the Panthers, and members believed they could find common ground on shared calls for greater police oversight and expanded Second Amendment protections. “Whether coming from the left or the right, they both thought of the state as an enemy,” says Matthew Sweeney, a Houston-based expert on far-right extremism.
Their strategic outreach was intended to counteract researchers and journalists who pointed out militia links to earlier, more explicitly racist organizations. Many of the ’90s militias formed in direct response to major gun control efforts in Washington and standoffs between federal authorities and fringe groups like the Branch Davidians near Waco, Texas. Their founding members didn’t really care about race — just the perceived growth of state tyranny, Sweeney says. Prominent militia figures, including eventual Three Percenters founder Mike Vanderboegh, even signed a document in 1996 banning racists while expressly distancing the movement from white supremacists.
The Michigan Militia’s messaging particularly emphasized the ostensible cross-cultural resonance of its perceived struggle for freedom, directly comparing the federal overreach its members feared to the grim history of over-policing and violence against minority communities. Its Wayne County brigade released a statement declaring that “the very concept of racism is hateful to the true freedom-loving patriot.” Although the Michigan Militia did not respond to a request for comment, the organization’s core handbook, last updated in 2011, declares that the militia includes all citizens “regardless of the hue of their skin,” and that racists will “receive the evil eye” and “a rock under which to crawl.”
Their efforts weren’t totally misguided. For centuries, Black separatists considered collaborating with open white supremacists to advance their shared goal of establishing isolated ethno-states. Malcolm X once sat down with the KKK to discuss ideas like forming a Black Klan auxiliary force. Such conversations rarely led to substantive action, Sweeney notes, because they rankled rank-and-file members. Still, the militia movements of the ’90s had some small successes, including their recruitment of J.J. Johnson, a Black man who founded his own far-right militia and called on other Black Americans to join him.
However, that outreach never got very far in the end, in part due to core cultural differences that included an unwillingness to confront or talk about race. “White guys from the burbs and rural areas didn’t have a clue what Black communities, often in urban centers, went through,” Churchill says. “I don’t think these militias could present themselves as people who really got it. In the end, they came off at best as well-meaning but kind of clueless.” It likely didn’t help that the anti-government militia movements actively opposed federal laws to fight systemic racism, such as restrictions against race-based discrimination in hiring.
Even though most of the major ’90s militias faded over the years, modern groups echo their rhetoric and tactics. Some Boogaloo Bois, for example, attended Black Lives Matter rallies in 2020 while claiming to support protesters facing off against police. These groups also assert they are not racist, with some pointing to their leadership as proof. Proud Boys chairman Enrique Tarri is an Afro-Cuban man from Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood — although the group’s promotion of his diverse bona fides is complicated by recent reports that he was a prolific FBI informant for years.
However, militia groups haven’t overcome their worst elements. Online, self-described Boogaloos peddle in white supremacist tropes, arguing that an American race war is inevitable. The aforementioned Three Percenters (despite their ties to the late Vanderboegh) have become some of the worst offenders in clashes with Black activists, even organizing a 2,000-person march at Georgia’s Stone Mountain to oppose the removal of Confederate monuments.
It should not come as a surprise then that their overtures to diverse communities have, like those of their predecessors, largely rang hollow. Or, when they approach minority activists, that they frequently get jeered — almost as if it’s the Klan itself coming to town.
- Mark Hay, OZY Author Contact Mark Hay