Lessons from the 1898 Wilmington coup: Is history repeating? | Raleigh News & Observer

Sep 1, 2023

Opinion By Mark I. Pinsky August 17, 2023 10:16 AM

I’ve finally gotten around to listening to David Zucchino’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 2021 book “Wilmington’s Lie: The Murderous Coup of 1898 and the Rise of White Supremacy.”

Zucchino, who won the 2022 North Carolina Prize and got his start as a feature writer for the N&O, recreates the gripping, infuriating story of 1898.

That year, white supremacist Democrats plotted to disenfranchise — often at gunpoint — African Americans in order to seize political control of the port city and the state from the governing coalition of Republicans, Populists and African Americans. In his book Zucchino writes that the takeover was a bloody, armed coup, resulting in the deaths of scores of African Americans.

I’ve known the broad outline of Wilmington 1898 for decades — or thought I did — always mentioning it for historical context when reporting on the Wilmington Ten case in the 1970s. The Ten were a group of young civil rights activists, nine Black men and one white woman, mostly students, who were wrongly convicted of arson and conspiracy during urban unrest in 1971 over school desegregation, when Wilmington’s Black community was targeted in armed attacks by members of the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacists.

But “Wilmington’s Lie” includes insights of 1898 and its parallels to the 1970s that I had missed. What struck me most is how relevant it seems to be today. Without overstating the comparison, what happened in 1898 eerily echoes what is happening in North Carolina and across the South, suppressing and diluting the votes of people of color. The means are modernized, but the ends are historically familiar.

The rallying cry in Wilmington in 1898 was to end Black “domination,” which Zucchino points out did not exist. At the time, Blacks were the distinctly junior partner in the governing municipal and county coalition. Thanks to voting rights reforms, Black voters today can play a dominant role in cities such as Durham and congressional districts that have large Black populations. Strong turnouts by Black voters in those cities and districts can tip a statewide election.

Many modern voter suppression methods favored by Republicans are by now depressingly familiar. They include: gerrymandering, voter ID requirements, changing registration and absentee voting standards, eliminating same-day registration, reducing hours and drop-off locations, purging voter rolls, and taking power from local governments. In Southern red states they’re making it more difficult to get referendums on the ballot, methodically suppressing the votes of people of color, as well as Democrats and progressives.

Yet throughout the South, the effect has been the same as that of the 1898 Wilmington white supremacists. Like the racist Democrats in 1898, the Republican delegation in the N.C. General Assembly today is almost all white. Republican supermajorities now exist in legislatures in states that are evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans, and minority Congressional seats have been lost.

There are still deniers who claim this implacable campaign doesn’t exist, or that it is confined to the extreme wing of the GOP. Increasingly, that argument is becoming untenable.

The litany of their accumulated grievances, adjusted for inflation and hyperbole, could come directly from the 1898 Wilmington playbook.

For example, Florida Republican presidential hopeful Ron DeSantis says he is against diversity, equity and inclusion. Where does that inevitably take you? Straight white men back on top. But 2023 is not 1898. Today, the Wilmington Civil Rights Movement has built a stronger multiracial alliance that continues to push back against the openly racist resurgence.

On Aug. 1, led by the officers of the Democratic Party, some 250 predominantly white demonstrators showed up in Wilmington to oppose the attempt by right wing-activists to have the New Hanover County school board ban the book, “Stamped: Racism, Antiracism and You.”

Their message: “We Won’t Go Back!”

Durham-based journalist and author Mark I. Pinsky is a former staff writer for the Los Angeles Times and Orlando Sentinel. He has covered Southern politics and racism for various publications and platforms since 1972.