It is common to chart the decline of American democracy by drawing parallels with the troubles that afflict the Third World. Coups, sometimes admittedly abetted by the U.S. government, have scarred the political development of countries from Iran to Indonesia, and even compared to the traumas of American disenfranchisement and politically motivated violence, the idea of an insurrectionist faction overthrowing a legitimate government seems unthinkable in this country. Or it did: yesterday’s assault on the U.S. Capitol by a Trumpist mob reified the specter of forced regime change.
This travesty did not, contrary to the assumptions of many scandalized Americans, represent the first time a coup had taken place in this country. In 1898, a column of armed white supremacists marched on Wilmington, North Carolina with the intention of unseating its biracial government–and succeeded, writing their story in blood. The history of this horror is ably told by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and North Carolina native David Zucchino in his book “Wilmington’s Lie.”
Crafted by a career foreign correspondent who has reported from war zones, “Wilmington’s Lie” reads more like a darkly immersive thriller than a dry tome. Zucchino builds suspense as the story proceeds from the flowering of resentment by white elites over the fall of the Plantation slave society to the planning, organization, and bloody execution of the only successful coup in U.S. history. He masterfully unveils the context of a progressing Wilmington that emerged from Reconstruction as a city with pronounced racial inequalities but a growing Black middle class and a racially integrated government. In this sense, Wilmington was a jewel of the South. A jewel that would be tarnished for generations by the crimes of white insurretionists.
Without expressing an ounce of sympathy for the racists who perpetrated the coup, Zucchino draws deft portraits of the major players. Alfred Moore Waddell, chieftain of the local Ku Klux Klan (who until recently had a lecture hall named after him at UNC-Chapel Hill), comes across as the classic paternalistic but virulently racist Old South grandee. And it is impossible not to see parallels between the smooth-talking demagogues who greased the wheels of yesterday’s riot, and North Carolina’s Charles Aycock, a supremacist who sent white audiences into raptures with his flamboyant oratory. As Zucchino notes, Aycock say himself as carrying out a noble mission–not unlike the hyper-nationalists who characterize right-wing mobs as “patriots.”
In his grim epilogue, Zucchino makes explicit comparisons between the Wilmington coup and the policies that the (all-white) North Carolina Republican legislative caucus has imposed upon Black North Carolina. Gerrymandering and voter ID laws seek to remove Black people from the democratic process in a less violent but still disturbing way as the Red Shirts’ assault on Wilmington. What happens to American democracy, happens to North Carolina democracy first. We saw that dynamic in play when other red states began stripping powers from Democratic governors. As of yesterday the forces of reaction in our country reached further back into North Carolina’s past and attempted another coup.
They seem to have learned from history and made up their minds to repeat it.
Alexander Jones is an original contributor to PoliticsNC.