In the early 1890s an unthinkable alliance produced an unacceptable outcome for North Carolina Democrats, as poor whites suffering from a sharp economic downturn began joining with black and white Republicans to create a multi-racial Fusion government.
To thwart this democratic uprising, leading Democrat – including News & Observer owner Josephus Daniels – planned and executed a criminal campaign centered on white supremacy to steal back the reins of power in 1898.
Their state-wide efforts achieved its murderous apex in Wilmington where months of false newspaper articles casting blacks as rapists and the government as a tool of “Negro domination” culminated in a November election marked by voter intimidation, ballot stuffing and the cold-blooded murder of about 60 African-Americans.
Wilmington’s mayor was soon forced to resign in the only known coup in American history and many leading blacks and white Republicans were banished from the city – promised a bullet if they ever returned. No one was ever held accountable for these crimes.
Instead they were rewarded. Leaders of the white supremacy campaign became revered state leaders while passing Jim Crow laws that disenfranchised blacks, ensuring that they would never again face a free and fair election. They also controlled the memory of this event, as state-issued text books taught our children that blacks were responsible for the violence.
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Zucchino – who cut his teeth at the N&O in the 1970s – reports this ugly and momentous chapter of North Carolina history in his superb new book, “Wilmington’s Lie.” He is not the first truth-teller – the African-American scholar Helen Edmonds earned that courageous honor in 1951. The novelist Philip Gerard brought the episode to life in his bracing 1994 novel, “Cape Fear Rising,” and in 2006, historian Timothy Tyson corrected the record in a 16-page supplement published by the N&O and Charlotte Observer.
Zucchino’s years of archival work and cinematic writing style provide a gut-punching level of narrative detail. His almost moment-by-moment reconstruction of the savage events is a tour de force of historical reportage.
His book is also part of the ongoing effort in books, magazines and newspaper article to address America’s often hidden racial history. Yes, most people know that slavery and Jim Crow were abominations, but Zucchino and others are replacing that broad summary with specific accounts of the breadth and depth of the systems imposed to prevent African-Americans and their white supporters from enjoying the blessings of liberty.
Jim Crow – like all systems that deny freedom – was unnatural. As with the Soviet gulags and apartheid South Africa, it required incessant work to block humanity’s natural yearning to be free. The repressive laws, institutions and ideologies that ruled North Carolina and the South were not just how things were, they were made, imposed and extended every day.
Unfortunately, however, Zucchino succumbs to present-day partisanship. In the Epilogue, he asserts that the conservative Republicans who have controlled our state legislature since 2011 have “invoke[d] the spirit of 1898” through voter ID laws and gerrymandering.
To compare these efforts – which are aimed at diluting Democratic rather than black power and .actually increased the number of African-American legislators – to what transpired in Wilmington is misguided. Indeed, as he shows us what honest to goodness white supremacy looks like, he debunks the current claims that it is ascendant today.
A more pertinent lesson from his book regards the dangers of a partisan press. Not just the N&O, but the Washington Post, New York Times, Baltimore Sun and others provided false racist accounts of the white supremacy campaign in 1898. Like Democrat leaders, they wanted a certain outcome and used the power of their pens to shape the news accordingly.
That is the greater danger today.