Remembering America’s only coup

by Jordan Green

In the midst of the Greensboro political establishment’s agonizing over whether a public inquest into the political bloodshed of 1979 in Morningside Homes will sow irreparable division, the state of North Carolina quietly acknowledged an episode a century earlier when violent repression decisively set the course of history.

In 1979 Marxist labor activists in Greensboro and other parts of the state made a determined effort to organize workers in the textile mills. At the same time white supremacists across the state were mobilizing after a decade of dormancy following the civil rights movement.

The two groups clashed on Nov. 3, 1979. Five communists were killed and others lay wounded. The Klan and Nazis emerged unscathed. The communist group was shattered; efforts by other groups to organize workers in the mills stalled. The white supremacist movement flourished, cresting in the late ’90s. Revolution Mills, an organizing target of the communists, closed not long after the killings. It was the start of a long period of decline in the textile industry.

What these events that took place 26 years ago have to do with each other remains a matter of contention. Whoever controls the interpretation of these facts will shape the community’s view of itself and set the agenda for the future. And yet enough time appears to have passed for the state to safely acknowledge what happened in Wilmington on Nov. 10, 1898.

From the draft version of the 1898 Wilmington Race Riot Report, released on Dec. 15, comes this vivid account: ‘“The riot took place in an era when similarly violent attacks on black communities by white mobs occurred in Atlanta, Tulsa and Rosewood, Fla. In Wilmington, in a move unparalleled in US history, a coup d’etat replaced the city’s duly elected officeholders with white supremacists. An unknown number of blacks were killed.’”

A press release quotes Jeffrey Crow, deputy secretary of the NC Office of Archives and History as saying: ‘“This research demonstrates unequivocally that the Wilmington race riot was not a spontaneous event, but was directed by white businessmen and Democratic leaders to regain control of Wilmington.’”

The Wilmington Race Riot Commission was created by the NC General Assembly in 2000 as a result of bills sponsored by Rep. Thomas Wright (D-Wilmington) and the late Sen. Luther Jordan. The NC Department of Cultural Resources is encouraging citizens to review the draft report and make comments before a final report is presented with recommendations to the General Assembly in May 2006.

Newspapers are inadequate to the task of conveying the full nuance and significance of a 600-page report. If there was ever a time when citizens needed to remove the media filter, this is it. Here’s the web address:

The events of November 1898 are often referred to as the Wilmington Massacre. The report acknowledges that ‘race riot’ is a somewhat misleading term. The popular conception of ‘race riot’ comes from the post-World War II era when it has been more typical for poor blacks to express frustrations with social, political and economic progress through property destruction largely confined to inner-city areas.

The report cites historian Paul Gilje as noting ‘“that white rioters killed blacks while destroying black property and that such riots were followed by a suppression of the black voice in media and politics whereas black rioters usually only destroyed white property and their actions rarely led to bloodshed.’” Another historian, H. Leon Prather, suggests episodes like Wilmington, 1898 might be better described as ‘“massacre, pogrom, or race war.’”

Here’s an outline of the event courtesy of the Department of Cultural Resources:

‘“In elections on Nov. 8, Democrats won easily by stuffing ballot boxes and intimidating black voters. A Committee of Twenty-Five was formed, and on Nov. 9 prepared resolutions called the White Declaration of Independence. They presented the demands that day to leading black political and business leaders, known as the Committee of Colored Citizens (CCC).

‘“A pivotal demand to the CCC was that the community oust newspaper editor Alex Manly, who had published an article in the Record, the city’s only African-American newspaper, that challenged claims by whites regarding interracial sexual relationships.’”

Failing to receive a response promptly enough to satisfy them the white mob marched to the Record printing offices and destroyed the building.

‘“Before the day ended,’” the report continues, ‘“a mob of up to 2,000 whites roamed the streets, armed with rifles and fueled by weeks of propaganda in newspapers and rhetoric-filled meetings. Rifles and rapid-fire machine guns were fired, and black men were killed or wounded throughout the day. Estimates of deaths range from six to 100’…. There were no white fatalities. By 4 p.m., the Republican mayor, board of aldermen, and chief of police were forced to resign and were replaced by men selected by the Committee of Twenty-Five. All black municipal employees subsequently were fired.’”

The tales of Greensboro 1979 and Wilmington 1898 differ in many ways. In Greensboro there are lingering questions about official complicity. In Wilmington the white establishment made no secret of its role in the bloodshed. And yet there was a strain of official amnesia in Wilmington after 1898 that rings familiar today.

The report quotes a 1902 pamphlet produced by the Wilmington Chamber of Commerce that was designed to attract outside capital. It states that it was not the ‘“mission in these pages to devote any space to details connected with the early history of Wilmington. Our business is not with the past, but with the present.’”

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