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A white supremacist coup took place in North Carolina in 1898, led by lying politicians and racist newspapers who reinforced their lies
White armed insurgents murdered black men and burned black shops, including this newspaper office, during the Wilmington coup in 1898. Daily Record, North Carolina Archives and History While pundits debate whether the siege of the U.S. Capitol was an attempted coup, there is no debate about what happened in Wilmington, North Carolina in 1898 was a coup – and its consequences were tragic. These two events, separated by 122 years, have important features. Everyone was organized and planned. Each was an attempt to steal an election and disenfranchise voters. Everyone was enlivened by white racial fears. And everyone needed the help of the media to be successful. Those who study reconstruction and its aftermath know that the US has deep experience of political and electoral violence. The reconstruction was in the 12 years after the Civil War, when the South returned to the Union and newly liberated black Americans were admitted to US democracy. But few understand that the coup in Wilmington, when white supremacists overthrew the city’s legitimately elected bi-racial government, would not have been possible without the involvement of white news media. The same goes for the siege of the Capitol on January 6, 2021. As it turns out, the news media have often been the main actors in US electoral violence. This story is explored in a chapter one of us – Gustafson – wrote for a book the other – Forde – co-edited with Sid Bedingfield, Journalism & Jim Crow: The Rise of White Supremacy in the New South, which later comes out this year. In 1898 Charles B. Aycock wanted to become the governor of North Carolina. As a member of the elite class, Aycock was a leading Democrat who was the party of white supremacy in the south before the mid-20th century political realignment that gave birth to today’s parties. There was a major obstacle on his way to the governor’s office. A few years earlier, North Carolina black Republicans and white populists banded together, tired of the Democrats getting rich from public actions in favor of banks, railways, and industry. Known as fusionists, they rose to power in the executive, legislative and government branches of several eastern cities, most notably in the thriving port city of Wilmington, then North Carolina’s largest city. A Raleigh News & Observer political cartoon dated August 13, 1898. North Carolina Collection, UNC Chapel Hill Anti-Black Disinformation Wilmington, with its black majority and successful black middle class, was a city that offered hope to black southerners. Black men had higher literacy rates than white men, ran some of the city’s most successful businesses such as restaurants, tailors, shoemakers, furniture makers, and jewelers, and, to the horror of the Democrats, held public office. Democrats, seething at their loss of power, were determined to get him back in the 1898 state elections. Aycock teamed up with Furnifold Simmons, a former US official who served as the party’s campaign manager, and Josephus Daniels, editor of Raleigh’s News &. Observer newspaper. Together they slipped into a plan. Using disinformation against blacks spread in newspapers and public speaking across the state, they would instill white racial fears of “Negro rule” and “black animals” who fell victim to the “virtues” of white women. The goal: to drive a wedge into the coalition of the fusionists and lure white populists back into the democratic community. [Get the best of The Conversation, every weekend. Sign up for our weekly newsletter.] The Press and Political Power The News & Observer, the most influential newspaper in the state, was the Democratic Party’s most powerful weapon. Its editor called it “the militant voice of white supremacy”. For months before the November elections, the newspaper published articles, editorials, speeches and letters to the editor telling lies about misconduct, misconduct, crime and sexual assault against white women. White newspapers across the state, from large cities to small hamlets, republished News & Observer’s content. “The proliferation of rape by brutal Negroes against helpless white women has led to a reign of terror in rural areas,” the newspaper said. Daniels admitted years later that this claim was a lie. Knowing the power of images, Daniels hired a cartoonist to create viciously racist images for the front page. About a year after Rebecca Latimer Felton, a prominent white Georgian, gave a speech advocating the lynching of black men for their alleged attacks on white women, white newspapers across North Carolina reprinted them and argued for days about racist ones Fight hostilities. At the same time, the Democrats organized the red shirts, a paramilitary arm of the party, to intimidate black citizens and prevent them from participating in politics and ultimately voting. Alexander Manly, editor of the black newspaper The Daily Record in Wilmington, then the only black newspaper in the country, decided to fight back. To counter the lies the Democrats and Felton told about black men as “beasts” and “beasts”, Manly told the truth in a bold editorial: Some white women fell in love with black men, and when these matters were discovered, the inevitable The result was the label “rape” and brutal lynching. Manly, the grandson of a white North Carolina governor and a black woman whom he enslaved, knew white hypocrisy well. Democrats went wild, reprinted Manly’s editorials in newspapers across the state, and attacked him for insulting the “virtue” of white women. An anti-black political cartoon by Norman Jennett in the Raleigh News & Observer, August 30, 1898. North Carolina Collection, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill The Coup As the election neared and red shirts patrolled the state, the Democrats played their finals plan firmly. With few local elections in Wilmington in 1898 and seeing the city as the center of “Negro rule” in the state, the Democrats began organizing in the early fall to overthrow Wilmington’s bi-racial government and install all white officials. After the Democrats stole the state elections through fraud and violence, they sent a large group of red shirts to Wilmington. They murdered countless black men in the street; burned black shops, including Manly’s newspaper office; terrorized the black community and forced at least 1,400 people to flee, many of whom never returned; and removed and banned all Fusionists from office and installed white Democrats in their place. At the beginning of the new century, Aycock sat in the governor’s office. Black citizens were disenfranchised by a constitutional amendment, ushering in a white supremacist, one-party, kleptocratic rule that existed at least through the 1965 Suffrage Act. Then and Now For the past four years, the mostly white right-wing news media has spread lies that President Donald Trump and his allies were failing on a daily basis. Social media companies have helped turn these lies into a contagion of mass madness that radicalized a significant portion of the GOP base. Since President-elect Joe Biden’s victory in November, Trump and his political and media allies have relentlessly promoted the massive lie that liberals stole the presidential election. Like the press involved in the murderous events in Wilmington long ago, today’s media played a vital role in deceiving and inciting supporters to violence in attempting to steal an election. “The past is never dead,” wrote William Faulkner. “It’s not even over yet.” This article was republished by The Conversation, a non-profit news site dedicated to exchanging ideas from academic experts. It was written by: Kathy Roberts Forde, University of Massachusetts Amherst and Kristin Gustafson, University of Washington, Bothell. Read more: The Siege of the Capitol raises questions about the extent of the infiltration of US police by white supremacists. The Confederate flag, hoisted by rioters in the U.S. Capitol, has long been a symbol of the white uprising. The authors do not work for, consult, hold an interest in, or obtain funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article and that has not disclosed any relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.