Today’s guest viewpoint is from A. Holt Williams, writer and political historian in Wake County.
After fighting for the Union Army’s Tennessee Mounted Infantry in the Civil War, my family, the Williamses, settled into a life of public service in Western North Carolina. Two members of my father’s family even had the privilege of representing the Graham and Swain County area as Republican representatives in the North Carolina General Assembly, serving in the historic Fusionist government of 1897-1901.
Nearly 20 years after the end of Reconstruction, a biracial Republican Party allied with the farmer and labor-run Populist Party won the 1896 election and ushered in an unprecedented, if brief, period of progress in the Old North State. They expanded access to the ballot for poor and black residents by reducing obstacles to voting, namely the requirement of property ownership. They also passed measures to expand access to public education and granted more rights to local governments. Long known as a laggard state both nationally and in the South, North Carolina was making progress, and not just for the white and privileged few.
It is sadly true that the North Carolina Democratic Party then carried out a violent coup against a popularly-elected, biracial, Republican and Populist Fusion government in Wilmington in 1898. Businesses were burned, including the local black-owned newspaper. Innocents were murdered. This served as a precursor to the restoration of white supremacist governance by 1900 and the imposition of the Jim Crow laws that would last until the mid-1960s.
The present-day North Carolina Republican Party and its partner conglomerate of Art Pope-funded organizations would like for you to remember the names of the aggressor and victim parties in this tragic event and absolutely nothing much more. Peeking below the surface would involve more time spent on teaching the racial history of our country, and less time spent on their preferred method of teaching history: gazing wistfully at statues of Confederate generals, most of whom were erected by Jim Crow governments around the turn of the 20th century.
It’s a funny thing, that reverence for Confederate statues demonstrated by the NCGOP. In 2015, following the murder of 9 people by a white nationalist in Charleston’s Mother Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church (including one Democratic State Senator, Clementa Pinckney) and the removal of the Confederate Battle Flag from the South Carolina State Capitol grounds, and responding to calls for the removal of other Confederate monuments and symbols from public spaces, the Republican-run North Carolina legislature and Republican Governor Pat McCrory passed a law making it more, not less, difficult to move existing Confederate memorials off public property.
And yet, this dissonance does not prevent North Carolina’s conservative commentariat from trotting out the memory of the Wilmington Coup to serve its own purposes. Just the other week, Amy Cooke, a long-time right-wing pundit whose background is mostly in promotion of the fossil fuels industry, used her column at the Art Pope-John Locke Foundation’s website to link the Wilmington Coup to a dispute over recusals on the NC Supreme Court. As usual, she again cast the Democratic Party as the enemy of the “will of the people.” Without a hint of irony or shame, she does the same with the NAACP in this case, stating that they are refusing to accept “the people’s will.”
Naturally, if Cooke or the Art Pope conglomerate did believe that there was a “crisis” on the court, that is an opinion they are welcome to support with facts. But we’re still waiting for any. This and other attempts to link Democrats and progressive organizations in the year 2021 to the violence of 1898 is, to put it charitably, disingenuous at best; especially given the most animating cause in Republican and conservative circles today: “election integrity.” What that phrase has meant in practice in states across the nation has been new restrictions and limits regarding when and how one may vote, shoddy “audits” of the 2020 election (the 6th time in the past 7 elections that the GOP has lost the national popular vote), and new measures giving officials in Republican-led states the ability to overturn election results based on processes they themselves have written.
Let us not forget the infamous “Stop The Steal” rally that played out on January 6th, a very real and bloody act of political terrorism by far-right partisans supporting the previous Republican President and his attempt to nullify an American election. This tragedy has made passage of voting rights legislation an urgent priority, and the Democratic Party, nationally and locally, is working to pass such legislation (alongside a very few Republican allies).
You would think movement right-wingers, whether in the NCGOP or their partner organs, would proceed with more caution in discussions of which party occupies which ideological space in today’s politics. Theirs is a party that still reveres Jesse Helms, a former Democrat who is believed to have spearheaded the openly racist campaign of Sen. Willis Smith in the 1950s, and who gave virulently racist TV commentaries on the Civil Rights Movement throughout the 1960s. (Many people have not forgotten Jesse’s famous quips about UNC, the “university of negroes and communists.”) Jesse, of course, become a Republican who led filibusters defending South African apartheid and against the establishment of Martin Luther King Jr. Day. In 1982, he voted against renewal of the Voting Rights Act.
So next time the NCGOP conjures up the terror of 1898 to try to tar today’s Democrats, think about the years since and ask yourself: what ever became of that 1898 Republican Party, and who are the true heirs to their progressivism – especially when it comes to the ballot box?
A. Holt Williams is a writer in Wake County, North Carolina, and has previously written for publications including The Roanoke Times and Blue Virginia. His interests include political history, teaching Sunday School, and small, white dogs.