In 1898, one of the most shameful episodes in American political history occurred. Today called a coup d'etat, it is the only known case in the United States in which a municipal government was overthrown by violence. On May 31, 2006, the state of North Carolina issued a report on this event, which took place in the city of Wilmington.
The story begins in the aftermath of the Civil War. During Reconstruction, the federal government guaranteed voting rights for blacks in the South, most of whom became Republicans. This led to the election of many blacks and Republicans to federal and state offices in states such as North Carolina, which had been part of the Confederacy.
But the end of Reconstruction in 1877 saw the withdrawal of federal troops from the South, leaving blacks and white Republicans vulnerable to attack by the Ku Klux Klan, which was essentially an arm of the Democratic Party. With the suppression of black and Republican votes, Democrats quickly regained power and acted to keep it by disenfranchising black voters with gerrymandering, literacy tests and poll taxes.
In the early 1890s in North Carolina, however, the Republican Party made a comeback by uniting with the Populist Party, which had a strong following among poor white farmers. The Populist Party split the white vote, leading to victory for the Republicans in the legislature in 1894. In 1896, Daniel Russell became the first Republican governor of North Carolina since Reconstruction.
Following these defeats, the Democratic Party of North Carolina came under the control of a brilliant organizer named Furnifold Simmons, who played the race card for all it was worth to retake power. A statewide campaign was waged using the most demagogic rhetoric and methods ever seen in an American election.
One tactic was to revive the KKK, which had largely faded away, but under different names. One of these quasi-Klans was known as the Red Shirts, the color representing the black blood they were prepared to spill. Another group was called the White Government Union. All were closely allied with the Democratic Party.
Chief spokesman for the racist Democrats was Josephus Daniels, owner and editor of the Raleigh News and Observer newspaper. The publication was unrelenting in depicting blacks in the most negative possible light, especially in its editorial cartoons, many of which are reprinted in the state report.
In his memoirs, Daniels freely admitted his role in the white supremacy campaign. Said Daniels, "The News and Observer was relied upon to carry the Democratic message and to be the militant voice of white supremacy, and it did not fail in what was expected, sometimes going to extremes in its partisanship."
Bruce Bartlett is a former senior fellow with the National Center for Policy Analysis of Dallas, Texas. Bartlett is a prolific author, having published over 900 articles in national publications, and prominent magazines and published four books, including Reaganomics: Supply-Side Economics in Action.
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