A searing and still-relevant tale of racial injustice at the turn of the 20th century.
In 1898, the city of Wilmington, North Carolina, was unusual in the South for having a government that included African Americans. Many moving parts went into that development, including the short-term disenfranchisement of Confederates during Reconstruction, the ratification of the 15th Amendment, and the rise of a prosperous black middle class in the port city. As Pulitzer Prize winner Zucchino (Thunder Run: The Armored Strike To Capture Baghdad, 2004, etc.) shows, it was met by an organization that “acquired a formal name proudly embraced by Democrats: the White Supremacy Campaign,” the goal of which “was to evict blacks from office and intimidate black voters from going to the polls.” The product of a politician and a newspaper editor, the movement took a paramilitary turn when thousands of “Red Shirts” turned up to besiege Wilmington in what amounted to a coup d’état, the only violent change of government in the history of the nation, though certainly not the only instance of racial violence. The author writes, meaningfully, “for whites in Wilmington, blacks had ceased to be slaves, but they had not ceased to be black.” The coup, in which at least 60 blacks died, was successful. It replaced the city’s government with an all-white one, and it led to widespread disenfranchisement throughout the South. The newspaper editor, Josephus Daniels, moved on to Louisiana and campaigned for white supremacy there, promulgating a voter-suppression law that, in New Orleans, “helped reduce the number of black voters from 14,117 to 1,493.” Efforts by the biracial Republican Party in North Carolina to undo the wrong were met with indifference even by Republican President William McKinley. The complexities of racial division and party politics in a time before the Republicans and Democrats effectively switched sides are sometimes challenging to follow, but Zucchino’s narrative is clear and appropriately outraged without being strident.
A book that does history a service by uncovering a shameful episode, one that resonates strongly today.