Political violence, especially around elections, has a long history in the United States. In the antebellum era, white nativist Protestants often rioted against Catholic immigrants because of the perceived threat of Irish voters and their “popery.” In the New York City draft riots of 1863, white mobs murdered African-Americans over conscription into the Union Army. During Reconstruction, political terror and murder became an almost normal part of southern politics. In 1871 white mobs in Meridian, Mississippi, killed approximately thirty blacks in political violence that first broke out during a court trial. In 1873 in Colfax, Louisiana, as many as 150 African-Americans were killed, many execution-style, as white mobs rejected the results of a gubernatorial election.
But the coup in Wilmington, North Carolina, in November 1898 may deserve first place in this nineteenth-century gallery of horrors. That month there was a concerted, carefully planned, and successful effort to violently suppress the black vote, eliminate black elected officials, and restore white control of the city of Wilmington, as well as the entire state, to the Democrats for the cause of white supremacy. Leaders of the coup employed tactics ranging from vicious newspaper propaganda and economic intimidation to arson and lynching. Dozens of African-Americans were killed and black political life in the area was snuffed out in a matter of days: 126,000 black men were on the voter rolls of North Carolina in 1896; by 1902, only 6,100 remained.
What happened in Wilmington has long been a highly debated problem in historical memory, with the facts obscured for generations by the coup’s perpetrators and their apologists. David Zucchino’s engaging and disturbing book, Wilmington’s Lie, not only vividly reconstructs the events of 1898 but reveals the mountain of lies that has stood in the way of a truer, if not a reconciled, history. All those in America who do not understand the old and festering foundation of contemporary voter suppression should read this book. The Democrats of 1898 in North Carolina had the same aims, and some of the same methods, as today’s Republican vote suppressors, scheming and spending millions of dollars to thwart the right to vote with specious claims about “voter fraud.”