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A Tale of Two Coups


Or, Why The “This Isn’t Us” Narrative is Wrong

            Stop me if this sounds familiar. Following an important election in which a multiracial coalition propelled their candidates to positions of power, white supremacists, both egged on and directly supported by politicians who decried the validity of the election, directly attacked the government in a coup d’état attempt. During this attempt, there was little resistance from the police and other authorities as white supremacists carried out their attack; during the violence and chaos of the attempted coup, people died. The events that I just described serve as a pretty apt description of the events of January 6, 2021, when white supremacists stormed the United States Capitol in an attempt to interrupt and overturn the Electoral College count for the 2020 Presidential Election. But the above description also applies to another coup attempt in American history, one where the insurrectionists were actually successfully. I am talking about the Wilmington Coup of 1898.

            One of the primary responses, particularly from politicians, surrounding the coup attempt on January 6 is that this is not who we are in the United States of America. This is false. This is exactly who we are and who we have always been in the United States. People of color know this, experiencing the impacts and oppression of white supremacy their whole lives. But if you are, like me, white, then it is all too easy to live in ignorance (either knowingly or unknowingly) of the white supremacy that is at the core of our very nation. The simple fact of the matter is that every time—EVERY TIME—a multiracial coalition, led by black and brown Americans, makes important strides towards equality, equity, and racial justice, white America has pushed back hard and violently. Even in cases where major changes and strides were not as large as white supremacists said they were, or when those strides were largely symbolic, white supremacists have pushed back violently against them. January 6 was not the first time, and it likely won’t be the last.

            Which brings us to the Wilmington Coup of 1898. This event was of immense consequence in the history of North Carolina, and to the nation as a whole. A report from the Raleigh based newspaper The News & Observer wrote in their 2006 special report on the Wilmington Coup, “Occurring only two years after the Supreme Court had sanctioned ‘separate but equal’ segregation in Plessy v. Ferguson, the riot marked the embrace of virulent Jim Crow racism, not merely in Wilmington, but across the United States.”[1] Despite the fact that the Wilmington Coup was so consequential, it and other major acts of white supremacist violence throughout our country’s history do not get the attention they need in our schools and amongst the general public. Certainly, there has been a lot of excellent scholarship on the Wilmington Coup and other instances of white supremacist violence over the years, but this scholarship does not seem to have penetrated the mainstream white American culture and understanding of our history, but that discussion deserves its own post.

            So, what exactly happened in Wilmington, North Carolina, on that fateful day? What led up to it? The political landscape of the late 1800s in North Carolina bears some striking resemblances to the modern political landscape. The violent events of the 1898 coup in Wilmington were the climax of efforts by white supremacist politicians in an election year to disenfranchise voters so that they could remove political opponents and gain power. These white supremacist politicians from the Democratic Partywho would be, politically, more in line with the modern GOPfeared the growing power of a multiracial voter base represented by “Fusion” politicians from an alliance between the Populist Party and the Republican Partywho would be more in line with modern Democrats. The Fusion Coalition, supported by many poor white and black North Carolinians, grew as a response to the economic depression that raged across the country at the time. Democrats were seen as too friendly with the wealthy and big businesses, particularly railroads and banks, and many voters did not trust them to do what was right for the average citizen. In the same article mentioned above, author Timothy Tyson wrote that the Fusion coalition

championed local self-government, free public education, modest regulation of monopoly capitalism and ‘one man, one vote,’ which would give a black man the same voting power as a white man. In the 1894 and 1896 elections, the Fusion movement won every statewide office, swept the legislature and elected its most prominent white leader, Daniel Russell, to the governorship.[2] 

While the Fusion coalition was not perfect (indeed, many white Fusionists were guilty of the same overt racism that their opponents were), they still worked together and managed to improve conditions for poor white people and black people across the state. In Wilmington, as elsewhere in the state, the Fusion coalition controlled the city’s government. The success of the Fusion coalition who, frankly, were only moderately progressive at best, frightened conservative Democrats. The Democratic leadership resolved to take back the state’s government in the next election, 1898, by whatever means necessary. Their key to doing so was to shatter the fragile alliance that the Fusion coalition had built between poor white people and poor black people.[3]

            It should be unsurprising to hear that the Democrats saw playing to whites’ racial fears and anxieties—arguably the driving emotional core of white supremacy—as the most effective way to take over the state. “The Democrats, desperate to overcome their unpopularity, decided to place all their chips on racial antagonism…. Southern history and practical politics had taught them that white discomfort with black political participation remained a smoldering ember that they could fan to full flame.”[4] And so they began a massive disinformation and propaganda campaign against black people and the Fusion Government, speaking of the terrors that the Fusion Government’s continued rule would bring. In fact, the Democrats argued that the Fusion Government represented black control and domination of the political landscape, which was demonstrably false given how relatively few elected officials of the Fusion coalition were actually black.  This did not stop Democrats, one of whom, a man named Francis Winston,  "published a call for whites to rise up and 'reestablish Anglo-Saxon rule and honest government in North Carolina.' He attacked Republican and Populist leaders for turning over local offices to blacks. 'Homes have been invaded, and the sanctity of women endangered,' [he] claimed. 'Business has been paralyzed and property rendered less valuable.'"[5] It is important to note here that Mr. Winston was already linking White Supremacist violence that would sweep the state, and particularly Wilmington, in 1898 to familiar buzzwords and phrases that Conservative politicians continue to use today when attacking "liberal policies"notably “honest government,” “sanctity of women” (while this exact phrasing is no longer popular, conservatives still see controlling women and their bodies as a moral obligation), and “business has been paralyzed and property rendered less valuable.” So, as blatant white supremacy gave way to subtle white supremacy, these buzz words and phrases, as well as others, became increasingly prevalentsomething I will touch on shortly. These white supremacist Democrats had their strategy for taking the state: play into racism and white peoples' fears of black people.

This strategy was not just about making whites fearful of Fusion politicians, thus driving them to the polls to vote for Democrats. The strategy was explicit in broadcasting to white voters that violence would be part of the plan. In forming the plan, there was a concentrated effort to find “men who could ride,”[6] a commonly understood euphemism for acts of white terrorism, most notably lynchings. Between Democrats' active campaigning on this platform and help from the contemporary news media at the time, they were incredibly successful at sending their message. Even major national newspapers outside of North Carolina reported on the imminent violence. “Two weeks before the slaughter in Wilmington, The Washington Post ran these headlines: ‘A City Under Arms—Blacks to Be Prevented from Voting in Wilmington, N.C.—Prepared for Race War—Property-Holding Classes Determined Upon Ending Negro Domination.’”[7] All across the state of North Carolina, Democrat politicians and the wealthy whipped white communities into a frenzy through speeches and the media. They told their constituents to be ready to violently suppress and, if necessary, overturn the results of the election all throughout the state. And the city of Wilmington, “with a black majority and a black-owned daily newspaper, and several African-American office holders,”[8] became the centerpiece of white supremacists’ plans to violently take over the government.

Violence ruled Wilmington, as it ruled the entire state, in the leadup to election day that year. An organization called the “Red Shirts,” which were essentially the paramilitary wing of the Democratic party, patrolled the streets of Wilmington in a campaign of violence and intimidation against the black citizens of the city. Furthermore, the Democrats in town, led by a number of wealthy white citizens and using Alfred Moore Waddell, a former Confederate cavalry officer, as their mouthpiece, attracted many whites in town to their cause and threatened whites who refused to join. And efforts like this occurred all across the state. The violence in North Carolina was so bad in the lead up to the 1898 election that when the Republican governor was at a train station, his train came under attack by a mob of these white Democrats, forcing him to huddle under cover in a mail car to protect himself from being lynched. On the day of the election, these white supremacists forcefully kept black citizens from exercising their right to vote and then, after the polls closed, stuffed the ballot boxes with votes for their candidates. Fusion coalition members and various citizens of the town hoped that the conclusion of the election would also mean a conclusion of the violence, but this could not be further from the truth.[9]

Even though the Democrats had managed to get their candidates elected through suppression and fraud, many of the Fusionist government officials in Wilmington had not been up for reelection that year, as their terms had not yet expired, and so, remained in power. The Democrats refused to wait for the next election to remove them from office. To take action, the wealthy leadership of the Democratic party in the town gathered up their supporters and, invoking the United States Constitution in a feeble attempt to justify their violent actions, got the men ready to execute a forceful coup to remove the democratically elected government from power and kill or drive off as many important black citizenssuch as businessmen, reporters (the most notable of whom was Alexander Manly, who ran the local black newspaper), and government workersas possible. The morning of November 10, two days after the election, the white militia gathered and marched through town. Their first stop was the black community center where Manly printed his newspaper. The white militia broke into the community center by battering down the door, and burned it to the ground. Manly had escaped town prior to the outbreak of violence and so avoided murder at the hands of the militia. The white militia stopped and posed for a photograph outside the burnt ruins, then moved on to perform a frenzy of violence against the black residents of the town, killing and maiming them solely for the color of their skin. By the end of the day the militia had killed anywhere from 20 to 300 people (an exact body count was never taken) and driven about 1400 black people out of town. Meanwhile, the Democratic leadership of the militia moved on city hall and forced the mayor, the Board of Aldermen (the city council), and the police chief to resign at gun point. And Waddell, who had been leading the militia all day, was appointed the new mayor by the very men who had just enacted the violent coup. [10]

Throughout all of this, there was no organized resistance to be found from law enforcement. As a matter of course throughout the country, the police largely enforced white control and domination. In Wilmington, there is no evidence that the police were directly involved in the coup (in fact, the Police Chief was one of the people deposed in the coup), but it is hard to imagine that at least some officers weren't involved. There is no surviving evidence I found (in what was, admittedly, a relatively short research window) of any sort of organized resistance to the white militia from law enforcement or the general population, but if there was organized resistance, the white militia undoubtedly violently suppressed them. After the violence had raged for hours, word reached the governor of the insurrection in the city. The governor called on the the local light infantry to assemble and quell the rebellion, but they did more harm than good. As they patrolled the city they "brought more fear than peace to black neighborhoods." [11] There is no evidence to suggest that the light infantry did anything to suppress the white militia. 

In the years following this violent coup, white North Carolinians celebrated the men who enacted the spree of violence by naming buildings and streets after them, erecting statues, and heaping praise on them as being excellent politicians and leaders of the state. And as blatant white supremacy became less socially acceptable for one to be directly tied to, the narrative shifted even more to rely on buzz words and phrases that conservatives still use today, such as variations on those I discussed above: honest government, law and order, good for business, protecting property values, and so on. Until the 1990s, it was common practice in North Carolina to celebrate Waddell, the man who led the white militia on the day of the coup.[12] Even as of 2006, the Cape Fear Historical Institute (Cape Fear being the region Wilmington is located in) was still sharing praise:

The Democrats and most white citizens of the State feared a return to the corrupt and financially devastating rule of Republicans experienced during Reconstruction…. Waddell was elected mayor of Wilmington after the unpopular Republican aldermen, half of whom were appointed by Russell [the Fusion governor at the time], had resigned in accordance with the City Charter. As mayor, “Waddell quickly restored sobriety and peace, demonstrating his capacity to act with courage in critical times.”[13] 

Even after the glorification of Waddell and others like him began to decline or ceased altogether, there has continued to be little education and discussion about the events of the Wilmington Coup of 1898. “Even many of those North Carolinians who are now aware of it are still reluctant to talk about it. Those who do sometimes stumble over words like ‘insurrection’ and ‘riot’—loaded terms, and imprecise ones.”[14] As for the violence, the real perpetrators used a common tactic for those in power and shifted the blame for the violence to the victims: Wilmington’s black citizens. “[State officials] originally called the 1898 incident the ‘Wilmington Race Riot,’ with the implication that the event was instigated by a riot from blacks and quelled by Waddell’s fighters.”[15]

            It is easy to see the parallels between what happened in Wilmington and what is happening now. Conservative politicians, in this day and age Republicans (and Democrats are by no means blameless), have actively courted white supremacy and used common buzz words and phrases to rile them up, most particularly in this case invoking the idea of "good governance" and suggesting that ruin and chaos will ensue if Democrats control the government (though one need not search far for examples of Republicans talking about "the economy"). They have been aided and abetted by the modern media who, at best, uncritically share their viewpoints in the interest of “fairness,” and at worst actively amplifies Republicans’ white supremacy through conspiracy theories and outright lies (Fox News, Newsmax, Breitbart, OAN and others) without regard for critical thinking nor proper historical analysis. President Trump and the Republican party have been actively advocating violence to overturn the election since before the election took place, most infamously when Donald Trump told the Proud Boys to “Stand Back and Stand By.”[16] The consistent Republican messaging that Democrats are going to destroy this country, laying the blame for violence at the feet of Antifa or the "radical left" masquerading as the pallbearers of a strong economy and the nation’s “moral character,” have been hallmarks of the Republican strategy for years, even before Trump. For weeks Trump and those loyal to him with a public platform have been making threats that there will be hell to pay if he doesn’t get his way, all the while attempting to overturn the election with baseless claims of fraud. On the morning of January 6, Trump told his followers to march on the Capitol. And when they arrived, they met with little to no resistance from the Capitol Police, with insurrectionists posing for selfies with the officers, and officers taking down barricades to let the insurrectionists into the blocked off area.[17] And, of course, you are already seeing an effort to downplay the violence of the people who participated in the attack or shift the blame to "liberals" or make calls for unity without any repentance. The narrative that this is not America is demonstrably false and devoid of historical context. This is EXACTLY America. We’ve had coups before. More generally, white supremacy is baked into the core of our nation and reacts violently to any perceived threat to their hegemony of power, regardless of social class (and indeed, the worst offenders in both the Wilmington Coup and the DC Coup Attempt have been elite whites). Examples of this are littered throughout our country, in every major city and many towns, if you do some research. None of this is news to people of color, and particularly black people, who in places like Wilmington, Tulsa, Montgomery, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Ferguson, and so many other places have been violently assaulted and killed by white supremacists.

[1] Timothy Tyson, “The Ghosts of 1898: Wilmington’s Race Riot and the Rise of White Supremacy,” The News & Observer (Raleigh, November 17, 2006), 1A. Retrieved from For a full accounting of the events, I would definitely recommend “The Ghosts of 1898: Wilmington’s Race Riot and the Rise of White Supremacy.” This article, published in 2006, gives a concise, but full, account of the event and what led up to it.

[2] Tyson, “The Ghosts of 1898,” 5.

[3] Tyson, “The Ghosts of 1898,” 5.

[4] Tyson, “The Ghosts of 1898,” 6.

[5] Tyson, “The Ghosts of 1898,” 7.

[6] Tyson, “The Ghosts of 1898,” 6.

[7] Tyson, “The Ghosts of 1898,” 7.

[8] Tyson, “The Ghosts of 1898,” 7.

[9] Tyson, “The Ghosts of 1898,” 9.

[10] Tyson, “The Ghosts of 1898,” 10-11.

[11] Tyson, “The Ghosts of 1898,” 10-11.

[12] Adrienne Lafrance and Vann R. Newkirk II, “The Lost History of an American Coup D’État: Republicans and Democrat in North Carolina are locked in a battle over which party inherits the shame of Jim Crow,” The Atlantic (August 12, 2017),

[13] Bernhard Thuersam, “Alfred Moore Waddell, Enlightened Wilmingtonian,” Cape Fear Historical Institute (2006),

[14] Lafrance and Newkirk, “Lost History of an American Coup.”

[15] Lafrance and Newkirk, “Lost History of an American Coup.”

[16] Donald Trump, “Trump tells Proud Boys: ‘Stand back and stand by,’” The Associated Press,

[17] CNN, “Officer appears to pose for selfie with rioter,”

Post Script: Two quick notes at the end to make. First, it turns out a whole book about the Wilmington Coup is coming out soon. Wilmington's Lie by David Zucchino comes out on January 19, 2021. Seeing as we are remarkably close to the book's release, I highly doubt it will make any direct references or connections to what happened on January 6, but I am very curious as to whether Zucchino draws any connections between the white supremacist propaganda campaign in 1898 and modern Republican messaging and campaigns. I will definitely be reading this book when it comes out.

And secondly, I want to say a massive thank you to my girlfriend Kelly and my dear friends Nick and Spencer, all of whom also have history degrees. The three of them read over this before I posted it, and it is a much better piece of writing thanks to their help.


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