A “Check It Out” Review Essay on David Zucchino’s Wilmington’s Lie: The Murderous Coup of 1898 and the Rise of White Supremacy

A Monstrous Massacre and the Reversal of Reconstruction, the Violent Reinforcing of White Supremacy

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Letter from a reader:

Editors’ Note: In Racial Oppression Can Be Ended, But Not Under This System, Bob Avakian (BA) writes, “...when the Civil War broke out over the question of slavery, and even when slavery was abolished as a result of that Civil War, given that white supremacy had been, and remained, such a crucial part of the ‘glue’ holding the country together, the only way to ‘put it back together,’ on the foundation of the capitalist system, was to once again forcefully assert white supremacy.”

This review essay, edited excerpts of a letter from a reader, covers an important aspect of this ugly history: the little-known massacre in Wilmington, North Carolina, in 1898, part of the violent reaffirming and reinforcing of white supremacy after the gains of the Civil War.

I have just finished Wilmington’s Lie: The Murderous Coup of 1898 and the Rise of White Supremacy by David Zucchino. It tells the story of the armed political coup and massacre of 60 Black people in Wilmington, North Carolina, in 1898. As with the massacre in Tulsa in 1921, these murders and destruction of Black communities have been hidden and/or lied about, or else recast to blame the Black people who were attacked. What happened in Wilmington during those few days in November 1898 and the lies told for decades to cover it up resonates today when voter suppression is on the rise, armed thugs are threatening Black Lives Matter protesters, and Trump talks of refusing to honor the results of an election if he doesn’t like it.

As the opening to the revcom.us American Crime series says, quoting BA: “People have to fully confront the actual history of this country and its role in the world up to today, and the terrible consequences of this.” This massacre and coup in Wilmington is part of that hidden history which people have to confront.

Reconstruction and Its Aftermath

The Civil War ended in 1865—the Southern Confederacy was defeated by the Union army on the battlefield and the formerly enslaved Black people were legally free. For a short period of time called Reconstruction, from 1865 till 1876, federal troops were sent to the South to enforce the three amendments to the U.S. Constitution which said that Black people were full citizens and Black men had the right to vote. During this time, Black men voted and were elected to political offices from local up to federal positions, often in alliance with white Republicans or in multiracial parties. Public schools were built, progressive tax reforms were passed, and some Black people were able to purchase land or enter professions in the South. The social mores of slavery were challenged as Black people stepped up aiming for full social and political equality. It was a time of hope and possibility.

However, all of this was very much in contention. The openly white supremacist Democrats held political and social power in places, federal troops often stood aside when Black people were beaten and denied the right to vote and even killed, and many of the reforms were fiercely resisted by those who had been slave owners.

In 1876, federal troops were pulled from the South, and in 1877 a deal was struck in Washington, DC, which marked the end of this period that seemed to hold the possibility of dramatic change, multiracial unity, and full citizenship for Black people. When the federal troops pulled out, the Democratic Party, the openly white supremacist party, regained control of the South, state by state, in the decades that followed. It sought to reestablish the conditions of slavery for Black people without the legal slavery and crush any advances which had been gained during Reconstruction. It used legal means—striking down progressive laws, forcing Black people back into virtual servitude without the name of slavery, and carrying out extra-legal thuggery through the KKK and the Red Shirts—driving Black people off their properties, lynchings, and general terror.

In 1896, the Supreme Court ruled in Plessy v. Ferguson that “separate but equal” was the law of the land. This put the official seal of the federal government on legal segregation as “constitutional” and opened the door to the flood of Jim Crow laws which quickly followed across the South.

Economic Crisis and a Multiracial Populist Alliance

However in the midst of all of this turmoil in the 1890s, there was a severe economic recession which changed the political and social landscape in unexpected ways in some places in the South. In North Carolina an alliance, uneasy and tentative, was forged between a white farmers’ populist party—the People’s Party—and Black and white Republicans. This alliance was known as the Fusion Party.

In the 1894 election the Fusionists managed to win control of the North Carolina legislature, and in 1896 the North Carolina governorship. Scores of Black men were appointed to political posts, along with white Republicans, and Black men were elected to the positions they had held previously during Reconstruction. George Henry White was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, the only Black man in Congress at that time (and the last from North Carolina in the U.S. House of Representatives until 1972).

Wilmington, NC, 1898

In 1898, Wilmington, NC, was described as a “mixed-race” city. In some ways similar to Greenwood in Tulsa, it had a thriving Black middle class, with Black lawyers, doctors, and successful Black-owned businesses, including a Black-owned newspaper. It was a majority Black city and in 1898 it had a local government of officials from the Fusion party, made up of white Republicans and populists, many of whom were white, and Black city officials and police officers. “Three of the city’s ten aldermen were black, as were ten of the twenty-six city policemen.” (prologue, p. xvii) There were other Black city officials—health inspectors, postmasters and magistrates, country coroner, county jailer, county treasurer.

This situation was intolerable to the Democrats, at that time the openly white supremacist party. The upcoming November 1898 election was for federal, state, and county seats, not for local Wilmington government, but they seized on the election to “rectify” the situation in Wilmington. “Thus it was tacitly understood among white supremacists ... violence might well be required to overthrow city government...” (p. 99) In preparation for the planned seizure of power, they launched their “White Supremacy Campaign” during the summer of 1898.

“[I]t was necessary not only to terrify black families but also to convince white men everywhere that merely voting in November was not enough. Whites had to be persuaded that free blacks posed an imminent threat to their privileged way of life.” (p. 75) The Democrats spread false rumors of imminent Black armed uprisings.

In August, the local Black newspaper ran an editorial rebutting a speech from a prominent white woman calling on white men to lynch Black men to save white women from being raped. Democrats seized on that editorial as an example of Black men menacing white women. They talked of “black mob rule” in Wilmington. Threatening signs appeared anonymously targeting the white Fusionists in office. The Red Shirts, a Klan-type mob, rode at night, whipping Black men who dared to even register to vote. All of this was carefully timed and orchestrated for maximum impact right before the election in November.

On Election Day, November 8, in Wilmington, ballot boxes for state and county positions were stuffed with more Democratic votes than the total number of registered voters. Red Shirts and more informal groups of armed thugs patrolled the streets, stopping Black people on the street, turning away Black voters from the polls at gunpoint or with the excuse that they weren’t “properly registered.” The Fusion candidates were threatened and intimidated directly, forced to withdraw the Fusion slate from the county elections. The author writes that “the campaign’s contrived message of the black beast rapist and corrupt Negro rule had persuaded thousands of whites to abandon the Republican Party.”

In light of the combination all of these tactics of lies, intimidation, deadly threats, and voter fraud, the Democrats “won” the state and county election. But the Democrats also had to make sure any resistance or opposition, from Black people or white Fusionists, was completely crushed by decisively regaining control of Wilmington.

They had to teach a lesson to those who would question their rule, and their right to rule, to not even think about doing anything like this again.

November 10

On the morning of November 10, two days after the statewide election that the Democrats had just “won,” over a thousand armed white men gathered on a street corner in downtown Wilmington and marched to the office of The Daily Record, the Black newspaper which published the defiant editorial, and torched it. The growing mob then set out into the Black neighborhoods, firing shots into Black homes and storefronts on the way.

At several intersections there was gunfire, with attempts by Black men to defend themselves, but “Word spread quickly through Wilmington’s white community that Negroes were shooting at whites. Wilmington’s streets were overrun by white men rushing with their guns to help put down the anticipated black rebellion. The long-planned killing of Wilmington’s black population had begun.” (p. 203) Black men were shot on the street, running for safety, for failing to stop when ordered, on their way home from work, or by white snipers as they emerged from their homes. The murders were done by official troops—Wilmington Light Infantry soldiers and Naval Reserves were called in to assist in “quelling the negro riots” (p. 206) and unofficial troops—Red Shirts, and armed citizens including those who flooded in from the surrounding area.

A Black minister was stunned that “black appeasement had only stoked a more malevolent strain of white ferocity” (p. 210) and recounted: “The little white boys of the city searched them [blacks] and took from them every means of defence, and if they resisted, they were shot down.... They went from house to house looking for Negroes ... and killed them for the least expression of manhood.... White ministers carried their guns to kill Negro Christians and sinners.” (p. 210) Hundreds of terrified Black families fled the city and went into the nearby swamps and forests for safety from the armed white mobs. At least 60 Black men were murdered at the hands of the white mob in the streets of Wilmington by the time the sun rose the next day.

Meanwhile the Democrats held an impromptu “election” putting themselves, the leaders of the mob, into the offices of mayor, police chief, and aldermen. They then forced the Fusionists to resign and “approve” their replacements, with the sounds of the white riot ringing from the streets outside. “Wilmington’s whites had mounted a rare armed overthrow of a legally elected government. They had murdered black men with impunity. They had robbed black citizens of their right to vote and hold public office. They had forcibly removed elected officials from office, then banished them forever. They had driven hundreds of black citizens from their jobs and their homes. They had turned a black-majority city into a white citadel.” (p. 329)


Leading up to election day, as false reports of an imminent Black armed uprising were spread, white people bought weapons by the thousands—shotguns, repeating rifles, and revolvers. Emergency orders were sent to dealers out of state “who loaded guns and bullets onto railroad cars headed south.” (prologue, p. xvi) While the white political leaders brought in rapid-fire guns, gun sellers in the area refused to sell any guns to Black people.

As noted earlier, another excuse to attack the Black population was an editorial which the local Black newspaper had run in August. Alex Manly, the editor, called out the hypocrisy of the speech given by Rebecca Latimer Felton, the wife of a U.S. congressman from Georgia (if her name sounds familiar, this is the woman and the speech she gave which BA refers to in his 2017 speech, The Problem, the Solution and the Challenges Before Us). She wrote: “The black fiend who lays unholy and lustful hands on a white woman in the state of Georgia shall surely die.” (p. 83) She posed lynching as the solution. “I say lynch; a thousand times a week if necessary.” (p. 84) Even though Manly knew the stakes for him as a Black man to answer this charge, he took this on and ended his editorial with: “You set yourselves down as a lot of carping hypocrites in that you cry aloud for the virtue of your women while you seek to destroy the morality of ours.” (p. 88) He wrote this editorial in August but the leadership of the North Carolina Democratic Party wanted maximum impact so they held off whipping up the white rage at this rebuttal until the days before the November election.


After seizing power through armed threats and voter fraud in North Carolina and mass murder and brute force in Wilmington in 1898, the Democrats then went on to cement their rule, enacting Jim Crow laws. They passed literacy tests and the poll tax to prevent Black men from voting and, to make sure it didn’t prevent any white men from voting, they enacted the “grandfather clause” which said no man could vote unless his father or grandfather had voted before 1867. This of course would make it nearly impossible for Black men to vote in North Carolina as the 15th Amendment guaranteeing Black men the right to vote wasn’t ratified until 1870.

Wilmington’s leading white citizens had pioneered a formula that was soon duplicated across the South: deny black citizens the vote, first through terror and violence and then by legislation.” (p. 329)

The Democrats who had instigated the bloody coup and killings knew they would not be held accountable. “Murder, fraud, and voter intimidation had been effectively legalized, so long as the targets were black.” (p. 301) The killings were discussed briefly in a Cabinet meeting with President McKinley but nothing happened and McKinley did not respond to further appeals. A federal investigation into the massacre collapsed.

The Lies

The lies started on the day of the massacre when the white leadership said the white supremacy campaign was “a legitimate corrective to corrupt black politicians and the ‘black beast rapist’” and the day’s events were a “justified, spontaneous response to a black riot.”

The Southern press ridiculed the idea that Black people could govern and claimed it was not a white mob, “it was simply the unanimous uprising of the white people against conditions that had become intolerable.” (p. 266) And the Northern press chimed in, most deploring the violence but, “Many Northern editors wrote that they did not consider blacks, in the North or the South, capable of holding public office.” (p. 267)

And these lies were repeated for decades, in the history books and the public school textbooks. A 1940 textbook credited the Ku Klux Klan, described as a “club,” with “riding to bring order back into the lives of their people...such sights frightened the negroes into living better lives.” (p. 335) Another textbook in 1949 said, “A number of blacks were jailed for ‘starting a riot’ and a new white administration took over Wilmington’s government.” (p. 336)

This continued into the 1950s, when a report by a Black woman scholar seeking to correct the accepted history of Wilmington, was attacked by one of the white “guardians of history,” who claimed her account was “inflammatory...distorted and sensational.” (p. 336) Recently, while there have been steps to correct the record as the North Carolina legislature created a commission in 2000 to investigate what actually happened in Wilmington—this has been accompanied by repeated and widespread efforts, many of them successful, to disenfranchise Black people (see the two-part American Crime article on this: Part 1; Part 2).

As Bob Avakian has pointed out, “so long as this system remains in power, there will be powerful forces who will move to attack and undermine, and seek to reverse, even these partial gains.” (Racial Oppression Can Be Ended—But Not Under This System)

How They “Put It Back Together”

The process of passing the repressive Jim Crow laws and degrading social relations that were increasingly cemented in place throughout the South that the Wilmington massacre was part of, is what BA is referring to in “Racial Oppression Can Be Ended—But Not Under This System.” After the Civil War “given that white supremacy had been, and remained, such a crucial part of the ‘glue’ holding the country together, the only way to ‘put it back together,’ on the foundation of the capitalist system, was to once again forcefully assert white supremacy.”

As BAsics 1:1 states, “There would be no United States as we now know it today without slavery.

The enslavement of Black people still reverberates and flows through American history up till today. It has consequences for the lives of Black people every day, infecting and infesting every sphere of American society. It is part and parcel of the success of the U.S. economy. “When slavery and genocide became tethered to the machinery and fed into the maws, the jaws of capitalist accumulation and exploitation, it became a whole other thing on a whole other horrendous level, involving and killing millions of people and grinding millions more to an early death.” (Bob Avakian, “The Problem, the Solution, and the Challenges Before Us”)

White supremacy and capitalism—they have been completely interwoven and tightly “stitched together” through the whole development of this country, down to today; to attempt to really put an end to white supremacy while maintaining the system of capitalism would tear the entire fabric of the country apart. (Bob Avakian, Why We Need An Actual Revolution And How We Can Really Make Revolution)

The coup in Wilmington is one more outrage illustrating the truth of that.

Wilmington, North Carolina, 1898: A white mob led by a former Confederate officer burned down Black-owned businesses and killed at least 14 people.

Wilmington, North Carolina: During the 1898 attack on Black people, armed rioters burned down the Daily Record building. (Photo: Wikipedia)

BAsics, from the talks and writings of Bob Avakian is a book of quotations and short essays that speaks powerfully to questions of revolution and human emancipation.

“You can't change the world if you don't know the BAsics.”

Order the book HERE
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The Oppression of Black People and Other People of Color, by Bob Avakian, an excerpt

From: Why We Need An Actual Revolution And How We Can Really Make Revolution



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