Making sense of the violent attack on the Capitol
with some historical perspective on white supremacy and the press
The past is always with us.
Well after Reconstruction, white supremacists—organized and incited to violence by the leaders of the Democratic Party—overthrew the duly elected bi-racial government of Wilmington, North Carolina, in an orgy of violence. They murdered Black men in the street, exiled successful Black citizens and their white allies, burned the office of the Black newspaper, and installed an all-white government of political partisans. Just two days earlier the Democrats had stolen the state election through electoral fraud and anti-Black violence, all in the name of white supremacist rule.
At the middle of it all was the white press, used to spread vicious anti-Black lies across the state and radicalize the white community.
They say that history rhymes.
In 1898, Wilmington was a thriving port city in North Carolina, a shining city of promise for Black people across the South. A majority Black city with a thriving Black middle class, Wilmington was the largest municipality in the state. And its government was composed of both Black and white men.
These men, like the North Carolina governor and the state legislature, were members of the interracial Fusionist political coalition that swept into power across the state in 1894. During the depression of the 1880s, struggling white farmers became disenchanted with the elite white Democrats, who enriched themselves (and no one else) with state policies favoring railroads, industrial interests, and banks. The white Populist Party emerged and soon realized it shared existential economic interests with Black Republicans. The two groups aligned forces in the Fusionist Movement, focusing their agenda on free public education and the enfranchisement of Black men.
Just one generation removed from the end of the Civil War and the end of slavery, Black Southerners by 1898 had made impressive gains. Many had gained valuable political experience during Reconstruction’s radical experiment in building multiracial, truly democratic governments across the states of the former Confederacy. And the Black community had knit itself together through establishing and promoting schools, literacy campaigns, churches, businesses, newspapers, and strong kinship networks of mutual help. In 1898, Wilmington was a showcase of Black achievement in the New South, with Black men’s literacy rates outstripping those of white men.
But the white Democrats, used to holding the reins of both political and economic power, were determined to regain control. The Fusionist coalition was vulnerable, and Democrats knew it. In 1898, the so-called leading men of North Carolina put together a brilliant if evil campaign plan to drive a wedge between the white Populists and the Black Republicans and bring the Populists back into the Democratic fold.
What wedge issue to use? White fear of Black political and economic power.
How to weaponize the issue? Tie these fears to propaganda about “Negro rule” and “Negro domination” and lies about Black men as sexual predators of white women.
How to spread this propaganda across the state, in every hamlet, town, and city, and whip white anxiety and fear to a fever pitch? Through racist news articles, editorials, speeches, and noxious political cartoons, run day-after-day-after-day in the most powerful white daily newspapers in the state.
The newspaper at the middle of it all was the Raleigh News & Observer in the state capital, initially funded by wealthy industrialist Julian Carr (a founder of Duke University and Ku Kluxer) and published and edited by Josephus Daniels, a key ally of the state’s Democratic Executive Committee (later secretary of the Navy and ambassador to Mexico).
Daniels understood the power of visuals, and he ran his cartoonist’s racist depictions of Black people on the front page.
Other white newspapers across the state ran stories and cartoons the News & Observer published. Hardly a person in the state could escape the propaganda demonizing Black citizens of North Carolina as criminals, loafers, vagrants, and sexual predators. The Democrats sent their best orators around the state to tell dark tales of Black malfeasance and paint a bleaker picture still of what awaited white people if Black people continued to make political and economic advances. Their most incendiary material was the lie that Black men posed a dangerous, ever-present threat to white female virtue.
Alexander Manley refused to let the lie stand. And as the editor of Wilmington’s successful black newspaper The Daily Record, believed to be then the only daily Black newspaper in the country, he had a forum to make his voice heard. When Rebecca Latimer Felton, a prominent Georgian, gave a speech advocating the lynching of Black men who, she said, harbored a “brutal lust” for white women, newspapers across the state printed it. Manley responded with a fiery editorial that told the plain and obvious truth: some white women actually courted the attentions of black men and such liaisons too often ended with black men accused of rape and lynched.
Manly, the descendant of a white governor and a Black woman he enslaved, had another truth to tell:
“Every Negro lynched is called a ‘big burly, black brute,’ when in fact many of those who have thus been dealt with had white men for their fathers, and were not only not ‘black’ and ‘burly’ but were sufficiently attractive for white girls of culture and refinement to fall in love with them as is very well known to all.”
The Democrats seized on Manly’s editorial, printing it repeatedly in newspapers across the state, using it as “evidence” of Black insolence and sexual interest in white women and warning endlessly of the danger of “black beasts” and “black brutes.”
Meanwhile, Democratic Party leaders made corrupt deals with wealthy industrialists, bankers, and railroad tycoons, promising to cut corporate taxes in return for the financial support needed to fund their campaign.
As the November election neared, the Democrats turned their attention to Wilmington. They had a plan to make sure they won the state legislature. They would intimidate black voters with violence to keep them from the polls. If that somehow didn’t work, they would stuff the ballot boxes. But Wilmington was not slated for an election. And they wanted to crush the Fusionist coalition everywhere in the state. Nowhere was it more successful than Wilmington.
Alfred Waddell, a former Confederate soldier and US congressman, was the Democratic ringleader in Wilmington, giving fiery speeches that riled up his white crowds. “We will never surrender to a ragged raffle of Negroes, even if we have to choke the Cape Fear River with carcasses,” he said. Red Shirts, a white paramilitary group known for the red shirts they wore, roamed the city attacking Black residents and warning Black men not to vote.
On November 10, two days after the Democrats successfully stole the state election and a white mob forced the Fusionist governor to flee the state for his life, the violent coup in Wilmington began.
By the end of the day, Waddell had installed himself as mayor, the bodies of Black men lay strewn throughout the city, Black business areas and communities had been burned and ravaged, the Fusionist government had been overthrown, and thousands of Black citizens had fled for their lives. Many never returned.
One of the first acts of the new legislature in North Carolina was to disfranchise Black men through a constitutional amendment.
Note: much of this narrative is taken from Timothy Tyson’s brilliant account “The Ghosts of 1898: Wilmington’s Race Riot and the Rise of White Supremacy,” Raleigh News & Observer, 11-17, 2006. Read it here.