As a young African American growing up in segregated Jackson, Miss., Henry T. Wingate lived in constant fear of being assaulted, abused and harassed. When he became involved in the civil rights movement, he was a constant target of local law enforcement.
He recalled awaiting a visit in 1963 from civil rights leader Medgar Evers for advice about how to deal with a pending charge against him. But Evers never arrived: he had been assassinated the day before by a white supremacist who was a member of the Ku Klux Klan.
Wingate eventually broke out of what he called Mississippi’s “apartheid” system, when he graduated Yale Law School and returned to his home state to serve as a defense attorney, a prosecutor–and eventually as the state’s first African-American federal judge.
In an ironic twist of history, he presided over one of the trials in the first case to be prosecuted under the federal Hate Crimes Prevention Act in the Deep South. The case involved the 2011 murder of a black man, James Craig Anderson, who was beaten by a group of 10 white teenagers yelling “White Power,” and then run over by a truck operated by one of them.
Four of the youths were found guilty under the Hate Crimes Act, sentenced to long prison terms, and ordered to pay $840,000 in restitution to Anderson’s estate.
Did their crime, like the Medgar Evers assassination a half-century earlier, amount to terrorism?
Wingate now says he is leaning in that direction.
“No one wants to be labeled a terrorist,” Wingate told an audience at John Jay College Thursday—-which is why, he argued, that it may send an even stronger message of society’s disapproval than a label of “hate criminal.”
Wingate drew criticism at the time of the Jacksonville case when he linked the racist invective of the youths who killed Anderson to the willingness of many otherwise law-abiding whites to ignore the long, violent history of southern racism.
During the trial, it was revealed that the young people had regularly traveled to Jacksonville, which they nicknamed “Jafrica,” from their homes in a nearby county, to terrorize and intimidate black people.
The historic racism of the American South, which has morphed into the proliferation of white supremacist groups today, becomes terrorism when it is deployed in violent attempts to intimidate and spread fear, Wingate believes.
As the nation experienced a record rise in the number of hate crimes last year, the question of whether they should be prosecuted as terrorism was the focus of a discussion at the 14th annual John Jay/Harry Frank Guggenheim Symposium on Crime in America yesterday.
Wingate was joined by Karen Greenberg, director of the Center on National Security at Fordham Law School; Faiza Patel, director of Violence Prevention Programs at New York University’s Brenner Center for Justice; and George Selim, senior vice president of programs at the Anti-Defamation League.
Several speakers pushed back at the notion of making a blanket equation between hate crimes and terrorism.
According to Greenberg, it could give the government power to extend anti-terror practices like surveillance and putting groups on a “terrorist watch list” to any organization that promotes policies it considers destabilizing or threatening.
Racism has been a consistent feature of U.S. national life, with deep roots in American history, she said, and labeling it terrorism risks distorting the problem.
Moreover, she argued, it would have little effect on preventing the kinds of racist acts now prosecuted as hate crimes.
It’s a view shared by many national security experts.
See also: Are Hate Crimes Terrorism?
Patel countered that redefining bias crimes against specific racial, ethnic, or religious groups as terrorism might in fact contribute to giving them higher priority for law enforcement.
“Terrorism is (now) the FBI’s number one priority,” she said. “Hate crimes enforcement is its number five priority.”
But she also cautioned against “over-criminalization,” noting that hate crimes are often perpetuated by individuals with a mental illness.
“Do we want to criminalize every incident we think is motivated by hate?” she asked the panel, noting there were already 51 separate statutes on federal lawbooks defining domestic terrorism.
“We have to be very wary of over-criminalization… We don’t want to capture every small thing into a terrorism definition.”
The ADL’s Selim said his response to the question of whether hate crimes should be treated as terrorism is “sometimes.”
He gave the following examples of crimes which could fall under the category of terrorism: the gunning down of six people at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin in 2012, the 2017 killing of 26 people at a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, and the murder of 11 people by a man shouting anti-Semitic slurs at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh last year.
These incidents were acts of terrorism, according to Selim, who previous served as the director of the Office for Community Partnerships in the Department of Homeland Security, because they were targeted against specific religious groups in their houses of worship.
“These cases are examples of where I think hate crimes and terrorism are at an intersection.”
He also noted there should be “comprehensive solutions” not only from members of the FBI, but from religious leaders, elected officials and police to intervene in the cycle of violence of motivated hate crimes.
Wingate agreed that reclassifying all hate crimes as terrorist acts could complicate prosecutions.
But he noted that in the Anderson killing, the white youths involved had come from a party where over 50 young people were present.
“Some might consider it progress (in Mississippi) that just ten of those young people [committed a hate crime] and the others in the party didn’t,” he said. “But I have to wonder whether in some way those ten people constituted a (terrorist) faction.”
Earlier this month, a white army veteran named James Harris Jackson was sentenced on terrorism charges to life in prison for fatally stabbing an African American on a New York street, representing the first such conviction in New York. During the trial, prosecutors presented as evidence a manifesto written by Jackson before the murder proclaiming “the racial world war starts today.”
For a news release on the Symposium events, and a list of the 2019 Fellows, click here.
The public agenda for the conference can be downloaded here.
The 2019 symposium is organized by John Jay’s Center on Media, Crime and Justice, and supported with a grant from the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation. Additional supporters include the Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice, and the Pew Charitable Trusts Public Safety Performance Project.
TCR Senior Staff Writer Megan Hadley contributed reporting for this story