“Power concedes nothing without a demand,” said Frederick Douglass. But sometimes power’s grasping hand curls into a fist, and delivers a searing blow of retaliation. That has been the pattern manifest in the push-and-pull of democratization in the American South since the very beginning–including in North Carolina. After Reconstruction came the racist campaign of Redemption, and after Barack Obama signified an advance in Black political equality has come a series of democratic regressions every bit as ardent in their disposition as what we saw in the South 140 years ago.

Reconstruction was one of the most remarkable experiments in pluralistic democracy ever undertaken in the West. Beginning in the wake of the 250-year-old slave system’s violent denouement, the Reconstruction project sought to remake the South in the image of America’s Founding principles. While white elites resisted by passing Black Codes and mobilizing the Ku Klux Klan, African Americans and Caucasian allies succeeded in nurturing a remarkable experiment in self-government. South Carolina even had the only Black-majority legislature in American history.

This foray into democracy was intolerable to the white power structure, so soon after Reconstruction came Redemption. Across the South, white men backed by armies of racists intimidated, beat, and brutalized small-d democrats in the name of restoring the power of what was then the conservative Democratic Party. Lynchings and massacres were rampant. White Republicans had to flee the South. By the end of Redemption, white supremacist rule had been secured and would last for nearly a century.

Redemption was not simply a campaign of violence, though racial and political violence were at the heart of it. The Redeemers also used carefully designed legal and political strategies to return the South’s governing architecture to white supremacy. Evading the 14th and 15th amendments, they disenfranchised the overwhelming majority of Black people. They also targeted pockets of Black political power with what 21st-century North Carolinians would recognize as “almost surgical precision.” After all, the leaders of the Redemption movement were not, by and large, ignorant rubes. They were the men who had ruled the South in the antebellum era and sought to rule it again.

Now we have another movement of Redeemers, marching under the banner of MAGA. Many of their other tactics resemble the original Southern-Redemption campaign. Redeemers curtailed the power of local governments in heavily Black areas; new Redeemers like Gregg Abbott of Texas and the North Carolina General Assembly have made a science of local-government “preemption.” Redeemers passed literacy tests and poll taxes to deter Black men from voting; every Southern state has passed some form of voter ID law in the 21st century. Finally, and menacingly, the Redeemers counted on the violent support of red-clad Red Shirts to do their bidding, and the events of January 6 demonstrated that white supremacist militias have reentered the political sphere. They even wear red hats.

The most disgraceful instance of Redeemer violence came in 1898, when a white militia group led by local political luminaries overthrew the biracial government of Wilmington, North Carolina. One may have hoped that an American coup would have been a one-time travesty. But on January 6, 2021, thousands of right-wing thugs attempted to overthrow the constitutional government of the United States in the name of keeping a white supremacist President in power and repudiating the influence of Black and Brown voters. Like the Wilmington insurrectionists, they were led by mainstream politicians. Like the Wilmington insurrectionists, their coup drew blood. And like those violent men a century ago and miles to the south and east of the U.S. Capitol, they represented an impulse deep in the soul of this nation that cannot tolerate Black people sharing the rights of American self-government.


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