It was a thriving port town on the East Coast. Unlike most cities in the North, the bustle of the city wasn’t born on the backs of white leaders. The local African American population — who made up well over half of the city’s roughly 25,000 residents — largely ran this Southern hub. They owned restaurants, tailor shops and other businesses you and I rely on today. But the city’s leadership was about to be upended, along with the essence of this majority Black community, and the change wouldn’t be peaceful.
It was 1898, and a white, largely suit-donning militia rode through town and violently overthrew the government of Wilmington, N.C.
The racist marauders left 14 dead — an unserious number officially offered by the white coroner — even as thousands of Black residents fled and never returned to their homes. While Wilmington was North Carolina’s largest city in the 1890s, the records of the atrocity aren’t entirely clear, but it’s believed at least 60 Black men were actually killed that gruesome day.
A Successful Coup D’état on U.S. Soil
It was the only successful coup d’état in American history. The mob of white men sought out The Daily Record — the city’s leading Black-owned newspaper that was a shining symbol of the freedom they fought for — and they burned it to the ground.
The city’s aldermen were forcibly removed from office and replaced with conservative Democrats whose power stemmed from the gun, torch and rope-wielding white supremacists. Once the new leaders stole the seat of power, the newly minted aldermen quickly installed former Confederate colonel Alfred Waddell as mayor. The coup is often referred to as an insurrection — something we’re all too familiar with these days.
“That was toward the beginning of a wave of activity across the South—not all of it so flagrantly violent—but that was the beginning of white supremacists, Democrats, in their mind, reclaiming or ‘redeeming’ Southern governments,” Robert Lieberman — a professor of political science at John Hopkins University and author of Four Threats: The Recurring Crises of American Democracy — tells The News Station.
Though we don’t typically learn about things like the Wilmington Massacre in school, there is a long list of violent racial clashes that occurred during this era, which shaped the politics of the time — and continue to shape our own.
Today, American democracy is once again in the throes of a perilous crisis. The Republican Party is overtly working to suppress the vote, as it has in the past, but it is now taking anti-democratic efforts in an extreme new direction. Not only are GOP-controlled state legislatures passing measures to make it harder to vote, especially for people of color, in some states they’re giving themselves the power to genuinely overturn elections.
To understand what’s happening in our own era of democratic struggles, we need to dust off some of our shared history, because it truly wasn’t that long ago when this violent, self-righteous and blind anti-democratic wave spread across the South. That period — starting right after the Reconstruction era — is surely different from today, but the notable similarities can teach us something.
One Voice, One Vote
There was a backlash after Black Americans got the right to vote, according to Lieberman. The 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution granted millions of Americans the right to vote for the first time, but Lieberman tells The News Station it also sparked a flame that soon engulfed the South. Those flames threatened to destroy all the accomplishments of the hundreds of thousands of Americans who bled out on battlefields in defense of the always elusive American ideal.
“After decades of what you would describe as the democratization of the United States—enforcement of voting rights for African Americans, high voter turnout and Black office holding—there’s a reaction to this that’s stoked by the white supremacist forces,” Lieberman says.
Conservative Democrats in the South did everything they could to maintain power using, “a combination of violence and legal tactics to disenfranchise African Americans,” Lieberman says.
This led to what we know as the Jim Crow Laws, which remained largely intact until the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965.
Between the 1890s and the 1960s, the South was essentially large to small “pockets of authoritarian rule” within the federal democracy, according to Robert Mickey, a professor of political science at the University of Michigan.
“The most important thing they did was make it hard to vote and have elections to elect delegates to rewrite state constitutions,” Mickey tells The News Station. “The delegates elected to those constitutional conventions were largely just the supporters of the conservative Democrats. They wrote these constitutions that didn’t just make it impossible for African Americans to vote but also for a lot of their white political opponents.”
Henry Cabot Lodge to the Rescue
One bill that could have helped curtail some of these anti-democratic trends was introduced by Massachusetts Rep. Henry Cabot Lodge in 1890. The legislation would have allowed federal supervisors to oversee elections in the South, so they could ensure Black Americans could practice their most basic human right, their voice — their vote. The measure passed the U.S. House of Representatives. It was supported by then-President Benjamin Harrison. There was a hitch though: It failed in the Senate thanks to… the filibuster. Sound familiar?
Conservative Democrats in the South became obsessed with “winning at all costs” during this time, Lieberman says. The thirst for power quickly trumped any espoused affinity for democracy. A similar mentality has crept into today’s GOP, which is why Lieberman now calls the Republican Party the “biggest threat to democracy in the United States today.”
“This is a party that, especially over the last couple of years, seems to have lost its democratic moorings,” Lieberman argues. “If you came from another country and were looking at the United States party system right now, you would not say that the Republican Party is committed to upholding the norms and behaviors of a democratic system.”
As for what we can learn from this part of American history, neither Lieberman nor Mickey can provide one specific way to defeat these un-democratic ghosts of America’s past. Still, Mickey does offer one lesson we should draw from this racist, largely forgotten and utterly anti-democratic era.
“The thing we learned from Reconstruction is that you have to protect democracy at the federal level. You can’t go state by state,” Mickey recounts. “The only way to fight what’s going on at the state level is through national legislation that somehow survives the threat of being struck down by a conservative, Republican Supreme Court.”
If Democrats fail to pass this kind of legislation, the United States will almost certainly continue to experience democratic backsliding. American democracy will “continue to corrode,” Mickey laments.
If that happens, it could be decades before we recover—if we ever truly recover at all.