In 1898, Wilmington, North Carolina was a majority black town. Three of the city’s 10 aldermen and 10 of its policemen were black; there were black postmasters and magistrates, a black county jailer and treasurer, a black federal customs agent, a black state senator and U.S. representative. Two banks were black-owned, as was a newspaper. Blacks owned property and some were quite wealthy. Black professionals included lawyers and doctors. 1898 was about 12 years after Reconstruction had collapsed in other states of the former Confederacy. For a group of influential white men, this was intolerable. They formed a conspiracy to reverse gains achieved by black citizens – through whatever means necessary, including violence.
They planned and organized for months before the 1898 election. A massive propaganda campaign raised the (false) specter of the black man as the rapist of white women. White-owned newspapers published blatant lies, provoking hatred, anger, and violence against black people. White supremacists organized vigilante groups who armed themselves, while businesses refused to sell firearms to black citizens. Whites intimidated and threatened black people and their allies – if they voted, their property would be burned and they and their families would end up dead.
In the event, 60 black men were murdered; 50 blacks and white allies were banished from Wilmington forever; their businesses and homes were burned; a majority black city (56%) became majority white, as people fled to safety elsewhere. The black population eroded to 18.3% in 2018, black voters in North Carolina plummeted from 126,000 in 1896 to 6,100 in 1902. In 1899, only 21 of Wilmington’s black citizens registered to vote; only five went to the polls.
“The killings and coup in Wilmington inspired white supremacists across the South. No one had ever seen anything like it. Wilmington’s whites had mounted a rare armed overthrow of a legally elected government. They had murdered black men with impunity. They had robbed black citizens of their right to vote and hold public office. They had forcibly removed elected officials from office then banished them forever. They had driven hundreds of black citizens from their jobs and their homes. They had turned a black-majority city into a white citadel.”[*]
Though the coup organizers were perfectly comfortable calling themselves “white supremacists,” they disguised the nature and cause of the 1898 events, characterizing them as a race riot instigated by blacks. They must have known that what they did would not be well-received by everyone, particularly in the North (though anti-black sentiment was also widespread there, evidenced by how quickly Northerners accepted the white supremacists’ lie). The myth of the Wilmington ‘race riot’ was accepted throughout the country until 2006 when an investigation initiated by two black state legislators published a 480-page report describing what really happened.[†]
“It concluded that the coup was a ‘documented conspiracy’ by Wilmington’s white elite to overthrow a legitimately elected government ‘Through violence and intimidation.’ White supremacists statewide were incited to violence by Josephus Daniels and his News and Observer [newspaper], the report said. Federal and state authorities failed ‘at all levels’ to respond to the violence or punish the perpetrators. The report concluded that the coup and killings led directly to strict residential segregation in Wilmington, decades of Jim Crow discrimination, and the disenfranchisement of the state’s black citizens.”[‡]
This is the history that today’s white supremacists (many would deny the label) don’t want taught in our schools. It wasn’t taught in my elementary or high school, university or law school. It wasn’t even known until 2006! This hidden history and the myths created to disguise it have assured that racism lives on, allowing dominant white society to deny it, arguing that we are a post-racial society and, in fact, white people are the disfavored group whose rights are jeopardized.
The fear that lies at the heart of MAGA is the same fear that motivated the white citizens of Wilmington in 1898 -- the fear of being a minority, ruled by black people, the fear of losing white privilege, the fear of being treated the way ‘we’ have treated ‘them.’ Today it’s known as “The Replacement Theory.” The one commonality among the January 6, 2021 insurgents was their residence in a county where the white share of the population was in decline.[§]
Though white rage is more obvious today, it has been a major force since emancipation. While the South was defeated in the Civil War, that defeat was not accepted by a broad swath of citizens of the Confederacy and it has haunted this country ever since. Among the most obvious examples are the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazis, the Aryan Brotherhood, The Order, and the Posse Comitatus. Militias formed throughout the country. The media presented them as separate, isolated, and aberrant groups, whose leaders were mentally unstable. Just so, Timothy McVeigh, who bombed the Oklahoma City federal building in 1995, was treated as a disturbed individual acting on his own with a couple co-conspirators. In fact, he was a member of the KKK, connected to the “white power movement’s war-on-government leadership . . . .”[**] According to Kathleen Belew, author and history professor, supposedly disparate groups were all part of the White Power Movement.
Those who organized the January 6, 2021 insurrection don’t need to reinvent a strategy for a coup. Wilmington provides it. Whether they are even aware of it, their efforts are eerily similar. Widespread propaganda (i.e. lies – Trump won the 2020 election); fear-mongering; stripping power from election officials who can’t be controlled; destroying ballots; stuffing ballot boxes; gerrymandering; passing voting laws and regulations aimed at eliminating black votes; using threats, intimidation, and violence. As Gellman writes, “[T]he chaos wrought on that day was integral to a coherent plan. In retrospect, the insurrection takes on the aspect of a rehearsal.”[††]
[*] Zucchino, David, Wilmington’s Lie: The Murderous Coup of 1898 and the Rise of White Supremacy, New York: Grove Press (2020), p. 329.
[†] In 1951, Helen Edmonds, a black scholar, debunked the white myth in a meticulously researched doctoral thesis. White supremacists were still dominant and were able to bury it.
[‡] Zucchino, 341.
[§] Pape, Robert A., “The Jan. 6 Insurrectionists Aren’t Who You Think They Are,” Foreign Policy (January 6, 2022).
[**] Belew, Kathleen, Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America, Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts (2018), p. 213
[††] Gellman, Barton, “Trump’s Next Coup Has Already Begun,” The Atlantic, December 6, 2021.