To those who ever harbored any doubts about how blatant and virulent the racism and white supremacy were that dominated North Carolina’s culture, law and politics well into the 20th century, Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Zucchino’s most recent book, Wilmington’s Lie: The Murderous Coup of 1898 and the Rise of White Supremacy is a “must read.”
To get a sense of how grim the reality was that Zucchino describes in his painstaking account of the brutal insurrection that was perpetrated against the multi-racial government of what was, at the time, North Carolina’s largest city, try doing the following:
Take a moment to picture some of the worst and most fiendish villains you’ve ever seen in a film or another work of fiction – the bad guys who are so evil that they seem like caricatures of bad guys. Now imagine that a large collection of such individuals have been transported to late-19th Century North Carolina for the purpose of executing a publicly proclaimed campaign to violently impose white supremacy as the law of the land. That’s the remarkable story that Wilmington’s Lie documents.
The horrors Zucchino reports are utterly stupefying and nauseating. The people who carried out these despicable acts were representatives of the human species at its lowest and most shockingly vile.
What’s more, just because the coup occurred well over a century ago, don’t imagine that its legacy didn’t (and doesn’t continue) to live on. As Zucchino reminds us, for decades afterward, violent racism remained dominant in North Carolina and throughout much of the nation. In North Carolina, state history textbooks and other works purporting to be nonfiction continued well into the 20th century to describe the insurrection as a benevolent intervention by heroic KKK members seeking to bring order to a struggling town.
Meanwhile, on the ground, the systematic disenfranchisement of, and denial of opportunity to, Black North Carolinians – in Wilmington and elsewhere – persisted. It took 74 years for another Black Wilmington resident to win elected office, nearly a century for an African American to win statewide office and a congressional seat, and, of course, to this day, people of color throughout North Carolina disproportionately lack the wealth, health and well-being, influence and security of their white neighbors.
This is not to say that there hasn’t been important progress over the decades. In many, many ways, the ugly tentacles of racism and white supremacy have assuredly loosened their grip on our state. But to pretend that the terrible legacy of the Wilmington coup, the post-Civil War era that birthed it, or the decades of systematic Jim Crow oppression that followed – much of which was sustained or endorsed by individuals, families and institutions whose wealth and influence continue to this day – have somehow been scrubbed from the state’s ledger is preposterous.
And given this undeniable reality, it’s hard to gauge what’s more disturbing in the present moment: the horrific history itself, or the efforts of modern conservatives to whitewash it.
This latter phenomenon has been on display at the General Assembly recently as Republicans in the state House approved a bill that would restrict what North Carolina school children can be taught about American history.
As Policy Watch education reporter Greg Childress reported last week, House Bill 324 would prohibit teachers from promoting the idea that America is racist or sexist or even that it was created by members of one race or sex to oppress members of another group.
In other words, as UNC Law Professor Gene Nichol observed last week in a trenchant op-ed, the proposed law would require teachers to ignore the reality that is obvious to anyone with open eyes and ears about life for Black North Carolinians and, because there’s no other way to say it, “lie.”
And while it would be bad enough if the bill in question was merely the work of a delusional soul like Rep. Larry Pittman – that noisy beacon of reaction who once infamously compared Abraham Lincoln to Adolf Hitler – what really renders this measure doubly offensive is its clear link to a concerted nationwide strategy.
Not only was the bill approved by the House on a straight party line vote without a single Republican ‘no,’ as Childress reported, the measure is like dozens of bills around the country being pushed by Republican legislatures – in Tennessee, Ohio and elsewhere – which seek to ensure that unflattering parts of the nation’s history are not taught in public schools.
And coming as these bills do at a moment in which: a) the country faces massive and unprecedented challenges, and b) President Biden’s progressive policy agenda enjoys strong national support and momentum and support for traditional conservative policies like trickledown economics and small government has been plummeting; it’s hard to see these bills as anything other than a renewed effort by the party of Donald Trump to reprise their dear leader’s special gift for thinly-veiled appeals to race in order to galvanize white voters.
Somewhere in the nether regions, the architects of the Wilmington coup are smiling knowingly.
Note: Click here to watch David Zucchino describe his book and respond to questions at a May 6 NC Policy Watch Crucial Conversation.