- Vigilantes outside the charred remains of The Daily Record, courtesy of wikimedia.org
I’ve been reading about North Carolina’s Reverend William Barber and his Poor People’s Campaign over the past few days, and contributed to the organization’s legal defense fund for people being arrested during what it calls its “growing moral fusion movement.” (I mention my contribution not to pat myself on the back but to encourage others to consider making a donation.) Keep that word “fusion” in mind as you read what follows. The Poor People’s Campaign just began 40 days of nonviolent action in some 30 state capitols across the country and Washington, D.C. More on that and Reverend Barber later.
First I want to write about a hole I just filled in my gap-filled understanding of U.S. history: the Fusion Coalition in North Carolina at the turn of the 20th century and the Wilmington Massacre of 1898, which has been called the only successful coup d’etat in U.S. history. I read a bit about it in articles about Reverend Barber and decided to dig deeper on my own. If you know this history, your education is more complete than mine. If not, it’s worth reading about this event, a chilling example of the dangers which can follow from blacks growing in affluence and influence, and joining forces with poor whites, in a place where racism reigns supreme.
Here’s the basic story. Wilmington was the largest city in North Carolina in the late 19th century and also home to a large, reasonably affluent and educated black populace made up in part of skilled workers, professionals and business people. The city also had one on the few black-owned daily newspapers in the country, the Daily Record.
At the time, the Democratic Party was the party of racism and segregation and the Republican Party deserved to be called the Party of Lincoln. The Republican party was composed of white and black voters. North Carolina Republicans were joined by the Populists to form the Fusion Coalition. By 1894, the Fusion party had taken the governorship and every other statewide office. Blacks served in local and state governments.
The Democratic Party decided the best way to regain political control was to appeal to whites’ racial resentment. The state party chairman stated, “North Carolina is a WHITE MAN’S STATE and WHITE MEN will rule it, and they will crush the party of Negro domination beneath a majority so overwhelming that no other party will ever dare to attempt to establish negro rule here.”
White Supremacy clubs formed around the state. In Wilmington, some of the most incendiary anti-black speeches came from Alfred Waddell, a gifted orator and member of the city’s upper class. In one speech he said, “We will never surrender to a ragged raffle of Negroes, even if we have to choke the Cape Fear River with carcasses.”
On November 2, 1898, a “White Man’s Rally” marched through black neighborhoods shooting into buildings, after which the vigilantes were greeted by a thousand people who held a picnic in their honor. The “rallies” continued on a daily basis, with the white-run newspapers letting people know when and where they would happen. Food and whiskey were provided.
A few days later, the Wilmington Democrats won seats in that year’s election, in large part because many black and white Republicans were afraid to show up at the polls. It is believed that the voter suppression efforts were accompanied by ballot stuffing. But the Fusion party was still in power.
On November 10, 1898, 2,000 vigilantes stormed into black neighborhoods, destroying property and killing up to 300 people. The Republican mayor was forced to resign and Alfred Waddell took his place, along with his hand-picked city council. It was a violent coup overthrowing an elected government. Fusion party leaders were banished. More than 2,000 black people left the city permanently. Waddell was reelected and served as mayor until he died in 1905.
One reason we know so little about the Wilmington Massacre is that it was cast as a victory for whites over a black uprising. According to most written accounts in following decades, blacks were the instigators, and the white response was called the Wilmington Insurrection. On the current website of the Cape Fear Historical Institute, a page on Waddell calls him an “Enlightened Wilmingtonian” in the headline. It praises his actions as mayor, saying he “quickly restored sobriety and peace, demonstrating his capacity to act with courage in critical times.” It took a number of years for historians to piece together the documents necessary to correct the historical record.
Which brings us back to Reverend Barber. He led the famous “Moral Mondays” which began holding demonstrations at the North Carolina capitol in 2013, advocating for, among other things, social programs, racial justice and public education. Magazine articles about Barber’s rise as a social leader often reference the Wilmington Massacre as a historic counterpoint.
More recently, Barber has given new life to the Poor People’s Campaign, which was started by Martin Luther King and others in the last days of his life. The Poor People’s March on Washington took place in 1968, after King’s assassination. The current version, Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, sees itself as picking up from where earlier civil rights leaders and social activists left off.
Barber is an inspired orator, activist and leader who thus far has been successful at spreading his message. We’ll find out in the coming weeks and months whether the movement he is spearheading will take hold.