The Eerily Familiar North Carolina Coup We've All Forgotten

12/18/2016 06:43 pm ET Updated Dec 19, 2017

Although it can be hard to decide where to find the most outrageous political news as this autumn of awfulness turns to an even worse winter, North Carolina seems to be a front-runner. The state's GOP-controlled legislature, working with lame duck Republican Governor Pat McCrory, has passed a bill directly limiting the powers of McCrory's successor, Democrat Roy Cooper (among many other partisan and anti-democratic efforts undertaken by the state GOP).

These extreme political actions have been described as nothing short of a coup, a term usually associated with banana republics, military juntas, and other political systems we'd like to see as anathema to our own democratic process and practices. Yet the fact is that North Carolina has already been the site of a coup d'etat, a long-forgotten late 19th century event that has a great deal to tell us about white supremacy, voter suppression, fake news, racial violence, and what our 21st century might hold if we don't resist and defeat these forces.

White supremacist politics were the direct cause of the Wilmington coup and massacre of 1898 (subject of a new documentary film, Wilmington on Fire, which might help push this crucial event into our collective memories). While much of the region had been returned to white supremacist rule by the 1890s, North Carolina had held out, thanks to the Fusion Party, an allegiance of Northern reformers, African American leaders, and progressive white Southerners. In Wilmington specifically, Fusion candidates had won most of the city's offices in the 1894 and 1896 elections. The city's and state's Democratic Party, Ku Klux Klan, and other white supremacists made Wilmington a focal point of their campaign to unseat these democratically elected officials.

Although the white supremacists linked that campaign to the 1898 elections, they did so in the most undemocratic way possible: an organized effort to thoroughly suppress the African American vote, not simply through Jim Crow restrictions but also and especially through armed voter intimidation at the ballot box. Indeed, the white supremacists simply used the illusion of a democratic election to give cover to their plan to engineer a very specific political outcome, one in which every Fusion Party officeholder in Wilmington was replaced by a Democratic figure of the white supremacists' choosing--the very definition of a coup d'etat.

The white supremacists supported this political coup with a barrage of media propaganda and fake news, on two fronts. Throughout the campaign, the leaders used friendly newspapers across the state to spread stories of African American crime and threats, including very specific targeting of Alexander Manly, the African American editor of The Wilmington Record, who had dared to challenge the period's false narratives of lynching. Manly received numerous death threats before the election, and after the coup was ordered to leave the city within 24 hours or suffer a lynching, one singular example of the effects of this white supremacist propaganda and politics.

After the coup, the white supremacists took their propaganda and fake news efforts national. On November 26th, just two weeks after the coup (a shockingly rapid turnaround for the 1890s), Collier's Weekly, one of the nation's most widely read periodicals, published "The Story of the Wilmington, North Carolina, Race Riots," by Col. Alfred M. Waddell. Waddell, a former Confederate officer and lifelong white supremacist, was none other than one of the coup's organizers and leaders, and his version of events--coupled with a discriminatory cover illustration--painted the city's African Americans as the source of election-related violence and chaos which local and state militias had reluctantly but necessarily put down. The phrase "race riot" stuck, so much so that even a 1990s body investigating the events was called "The Wilmington Race Riot Commission."

It wasn't a "race riot," though--not unless we want to use that term as it's almost never been applied, to mean white rioters attacking non-whites. Because alongside the political coup, white supremacists and their heavily armed allies staged a multi-day massacre of Wilmington's African American community, an orgy of racial violence and destruction that left that community in tatters for decades to come. I can't capture that horrific period any better than did the anonymous African American woman who wrote desperately, amidst the unfolding massacre, to President McKinley for aid--a plea that fell on deaf ears, then and in many ways since.

In The Marrow of Tradition (1901), his profoundly powerful historical novel of the coup and massacre, North Carolina writer Charles Chesnutt describes the massacre's culminating events as "a melancholy witness to the fact that our boasted civilization is but a thin veneer, which cracks and scales off at the first impact of primal passions." The primal passions that took over in 1898 Wilmington weren't just those of hate crimes and violence--they were of a white supremacist political coup, of undemocratic voter suppression, and of media propaganda.

These forces combined to produce one of the darkest moments in American history. If are to avoid an eerily similar combination and descent into darkness, we would do well to remember the 1898 Wilmington coup and massacre.