In his failed efforts to overturn the 2020 election result, Donald Trump has been accused of attempting to subvert the will of the American people by instigating a coup d’etat—an act of overthrowing or usurping lawful government powers by employing unlawful or illegal means.
What many Americans may not realize is that Trump’s motives and actions, and those of the Republican Party enabling him had their genesis in a far earlier, successful coup executed over 120 years ago. Then, white citizens conspired against a municipal government in Wilmington, North Carolina.
It’s one of the primary reasons Republicans like Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton and his ilk are so vehemently angry about re-examinations of American history from a racial perspective. Cotton’s war on the devastating analysis contained within The New York Times’ praised and influential “1619 Project,” for example is not simply about what such fresh looks at “established” history reveal about the pervasiveness and longevity of racism in this country. Instead, their rage is fueled by what deeper looks at racism—and the nation’s long history of it—reveal about the character and motivations of the perpetrators themselves. Since race-based bigotry is impossible to defend from any rational standpoint, stories and myths to mask it are the only strategy.
As for those motivations, it can be deceptively easy to assume that racism is rooted simply in discrimination on the basis of skin color. At its most basic level, that is certainly what it is—it provides an explanation even a child can understand: Others are “bad” because they “look different.”
But “looking different” is just a foundational element for racism. It’s what comes next that matters, when the implications of looking different are weighed and contemplated within the lizard brain of those so predisposed. These same types of people have continually, through the centuries, made up a huge cross-section of America. From the nineteenth-century southern inheritors of the beaten Confederacy, known then as the Democrats, to what they swiftly transformed themselves into a century later during the Civil Rights era—the same people we now know as the modern Republican Party. Today’s Republicans are simply the latest heirs to the same racist legacy post-Reconstruction that brought us Black Codes, Jim Crow, and “Separate but Equal”: It’s a legacy that now manifests itself in the coordinated effort to restrict voting among Black people and anyone who isn’t white that is voter suppression.
Out of the many acts of terroristic violence perpetrated against African Americans since active hostilities concluded in the Civil War, what occurred in Wilmington over a few days in November 1898 was not unique in its lethal character. Some 60 (probably more) Black citizens were massacred at the hands of an angry mob of white supremacists. Similar incidents of racist violence had peppered the South for decades, fueling the inception of such domestic terrorist groups as the Ku Klux Klan. But the parallels with the modern goals of the Republican Party—specifically the political reasons for the massacre, coupled with what sparked the event itself—echo today in the strategy and motives underlying the Trump campaign’s efforts to delegitimize the 2020 election.
What motivated that 1898 Wilmington coup, known as the Wilmington Insurrection—or its longtime whitewashed historical descriptor, the “Wilmington Race Riot”—were the same things that motivate Trump and the GOP today: white power, white insecurity, and white fear. All of those put together led to a sustained campaign of voter intimidation that directly prefigures the GOP’s modern-day voter suppression script.
David W. Blight is Sterling professor of American History at Yale University. Writing for the New York Review of Books, Blight, in reviewing David Zucchino’s recent book, Wilmington’s Lie, explains what happened in Wilmington at the conclusion of the nineteenth century, and why it happened. In fact, it was this country’s only successful coup d’etat, an unlawful and violent revolt by white Americans seeking to usurp power through intimidating and suppressing the black vote and thereby eliminating its impact in “a multi-racial government in the South’s most progressive Black-majority city.”
It’s an ugly story, but parts of it will seem very … familiar.
That month there was a concerted, carefully planned, and successful effort to violently suppress the black vote, eliminate Black elected officials, and restore white control of the city of Wilmington, as well as the entire state, to the Democrats for the cause of white supremacy. Leaders of the coup employed tactics ranging from vicious newspaper propaganda and economic intimidation to arson and lynching. Dozens of African-Americans were killed and Black political life in the area was snuffed out in a matter of days: 126,000 Black men were on the voter rolls of North Carolina in 1896; by 1902, only 6,100 remained.
As Blight emphasizes, “The Democrats of 1898 in North Carolina had the same aims, and some of the same methods, as today’s Republican vote suppressors, scheming and spending millions of dollars to thwart the right to vote with specious claims about “voter fraud.”
Despite the North’s victory in the Civil War and despite Emancipation, North Carolina, like other Southern states in the years immediately following the war, began implementing Black Codes, which in essence reverted Blacks to near-slave status, and refused to ratify the 14th Amendment—granting African Americans citizenship and equal protection under the law. Those circumstances changed, at least on paper, when the state held a constitutional convention in 1868 under Reconstruction, granting blacks the right to vote. As Blight notes, from that day forward, Blacks were viewed by the state’s white supremacists as an existential menace, a “contagion to be wiped out.” The supremacist-dominated “Democrats” quickly regained the governorship, and began systematically imposing legal and procedural “ruses,” all with the specific intent of disqualifying Black voters.
Despite these efforts, Black citizens continued to assert and increase their political participation and power in North Carolina, particularly in the second Congressional district, which encompassed Wilmington, which had elected several Black aldermen and employed several Black policemen. The district itself also voted in its first Black representative, George H. White.
As Blight explains, this situation was unheard of and intolerable to many highly placed and powerful North Carolinians, including the owner-editor of the Raleigh News and Observer, the chair of the Democratic Party, and Alfred Waddell, another avowed white supremacist, propagandist “orator” and congressman. Waddell would, through his fiery speeches, evoke racist sentiments “that had working-class white men on their feet with their Winchester rifles held high.”
At a rally before eight thousand people on November 7, Waddell called them to arms: “Go to the polls tomorrow,” he shouted, “and if you find the Negro out voting, tell him to leave the polls. And if he refuses, kill him! Shoot him down in his tracks!” The campaign ran training sessions on how to stuff ballot boxes and met with employers to make sure white men had the day off to vote.
Waddell had help from a homegrown base of gun-toting racists who wore specific garb to identify themselves. They called themselves the “Red Shirts,” recognizable by their clothing, which was specifically intended to make the united racists both visible and intimidating.
With the help of thousands of “Red Shirts”—bands of heavily armed men adept at intimidation and ready to kill—they sought the liquidation of Black men from political life and the overthrow of the state of North Carolina. With arsenals of guns, big and small, the campaign declared its aims overtly; … “We must either outcheat, outcount or outshoot them!” They accomplished all three ambitions.
Blight explains that the instigators of this concerted backlash against Black participation in democracy propagated a belief system that permeated much of the attitudes of the post-Civil War generation—that their (supposed) birthright had been threatened by freed slaves, who they believed had further “degenerated” by becoming “aggressive” toward white women. Everyone knows there has never been an excuse quite as handy and self-serving for white supremacists as defending the honor—and so-called chastity—of “their” white women. According to Blight, quoting historian Joel Williamson, “These lethal concoctions of race and sex in the minds of radical racists formed a ‘psychic core’… of a new, violent redemption.”
As Blight notes, such an association “drove political organization and white frenzy more than some [modern] readers may grasp.” Because It meant that Black men who were permitted the privilege of voting—or worse, governing—could compete for white women’s affections, a prospect which drove these insecure men into a frothing, uncontrollable rage. It was a rage that white supremacist demagogues played up to the hilt.
In Wilmington, the spark that ignited this teeming mass of ginned-up anger was a man named Alexander Lightfoot Manly. The mixed race and well-educated grandson of a former North Carolina governor and one of his enslaved women, Manly nonetheless identified as Black. He founded the City of Wilmington’s only Black daily, and in 1895 published a column challenging the prevailing idea that any sexual union between white women and Black men could only be classified as “rape.” In the summer of 1898, responding to pro-lynching rant by the wife of another white supremacist congressman, he published a fateful editorial.
As described by D.G. Martin, in a piece written for the local CBS Radio affiliate, WCHL:
In response to a widely circulated assertion that the only solution to Black aggression against white women was lynching, Manly wrote, “Every Negro lynched is called a ‘big, burly Black brute,’ when in fact, many of those who have been dealt with had white men for their fathers and were not only ‘not Black and burly’ but were sufficiently attractive for white girls of culture and refinement to fall in love with them, as is very well known to all.”
As noted by Blight, Manly also embellished his language with a taunt, writing that racist whites shouldn’t expect their daughters to “remain pure” while the white men around them continued “debauching” Black women.
This type of “insolent” attitude, coming from a Black man, was absolutely stupefying to white supremacists. Quoting Zucchino, Blight emphasizes that “A Black man had mocked the myths that had sustained whites for generations, piercing the buried insecurities of Southern white men.” Responding to a frenzied push among the white population to lynch Manly and destroy his newspaper, the white supremacists who had been egging on anger against Blacks convinced white voters to express their fury on Election Day: Nov. 8, 1898.
And they did just that, establishing a template for what we now know as systematic, intimidating voter suppression.
Black men in Wilmington risked their lives to vote on November 8; only about half of those registered actually cast their ballots. Democrats stuffed ballot boxes in gerrymandered black precincts and destroyed Republican ballots while white men, as Zucchino puts it, “accosted Blacks at gunpoint in some wards, forcing them to turn back as they tried to reach polling stations.” In white neighborhoods, rumors spread of Black violence—rumors that Zucchino states were “pure fiction”: “Virtually all the armed men who remained on the streets throughout the night were white, not Black.”
One local white woman who kept a diary during the election noted that the whole effort was designed to intimidate Black (men) into “never vot[ing] again.” As a result, the white supremacist-inspired effort succeeded in winning the Democrats the election, and its instigators immediately instituted measures to force out the current government. The state’s media immediately praised the remarkable election results—lauding the coup and praising its leaders, while ignoring the concerted suppression and intimidation that caused it all.
Two days later, on Nov. 10, 500 white men gathered at the town’s armory and began their rampage, killing Blacks indiscriminately and destroying Black homes and Black-owned businesses. Their initial target was Alexander Manly. Upon being informed that Manly had escaped, they set fire to his newspaper office, posing for the picture that is at the top of this post. Blacks were shot in the back, many killed on their knees or in other humiliating positions. Many of the remaining Black residents fled into surrounding woods or swamps. No one was punished or prosecuted for these murders. The police chief, board of aldermen and mayor of Wilmington were summarily removed, essentially at gunpoint, and replaced by white supremacists, including Waddell—who was declared the new mayor.
As Blight notes, the impact of the Wilmington Massacre (he calls it a “pogrom”) was felt statewide, and determined the fate of North Carolina for decades to come. The coup leaders in Wilmington immediately began propagating the false story that Blacks had instigated the violence; those responsible for the actual violence went on to prominent political careers. In the state capital of Raleigh, Blight writes, “a wave of disfranchisement and other Jim Crow laws flowed from the state legislature,” and it would be decades before the state began to “unlearn” the lessons of that massacre.
And as the years passed, the mythology of a “virtuous” white supremacy and the “unworthiness” of the Black vote continued to be passed down from generation to generation, sometimes blatant, sometimes hidden, but always present, like a shadow, waiting patiently for yet another cynical demagogue to awaken and tap into the fears, grievances, and insecurities of another willing audience of pathetic, small-minded white men.
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