History may not repeat, but it rhymes. Want to know what’s coming next? We can look to our past.
North Carolina had been a bright spot in the post-Reconstruction South. After decades of white terrorism designed to roll back civil rights gains, white laborers in the western highlands entered a coalition with the racially-mixed Republicans. By the mid-1890’s, this “Fusionist” party controlled every statewide office and had begun to implement meaningful reforms, undercutting the power of railroads and banks and improving workers lives.
The railroads fought back with an orchestrated campaign against “Negro Rule,” designed to split white laborers against their black allies. In advance of the 1898 elections they quickly organized “white supremacy clubs” to coordinate local terror campaigns and recruited the state’s fiery, but embattled racist Senator Ben Tillman to rile up mobs. Former Confederate soldier, Klansman, and former Congressman Alfred Waddell told a crowd just before the election, “We will never surrender to a ragged raffle of Negroes, even if we have to choke the Cape Fear River with carcasses.”
Thanks to a campaign of coordinated killings and intimidation of voters, including a crowd that threatened to lynch Governor Russell and mobs that blocked Blacks from the polls, the Democrats regained control of the state government. However, their efforts had still failed to restore white control of the state’s largest city, Wilmington. So, Waddell led thousands of whites on a rampage through the city.
White rioters took control of the courthouse at the center of town where Waddell read out his “White Declaration of Independence.” The next day they raided the town’s armory, then roamed the streets burning down Black-owned businesses and killing Black residents. A group accompanied Waddell to the Mayor’s office, where they forced the elected city government, including the police chief, to resign at gunpoint and installed themselves as replacements.
There’s no clear account of how many died in the coup. All efforts to gain redress failed and the new city government was treated as legitimate. Northern publishers like Collier’s Weekly would describe the incident as a “race riot” stirred up by Black agitators. White supremacists used their power in the state to shut down Black voting rights. One of the leaders of the coup would become the next Governor. The white supremacist coup in Wilmington marked the last gasp of post-Civil War Black freedom, and the effective end of efforts to join white and Black working people in a coalition.
Learn from Wilmington. We haven’t won yet. An effort to disrupt the Inauguration will probably be less successful than last week’s white riot, but after Biden takes office the focus will pivot to the states. That’s where the real war begins.
White supremacist mobs, with support and occasionally even leadership from law enforcement, will begin a campaign of intimidation against minorities and Democrats in places like Texas, Nevada, Arizona, North Carolina and Georgia, where they sense they are losing control. Republicans in Texas are already planning a campaign to turn Austin into an occupation zone, citing ‘runaway crime’ as a consequence of the city’s effort to reform its police force. Efforts like this are likely to be extended to cities like Atlanta and Charlotte, where urban residents are gaining influence over the state while shedding their attachment to whiteness.
This will not be a peaceful campaign, though white supremacists’ influence over law enforcement will help them cloak their efforts, pretending to be keeping the peace over a restive populace. What happened in Wilmington in 1898 wasn’t an isolated incident. Similar scenes played out all over the South as Reconstruction was rolled back. They never really ended, flaring up from time to time when necessary to maintain repression. Similar scenes will play out now.
America is not going to become a post-racial nation, organized around its original dream of ‘all men are created equal’ without defeating the myth of white supremacy. Those who cherish that myth will not relinquish their hold on our collective imagination peacefully. They will not submit to the flimsy claims of electoral politics or the law. White supremacy is far more important than any national ideal to a majority of American white folks.
First steps? Know your power. Winning the 2020 Election just means Democrats have won command of the military and security services. If they lack the will to use that power, they’ll lose it, and everything else, very soon.
Democrats also have enormous influence over America’s most powerful and profitable business and media empires. That power has already come to bear as web service providers shut down Parler and social media companies locked out Donald Trump. Customers and employees need to press this matter relentlessly, denying any platform or resources to Republicans who fomented the January 6 coup. Every avenue of access to commerce should be shut down for Republicans who don’t disavow sedition. Before Republicans can regroup and counterattack, Democrats should use their leverage, starve them of the money and publicity they’ll need for their fight. The best way to limit casualties will be to limit Republicans’ resources.
Then, when the fighting emerges in the states, the public and Democratic leaders will have to be ready to take action while they still command security forces. The Bundy standoff cannot be repeated. There will be casualties. Shots will be fired. There is no peaceful path to a post-racial America. Democratic leaders should not imagine that ‘appeals to unity’ or peaceful demonstrations will restore order. Don’t kid yourselves. Our white supremacists, who are our Nazis, will not live peacefully under a government dominated by a diverse, urban majority. Defeat them forcefully and definitively, otherwise the country will either be splintered, or a new Fascist regime will emerge in Trump’s wake to snuff out democratic rule entirely.