The Most Important Book You Can Read

Type Wilmington, NC into your Google Images search window and you’ll be delighted by gorgeous color views of the city’s quaint, active waterfront and gorgeously restored 19th century homes. Hell, it sure looks like a fine vacation destination. You would never know that one of America’s most sickening racist catastrophes occurred there 123 years ago.

Thankfully, David Zucchino’s unforgettable book Wilmington’s Lie has burned the long buried and re-written incident into our minds forever. Fresh off its Pulitzer Prize for general non-fiction a few weeks ago (the second by the author), the book is a masterpiece of reporting, and a searing document of a white supremacist coup that overturned perhaps the most successfully integrated Southern city following reconstruction. 

With blacks elected to numerous city positions, racist white North Carolina Democrats (the parties were flipped back then), reacted with seething rage and planned an overthrow for years, cobbling murderous militia groups, soldiers, the Ku Klux Klan, and ex-Confederates into “Red Shirts” vigilantes, and using a host of racist newspapers to condemn the “Negro rule” and “black beast rapists” who were allegedly terrorizing Southern white women and “planning a revolt” that didn’t even exist. Memories of Nat Turner’s slave rebellion in the 1830s still terrified many in the white community, and come hell or high water, Wilmington was going to pay the price.

Wilmington newspaper cartoon, late 1890s

Zucchino’s thorough collection of newspaper quotes, political cartoons and inflammatory speeches make it crystal clear that the coup was in the planning stages for a long time, and that the attacks on black leaders and citizens of November 10, 1898 were so murderous and traumatizing, with thousands of black families forced to flee into the nearby woods, that it’s no wonder that the hideous truth was buried for nearly a century. Attempts by many blacks who escaped or were banished from the area to bring the matter to President McKinley were met with silence, McKinley being preoccupied with the Spanish-American War at the time.  

The most chilling aspect of Wilmington’s Lie, though, are the direct parallels between what the white supremacists of 1898 accomplished and what the Republican party of 2021 is trying to do now in numerous states—keep the black race from voting. By unleashing their campaign of terror, beating and whipping and often killing blacks who attempted to vote, and by stuffing ballot boxes with fake ballots for white politicians, black voting was all but eviscerated from the region, Jim Crow laws were soon put in place, and little changed until voting rights were secured in 1964.

Along with the prominent blacks, the white politicians, or “Fusionists” who helped them get into government were also banished from the city. Alexander Manly, a mulatto editor of the Record, the lone black newspaper in Wilmington which had its building torched, was forced to flee the state after publishing a rebuttal editorial to Rebecca Felton, who sent a letter to the Atlanta Constitution that riled up the white masses with lines like this:

“The black fiend who lays unholy and wistful hands on a white woman in the state of Georgia shall surely die!”

Manly’s “crime” was to suggest that some black-white relations may have been actually consensual.

I won’t even get into the sickening speeches of Colonel Alfred Waddell, the chief orator of the white supremacists, or of editor Josephus Daniels of the racist News and Observer, and many others, but they are well worth reading if only to see the length that these lying monsters went to strip the blacks of their dignity and citizenship. Critical Race Theory is becoming one of our new battlegrounds, but let’s start with the obvious: Wilmington’s Lie should be required reading in every high school in America beginning today.

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