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When White Supremacists Overthrew an American Government

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

"Red Shirt" white supremacists in North Carolina were central to an insurrection.

"Red Shirt" white supremacists in North Carolina were central to an insurrection.

In a coup d’état, the duly elected municipal government of Wilmington, North Carolina was thrown out of office by a group of men who aimed to deny political rights to African Americans. The 1898 insurrection was the only time in U.S. history that a properly constituted government was forced out of office. The parallels with the deadly insurrection launched on the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021 are there for all to see.

Slow Progress to Equality

The Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 that freed slaves in the Confederate states from bondage was deeply resented by whites in the South. It remains so today among many groups of white supremacists who cannot accept equality for all people.

Having lost the Civil War, southerners were not willing to bend to the dictates of Washington; they threw up roadblocks wherever they could to halt the integration of the black population into society. As a result, progress towards equality was slow, but for some it was way too fast.

In Wilmington, North Carolina African-Americans, who formed 55 percent of the population, were beginning to move out of extreme poverty as growing numbers were establishing their own businesses. Some were buying their own homes and were voting for the first time.

The BBC reports that “In the 1890s a Black and white political coalition known as the Fusionists―which sought free education, debt relief, and equal rights for African Americans―won every state-wide office in 1896, including the governorship. By 1898 a mix of Black and white Fusionist politicians had been elected to lead the local city government in Wilmington.”

Yale University history professor Glenda Gilmore told the BBC that “There was a Republican governor in the state; their congressman was a Black man. They thought that things were actually getting better. But part of the lesson about it was as things got better, white people fought harder.”

In a similar reaction, three weeks after the election of Barack Obama to the presidency of the United States in 2008, Reuters reported that “White supremacist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan and the Council of Conservative Citizens have seen a flood of interest from possible new members since the landmark election of the first Black president in U.S. history.”

1898 North Carolina State Wide Election

In the late 19th century, the Democratic Party was where white supremacists lived and the Republican Party was filled with integrationists.

So, during the state election of 1898, the Democrats ran on a platform of white privilege. They circulated outrageous lies that Black men wanted to take over the government so they could have sex with white women. Newspapers spread endless lies; whipping up fear that Blacks would destroy the society whites had built.

(The exact same tactic is used by cable TV shows on Newsmax, One America News, and Fox News today to stir up fear that liberals will obliterate American culture).

Like press involvement in the murderous events in Wilmington long ago, today’s media played an essential role in deluding and inciting supporters to violence in the attempt to steal an election.”

The Conversation, 2021

In North Carolina, people formed white militias whose members wore red uniforms. These so-called Red Shirts attacked African-Americans in a campaign of intimidation aimed at suppressing the black vote.

The day before the ballot, Democratic politician Alfred Moore Waddell issued a call for white men to “do your duty.” And, in case they didn’t understand the instruction, he spelled out his meaning in plain language: If you find a Black person trying to vote “tell him to leave the polls and if he refuses kill, shoot him down in his tracks. We shall win tomorrow if we have to do it with guns.”

The Democrats swept the state vote, but the bi-racial council in Wilmington remained as before because the municipal election was not scheduled until 1899.

A cartoon used to inflame white fear of Blacks.

A cartoon used to inflame white fear of Blacks.

The Wilmington Rebellion

Not satisfied with their sweep of the state, white supremacists fixed on changing the local government in Wilmington. Two days after the election, an armed mob of about 2,000 men rode into town and limbered up by the torching the offices of the Black-owned Wilmington Daily Record newspaper.

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With Waddell urging them on, the crowd starting killing any Black people they could find and burning down Black-owned businesses and homes. The death toll was estimated to be between 60 and 300.

Then, they stormed the city hall and forced the mayor, aldermen, and police chief to resign at gunpoint. A new council took office without the benefit of an election and Alfred Moore Waddell was declared to be Mayor of Wilmington; he held that position until 1906. He got rid of every vestige of opposition and it wasn’t until 1972 that any Black person held public office in Wilmington.

Alfred Moore Waddell.

Alfred Moore Waddell.

The rebellion was well organized with similar attacks on Black-owned businesses throughout the state. Now in control of the levers of power, the Democrats introduced laws to segregate Black and white citizens, and they used literacy tests and other bogus methods of denying African-Americans the right to vote.

The crushing of Black peoples’ hopes for a fairer place in society was complete. Not a single person was held accountable for the vandalism and murder in Wilmington.

Vigilantes celebrate burning down the Wilmington Daily Record .

Vigilantes celebrate burning down the Wilmington Daily Record .

The Aftermath of the Wilmington Coup

Soon, white newspapers began putting a new twist on the massacre; it was actually a Black race riot that white people were able to put down. This, of course, was a blatant lie that was eagerly gobbled up by the racist base.

Christopher Everett made a documentary about the event called Wilmington on Fire. He told The New Yorker “A lot of the disparities that African-Americans are going through right now are the result of things like the Wilmington massacre. This was meticulously planned, but for years it was branded as something that just spontaneously happened.”

The day that an angry rabble overthrew a democratically elected government in the United States faded into obscurity. Best not to talk about such things; after all “America is the beacon of democracy to the world.” There is a level of willful blindness associated with this view that leads to the famous warning given to us by the Spanish philosopher George Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

The hate that brewed up in Wilmington in 1898 has not gone away; it was very much in evidence in Washington on January 6, 2021.

Bonus Factoids

  • In June 2020, CNN reported that “Three Wilmington, North Carolina, police officers have been fired after they were heard on video spewing ‘hate-filled speech’ and referring ‘to Black people as the n-word.’ ” One officer said “he was ‘ready’ for a civil war and talked about ‘slaughtering’ Black people.”
  • In January 2007, 108 years after the events described above, the North Carolina Democratic Party State Executive Committee apologized for its role in the bloodshed in Wilmington. Party Chair, Jerry Meek, said “Sometimes, moving forward requires a sober look at the past.”
  • In October 2020, Bonnie Dobson, an African-American in her 50s in North Carolina, spoke to the Patch news network about the upcoming U.S. election. “Personally, I’m scared. They’re flying Confederate flags, calling you ugly things. They’re very comfortable with that now; either way it’s not going to go well.”

Sources

  • “It’s the 122-Year Anniversary of the Wilmington Insurrection of 1898—What Have We Learned?” Jon Jackson, Newsweek, November 10, 2020.
  • “Election of Obama Provokes Rise in U.S. Hate Crimes.” Matthew Bigg, Reuters, November 24, 2008.
  • “A Buried Coup d’État in the United States.” Lauren Collins, The New Yorker, September 12, 2016.
  • “Wilmington 1898: When White Supremacists Overthrew a US Government.” Toby Luckhurst, BBC News, January 17, 2021.
  • “Three Police Officers Fired after They Are Caught Using ‘Hate-Filled Speech,’ Chief Says.” Dakin Andone and Mitchell McCluskey, CNN, June 26, 2020
  • “A White Supremacist Coup Succeeded in 1898 North Carolina, Led by Lying Politicians and Racist Newspapers That Amplified Their Lies.” Kathy Roberts Forde and Kristin Gustafson, The Conversation, January 15, 2021.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Rupert Taylor

Comments

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on January 19, 2021:

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” - George Santayana, Spanish philosopher

America has a long way to go to live up to the words written in our Constitution. I hope we get there sometime soon! We need more love and tolerance in this world.

John Coviello from New Jersey on January 19, 2021:

Interesting, but very sad. Thank you for this history lesson. Unfortunately, race has played a big role in American history.

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