The Art of the Backlash
From the Wilmington Massacre of 1898 to the present day, America’s legacy of vigilantism against Blacks — as well as their white allies — is alive and well
When I researched an article on the Wilmington Coup of 1898 earlier this year, several things struck me about this little-known historical event. As I delved into the motivations for the attack on the Port City, I was stunned, not only by its diabolical efficiency but also by the plot’s familiarity.
One thing that stood out was the blatant, unapologetic racism of the massacre’s perpetrators, not just against Black Wilmingtonians but also against the whites who dared to align themselves politically with Blacks. Here’s how I described 1898’s Wilmington Massacre, which holds the distinction of being the only successful coup d’etat in the nation’s history:
On November 10, 1898, White supremacist Democrats staged a violent attack by an armed mob of roughly 2,000 White men in Wilmington, North Carolina. Led by the city’s light infantry and a band of vigilantes armed with rifles and a Gatling gun, their objective was to remove the city’s elected Fusionist government to install White supremacist Democratic Party members. The mob forced the city’s elected leaders out of office at gunpoint, demolished local businesses, and destroyed the property of Wilmington’s Black citizens, including The Wilmington Daily Record, the city’s Black-owned newspaper.
It’s essential to recognize that the 1898 massacre wasn’t a one-off event. As with Trump’s propagation of the so-called Big Lie, for months before the attack on what was then the largest city in North Carolina — and majority Black — Democrats and wealthy whites plotted openly to stop Blacks and their white allies from voting.
To ensure that Blacks would never again exert what whites referred to as “Negro domination” over whites, the massacre’s perpetrators enacted a political platform based solely on white supremacy. North Carolina Democrats were so confident their whiteness alone placed them atop the hierarchy of humanity they didn’t just say the quiet part out loud — they shouted it from the rooftops:
[Democratic State Party Chairman Furnifold] Simmons recruited sympathetic media outlets to assist with the Democratic disinformation strategy, such as The News & Observer and The Charlotte Observer, The Caucasian, and The Progressive Farmer. During the 1898 election campaign, Democrat-aligned newspapers portrayed Blacks as insolent, disrespectful of whites in public, corrupt, and made claims of Black men’s alleged unwelcomed interest in White women. Simmons accused White Fusionists allied with Black Republicans of supporting “Negro domination” and a breakdown of law and order.
There is a through-line from the fear and intimidation tactics used in 1898 Wilmington, North Carolina to the extrajudicial vigilantism of the Civil Rights era, to the uptick of right-wing vigilantism posing as “self-defense” we see today.
In 1898, Democrats worked in conjunction with law enforcement and Red Shirts , a paramilitary forerunner to the Proud Boys, Oath Keepers, and other militia groups, to terrorize and disenfranchise Blacks and their white allies.
Today, we see one example after another of the link between white supremacist organizations and law enforcement — from Kenosha, Wisconsin, where police allegedly ‘deputized’ militia vigilantes during the Jacob Blake protests — to Sacramento, California, where, according to The Guardian, police officers not only sympathized with white supremacists but sought the help of neo-Nazis in targeting counter-protesters after a violent 2016 rally:
California police investigating a violent white nationalist event worked with white supremacists in an effort to identify counter-protesters and sought the prosecution of activists with “anti-racist” beliefs, court documents show. The records, which also showed officers expressing sympathy with white supremacists and trying to protect a neo-Nazi organizer’s identity, were included in a court briefing from three anti-fascist activists who were charged with felonies after protesting at a Sacramento rally. The defendants were urging a judge to dismiss their case and accused California police and prosecutors of a “cover-up and collusion with the fascists.”
The more I learn about the overthrow of Wilmington’s multiracial government in 1898, the more I am struck by the massacre’s striking similarity, not just to the events of January 6 but to the white backlash following the election of Barack Obama.
Indeed, Black political progress followed by white backlash is a pattern repeated throughout the country’s history, as is white supremacist violence inspired by white solidarity with Blacks. The recent acquittal of Kyle Rittenhouse for the killing of two whites allied with the Black Lives Matter movement may be a harbinger of more violence to come.
And like the North Carolina Democrats of 1898, Republican Party’s strategy intends to appease the fear among its predominantly white base that its status as America’s privileged class is slipping away.
The GOP’s tacit approval of violence, its deconstruction of common truths, and the willingness to contradict what we see with our own eyes are part and parcel of an overriding strategy: holding onto power at all costs.