As I mentioned in a blog post last week, the John Locke Foundation is making a movie. It’s a love story set in Wilmington at the time of the 1898 massacre and coup. According to Amy O. Cooke, CEO of the JLF, “One group not thrilled with our project is the progressive left.”

But Cooke is missing the point. It’s not that we’re “not thrilled.” We think it’s hilarious. The folks at JLF think they’re dunking on Democrats when they’re really just exposing their ignorance. 

It’s funny on so many levels. The Locke Foundation calls itself a conservative think tank while in 1898, Democrats were the conservative party. The MAGA Republicans that the Locke folks support are the ideological descendants of the reactionary Democrats who led the coup and disenfranchised Black voters. African Americans became a political power in Wilmington because barriers to voting were lifted while JLF has consistently urged measures that make voting more difficult. And, finally, what might be the Whitest non-profit in the entire South is making a movie that’s supposed to link Democrats today to White supremacy. It’s both funny “ha-ha” and funny “strange.”

The North Carolina Democrats of 1898 have little resemblance to the Democratic Party today. Back then, the Democrats were the conservative party throughout the South—and they had been since before the Civil War. They were the party of states’ rights. They supported strict limitations on immigration and were anti-union. They opposed the “oppressive taxation and the lavish appropriations” of Republicans. And in North Carolina, they were supported by militia groups called the Red Shirts, the equivalent of modern day Proud Boys and Oath Keepers.

In contrast, the Fusion Party that was overthrown in Wilmington was a progressive coalition of predominantly Black Republicans and Populists, small farmers who were mainly White. They wanted higher taxes on corporations and more regulations, especially on railroads. They were staunchly opposed to efforts to restrict access to the ballot box. In short, they were progressives. 

History doesn’t run in a straight line, though. After 1898, Democrats enacted strict voter suppression measures that effectively disenfranchised African Americans in North Carolina and the rest of the South. They established one-party rule. They glorified the Lost Cause and whitewashed the history of Reconstruction and the Civil War, saturating the South with memorials and statues to the Confederacy.

Over time, the party developed two factions, the conservative wing and the liberal wing. The conservative Democrats opposed much of the New Deal and they especially opposed efforts to introduce civil rights measures. In 1948, Democrat Strom Thurmond of South Carolina abandoned the Democratic Party over President Harry Truman’s support of civil rights and ran for president as a Dixiecrat. By 1966, Thurmond was a Republican and led a conservative exodus from the Democratic Party that intensified as Democrats at the national level increasingly embraced integration and federal intervention to ensure voting rights. 

In North Carolina, the divide played out in the Senate primary of 1950. The liberals backed former UNC President Frank Porter Graham who supported integration and the conservatives lined up behind Raleigh attorney Willis Smith who hired political operative Jesse Helms to run a campaign that declared, “Frank Porter Graham supports the mingling of the races.” Of course, Helms became the first Republican U.S. Senator of the 20th century from North Carolina in 1972 and left a legacy of using race to divide the electorate, opposing the Martin Luther King holiday and making the infamous “Hands” ad to defeat Harvey Gantt.

After the 1950 primary, the lines were clear and so was the exodus. When Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965, African Americans regained the right to vote in the South and joined the Democratic Party while White conservatives fled to the GOP. Democrats kept nominating liberals like Terry Sanford and Jim Hunt, while Republicans kept attracting segregationists like Jesse Helms and I. Beverly Lake, Sr. By the 1990s, the segregationist wing of the Democratic Party had migrated to the GOP. 

In her defense of Locke’s movie, Cooke says she wants people to learn about the history so it won’t be repeated and notes, “No one was ever punished.” The closest parallel in modern history is the attempted coup in Washington on January 6, 2021. If we’re going to learn from 1898, the perpetrators of that violent siege on the Capitol need to be held responsible. The conservative media that downplayed their actions, or even encouraged them, need to be called out by all quarters. The leaders of the coup need to be investigated and prosecuted. And we need to know if the former President of the United States or his inner circle were involved.

Unfortunately, Cooke and her compatriots haven’t learned any of those lessons. Cooke was retweeting critics of the January 6 Committee earlier this summer and has failed to chastise Fox News or Newsmax for their role in promoting the Big Lie that led to the insurrection. She’s been mum on Donald Trump and his pledge to pardon those who took part in the attack. In short, while she’s quick to criticize an outrage and tragedy that took place almost 125 years ago, she won’t call out the one that is still threatening our democracy today. 

The story of the Wilmington Massacre offers us plenty of lessons. First and foremost, is that we need to protect everyone’s right to vote and access to the ballot should remain unrestricted. The most devastating legacy of 1898 was disenfranchisement. Violence has no place in our political discourse and militia groups need to be shut down, not welcomed into a political party. Leaders who call for undemocratic means of attaining or maintaining power need to be firmly rejected from all quarters. When they make inflammatory statements, they should be believed and held accountable, not dismissed or ignored. 

But here’s the real dirty secret about 1898. It was a racial insurrection led by reactionary White people and they established a system of state-sponsored discrimination that was widely popular among Whites of all backgrounds. They systemically denied Black citizens the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That system, maintained by both White political leaders and White vigilantes withheld from African Americans the rights and privileges that were afforded other Americans, including access to schools, capital, and property. Not only was no one ever punished, as Cooke says, but nobody was ever compensated, either. 

If the folks over at the John Locke Foundation feel so strongly about the wrongs perpetrated by White Democrats at the expense of Black North Carolinians, they should do something about it. They could work to ensure that every African American votes and has easy access to the ballot. They could support removing the monuments to the Confederacy that created hero-worship of traitors and seditionists. They could look for ways to make whole people who were denied economic opportunity throughout the 20th century simply because of their race. They could condemn the people in their own party who seek to undermine our elections today. They could stand up and reject the authoritarianism that’s permeated the Republican. And they could urge our schools to teach the history of racism that defined the South for most of the past 300 years so that nobody will forget what happened. 

But they won’t. Instead, they’ll make a fictitious movie that’s a love story. In the process, they’ll expose their inability to understand the complicated history of race in the South. They will ignore or distort 100 years of political history. They will look outward instead of inward, blaming Democrats for racism while ignoring the elephant in the GOP room. It would be funny if it weren’t so tragic. 


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