Home > Uncategorized > Voter suppression and the hidden story of the Wilmington coup d’etat – posted 11/29/2020

Voter suppression and the hidden story of the Wilmington coup d’etat – posted 11/29/2020

As the Trump campaign desperately flails for an avenue to use to reverse the presidential election results, they returned to a tried and true approach: throw out Black peoples’ votes. The Trump campaign has complained about Detroit, Milwaukee, Atlanta and Philadelphia votes, all places with very high concentrations of minority voters.

The various Trump lawsuits all play on the idea that predominantly Black votes are corrupt and that their votes should be excluded. That is the argument Rudy Giuliani, the President’s lawyer, has been making.

The Trump campaign has lost virtually all their lawsuits because evidence of fraud is completely lacking. They simply want to count votes in areas where their voters live and not count votes in areas where Biden voters predominate.

In considering the Trump arguments, it is easy to overlook history and how the Trump claims fit into a white supremacist narrative. Since the start of the United States, a central strategy of white supremacy was prevention and later suppression of the Black vote. The Trump campaign is the latest incarnation in a long-running playbook.

Carol Anderson, a professor of African American Studies at Emory University put it this way:

“It’s as vile now as it was during Reconstruction, when Democrats believed that Republicans were illegitimate and that Black voters had no right to be voting and they did all of those terrorist activities to block African Americans from voting.”

The extent of the violence in our history to prevent voting is little appreciated now. It has been covered up even though there is some awareness of voter suppression in devices like poll taxes and literacy tests. What is not appreciated is the use of violence since Reconstruction to suppress African American voting.

I would cite the example of Wilmington North Carolina in 1898. These events have been called a coup d’etat, a slaughter, a pogrom, and a race riot. The historian, David. W. Blight, called the Wilmington coup “first place in the 19th century gallery of horrors”. The events have remained largely unknown.

At the end of the 19th century, Wilmington was the largest city in North Carolina. 11,000 of its 20,000 residents were African American. The city was integrated and Blacks had made some political gains. In Wilmington there was a Black magistrate, Black policemen and firemen. More generally in North Carolina, Blacks had allied with white populists and had gained control of the state legislature.

Wilmington contrasted with most of the rest of the South. With its multi-racial government, it was one of the most free spots in the South for African Americans and for poor whites.

The city did not escape the notice of white supremacists. The white supremacists feared the Black voting strength in North Carolina. By 1896, there were 126,000 Black men on the voter rolls.

Things came to a head in 1898. The Democrats, a totally racist party of that time, campaigned on the theme that if their party was not returned to power, there would be an epidemic of attacks by Black men on white women. In a widely read editorial in the state-wide Democratic Party paper, Rebecca Latimer Felton wrote:

“If it requires lynching to protect women’s dearest possession from ravening drunken human beasts, then I say lynch a thousand negroes a week.”

The editorial drew a sharp rebuke from Alexander Manly, the Black editor of Wilmington’s daily paper. Manly responded that white women had freely chosen their romances with Black men. He also castigated Southern white men for raping Black women with impunity. Manly’s response circulated widely and infuriated Southern whites who demanded that he be lynched.

The Red Shirts, North Carolina’s Klan, organized a blockade to catch Manly so they could lynch him. Being very light skinned, Manly was able to escape the blockade and get out of North Carolina, unscathed. The Red Shirts did torch and burn down his newspaper’s printing press.

Simultaneously, there was a white riot. It has also been called a coup d’etat because the riot led to an overthrow of the elected government. White citizens went on a vicious rampage, roaming the streets of Wilmington. At a rally the night before the election, Alfred Waddell, a former Confederate cavalry officer, addressed a Red Shirt rally.

“You are Anglo-Saxons. You are armed and prepared, and you will do your duty. If you find the Negro out voting, tell him to leave the polls, and if he refuses, kill him, shoot him down in his tracks. We shall win tomorrow if we have to do it with guns.”

It did take guns. The Red Shirts terrorized Black citizens, chasing many into swamps and pine forests. An estimated 60 Black men were murdered. Another 2,100 Black people permanently left the area after the riot. The Democrats stuffed ballot boxes while making it almost impossible for Black people to vote without risking their lives.

The coup leaders forced Wilmington town officials to resign. Waddell became the new mayor. No one was ever prosecuted for the murders, assaults and crimes committed by the Red Shirts and their Democratic Party allies.

Disenfranchisement was the goal. By 1902, there were only 6,100 Black voters left on the voter rolls in North Carolina. As noted, that was down from 126,000 Black voters in 1896. In 1899, the North Carolina state legislature passed an amendment to the state constitution which completely limited the right of any African American to vote in the state. As Blight has written, for white supremacists Black voters became a contagion to be wiped out.

It is ironic that Trump would say the 2020 election was “rigged” when it is his Republican Party that is now attempting to disenfranchise Black voters. 120 years ago, it was the Democrats who played that role.

The theme of voter suppression is a constant in American history. It is telling that we cannot accept unpleasant facts about that history. An honest reckoning would acknowledge the Wilmington coup d’etat and would see the Trump campaign’s disenfranchisement efforts as a continuation of white supremacist history.

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