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North Carolina Provides Insight Into Changing Southern Politics

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Wilmington, N.C. -- Polls have shown Obama slightly ahead of McCain in North Carolina for the last few weeks. Can this be true? North Carolina has not voted for a Democrat since 1976 when Jimmy Carter won the state. But Jimmy Carter was a white candidate from Georgia, and, in many people's minds, just a "good ol' Southern boy." But Obama? The son of a Kenyan father and a white mother from Kansas? An Obama win will no doubt be a milestone for the state, but for the city of Wilmington, North Carolina, the site of the one and only coup d'état on American soil, it will mean redemption.

Wilmington's historic downtown is a Southern gem. The moss-laden oak trees form majestic canopies over the main road leading into it. Once in downtown, tourists are greeted by antebellum mansions that line the main thoroughfares. Tourists can also stroll along the Cape Fear River on the boardwalk. Amidst this beauty, there is also one inescapable curiosity: what's with the monuments to Confederate soldiers throughout downtown?

A Once Progressive Southern City

The answer lies in Wilmington's checkered past. More than one hundred years ago, black and white North Carolinians in the "Fusion" coalition had won every statewide election and started to see each other as fellow citizens. Wilmington was the biggest city in North Carolina with a large, successful black population. By 1897, there were over 1000 black property owners in Wilmington. The elected Board of Aldermen counted two African Americans among its members.

However, after the election 1896, fear began to mount among white leaders of the growing influence of the emerging black middle class. The case of Plessey v. Ferguson in the same year, which affirmed segregation laws, only served to regenerate the Democratic Party's interest in white supremacy rule.

Against this backdrop of growing political tension, Alex Manly, the editor of the African-American newspaper The Daily Record, wrote a reply to Rebecca L. Felton of Georgia in August of 1898. She had advocated the lynchings of black men who had intercourse with white women. Manly stated, "it is no worse for a black man to be intimate with a white woman than for a white man to be intimate with a colored woman. You set yourselves down as a lot of carping hypocrites in that you cry aloud for the virtue of your women while you seek to destroy the morality of ours. Don't think ever that your women will remain pure while you are debauching ours."

Plunging Into the Heart of Darkness: The 1898 Wilmington Race Riot

A white mob known as the Committee of Twenty-five led by Alfred Waddell to implement the "White Declaration of Independence" had already been plotting to take control of the city. And on November 10, two days after another uneasy election, it set itself in motion. It gathered at The Daily Record' s building and torched it. The mob then went around black neighborhoods shooting blacks and their "white nigger allies." Although the exact number of people killed may never be known, black oral history tells of the Cape Fear River stained red with the blood of the hundreds of slain blacks.

Soon afterwards, the members of the Committee worked to facilitate the overthrow of the elected city government. By 4:00 pm, the elected officials, including the Republican mayor and Board of Aldermen, as well as the chief of police, were forced to resign and were consequently replaced by men selected by the Committee. The newly placed Board of Aldermen elected Waddell mayor. The coup d'état was now complete.

By 1900, a new amendment to disfranchise black voters through literacy tests and poll taxes was added to the state constitution by voters. The black community was left without leadership because many fled or were banished from the city and had no choice but to submit. More than that, the Wilmington riot served as a model for future riots, most notably Atlanta (1906), Tulsa (1921), and Rosewood (1923). This series of riots ushered in the era of brutal segregation laws and white supremacy rule throughout the South, the era of Jim Crow.

And here we find the answer to the question at the beginning: the many monuments to Confederate soldiers in Wilmington today, like many monuments that popped up in many Southern cities, were erected during this time.

Progressive Once Again?

Given this shameful history, it is especially interesting to see what happens in North Carolina, more specifically Wilmington, during this election. North Carolina has reliably been a red state, but it is now a "battleground" state. Obama has been slightly in the lead for the last few weeks. How did that happen? The demography has been changing slowly through the infusion of Northerners and Westerners, especially in the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area, which is home to high tech industries and world-renowned universities such as Duke and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and the coastal region, which has seen an influx of retirees in search of a mild climate.

There has also been steady progress on the political landscape. Wilmington has the state's first openly gay legislator, State Senator Julia Boseman. In 2004, Boseman, a Democrat, unseated Woody White, a Republican. Boseman and White had been locked in a tight race when the North Carolina Republican Party sent out a mailer. The mailer claimed that Boseman would set a "liberal, activist homosexual agenda" in Raleigh. White refused to denounce the mailer, and the local newspaper, Wilmington Star News, retracted its endorsement. It warned that "now a vote for him would be a vote for intolerance and dirty politics." On election day, Boseman won 50.55% of the votes against White's 49.45%.

North Carolina has been reexamining its own history as well. The non-partisan 1898 Wilmington Race Riot Commission completed its final report on May 31, 2006. It was followed by a formal apology by the North Carolina Democratic Party on January 21, 2007, for its role in the riot. On August 2, 2007, the North Carolina State Senate approved a resolution acknowledging the 1898 Wilmington race riot and "expressing profound regret" for the most divisive chapter of North Carolina history. The City of Wilmington started work on the 1898 Memorial at the gateway to the north end of downtown, which will be dedicated in November.

What An Obama Win Will Mean for North Carolina

I asked Timothy Tyson, Professor of American Christianity and Southern Culture at Duke University and the author of much acclaimed book, Blood Done Sign My Name, about his thoughts on the election and its implications for North Carolina. Tyson is white and a native of North Carolina.

"African Americans in North Carolina," he noted, "have a remarkable heritage of resistance to white domination and self-expression." In addition to the famous artists such as John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk, "three of the most influential activists in civil rights movement are from North Carolina." Tyson continued, "Conservatives have tried to smash democracy here, but it has never worked for very long." His example was the sit-ins during the Civil Rights Movement that started at the lunch counter at a Woolworth's in Greensboro, North Carolina.

But how will North Carolina vote in the presidential election? Tyson pointed out that "North Carolina gave the Democratic nomination to Barack Obama [on May 6th], handing him a 16-point victory over Hillary Clinton, in spite of the fact that the governor and other leading Democrats endorsed Hillary." Obama was all but assured the nomination after the North Carolina primary.

And here Tyson ventured into a prediction by saying, "We are going to give the presidency to Obama next week, one of only two Southern states that will go for Obama." What would it mean for North Carolina if Barack Obama won in the state? What would be the significance? Again, Tyson answered, "It would show that we are on the edge of yet another new South, a forward-looking South that will rise again but with school books, not bayonets, with health care, not a Confederacy of Dunces."

If Obama wins in North Carolina, Wilmington and North Carolina will have come a long, long way since the coup d'état. North Carolina will have come full circle and will finally be able to reclaim its progressive past. North Carolina stands ready. It will be a day of redemption like no other.

More on the history of the Wilmington Race Riot and other events in North Carolina online:

http://www.history.ncdcr.gov/1898-wrrc/report/report.htm
http://www.newsobserver.com/news/1898_riots/
http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4162533