In 1898, one of the most shameful episodes in American political history occurred. Today called a coup d’etat, it is the only known case in the United States in which a municipal government was overthrown by violence. On May 31, 2006, the state of North Carolina issued a report on this event, which took place in the city of Wilmington.
The story begins in the aftermath of the Civil War. During Reconstruction, the federal government guaranteed voting rights for blacks in the South, most of whom became Republicans. This led to the election of many blacks and Republicans to federal and state offices in states such as North Carolina, which had been part of the Confederacy.
But the end of Reconstruction in 1877 saw the withdrawal of federal troops from the South, leaving blacks and white Republicans vulnerable to attack by the Ku Klux Klan, which was essentially an arm of the Democratic Party. With the suppression of black and Republican votes, Democrats quickly regained power and acted to keep it by disenfranchising black voters with gerrymandering, literacy tests and poll taxes.
In the early 1890s in North Carolina, however, the Republican Party made a comeback by uniting with the Populist Party, which had a strong following among poor white farmers. The Populist Party split the white vote, leading to victory for the Republicans in the legislature in 1894. In 1896, Daniel Russell became the first Republican governor of North Carolina since Reconstruction.
Following these defeats, the Democratic Party of North Carolina came under the control of a brilliant organizer named Furnifold Simmons, who played the race card for all it was worth to retake power. A statewide campaign was waged using the most demagogic rhetoric and methods ever seen in an American election.
One tactic was to revive the KKK, which had largely faded away, but under different names. One of these quasi-Klans was known as the Red Shirts, the color representing the black blood they were prepared to spill. Another group was called the White Government Union. All were closely allied with the Democratic Party.
Chief spokesman for the racist Democrats was Josephus Daniels, owner and editor of the Raleigh News and Observer newspaper. The publication was unrelenting in depicting blacks in the most negative possible light, especially in its editorial cartoons, many of which are reprinted in the state report.
In his memoirs, Daniels freely admitted his role in the white supremacy campaign. Said Daniels, "The News and Observer was relied upon to carry the Democratic message and to be the militant voice of white supremacy, and it did not fail in what was expected, sometimes going to extremes in its partisanship."
Amazingly, Daniels remained a pillar of the national Democratic Party until his death in 1948. He was Woodrow Wilson’s campaign manager in 1912 and was rewarded by being appointed secretary of the navy, where he immediately reinstituted racial segregation throughout the department. Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed him to be ambassador to Mexico.
As the 1898 election approached, violence against blacks and Republicans reached a fever pitch. Alfred Moore Waddell, a prominent Wilmington Democrat who had served four terms in Congress, gave an incendiary speech the night before the election that reflected the mood. "Go to the polls tomorrow," he said. "If you find the Negro out voting, tell him to leave the polls. And if he refuses, kill, shoot him down in his tracks. We shall win tomorrow if we have to do it with guns."
The culmination of the Democrats’ racist campaign was a riot throughout Wilmington on Election Day. Many died, and all the Republican municipal officials, whose terms didn’t expire until the next election, were forced to resign at gunpoint. Democrats retook control and quickly moved to cement their power by arresting prominent Republicans and driving others out of the city permanently.
By 1900, the Democratic Party was back in complete control of North Carolina, which it would hold for another 80 years. There were no recriminations for the Wilmington coup, and many instigators in the conspiracy went on to have prominent careers in state politics.
Sadly, a similar story was told throughout the South, where the Democratic Party ruled with an iron hand. And the foundation of its power was racism. Blacks were systematically kept down economically and politically with Jim Crow laws and lynchings. Black men were thrown in jail on the flimsiest of charges, where they were put on chain gangs and leased to white plantation owners for a pittance, in effect reinstituting de facto slavery.
All this was done by Democratic governors and legislatures. Although frowned upon by Northern Democrats, the national party was too dependent on Southern votes to do anything about it. The state of North Carolina deserves great credit for helping to bring this history to light.
Note: The report of the 1898 Wilmington Race Riot Commission can be found at www.ah.dcr.state.nc.us/1898-wrrc/report/report.htm.