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Opinion

The dangers of revolutionary right-wing rhetoric

When Glenn Beck and others talk about an antigovernment revolution, we should recall the 1898 Wilmington race riot.

By Walter Rodgers / November 27, 2009



Wilmington, N.C.

Few places have deeper scars from violent invective and verbal incitement than this North Carolina city where people still speak in whispers, embarrassed by the events of Nov. 10, 1898. Wilmington is tragic testament to the fact that social progress is not inevitable and that, left unchallenged, hateful speech and words frequently morph into violence.

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Today, talk of an antigovernment revolution has gone mainstream in America. One federal law-enforcement agency has discovered 50 new militia groups, including one made up of past and current police officers and soldiers. While in office, President Bush was the target of roughly 3,000 death threats a year. President Obama is on pace to quintuple that. In this environment, Americans might well reflect on Wilmington's experience 111 years ago.

In 1898, this city was years ahead of the rest of the American South, building an inclusive, interracial political culture. It had a burgeoning black middle class. A new era of hope dawned in North Carolina.

But the losers in the 1896 elections, the white Democrats, sulked on the margins, threatened by political irrelevance. Their sense of entitlement to governance had just been rejected by white progressives and black voters. "Take back the state," became their battle cry.

And they did just that. On Nov. 9, some Wilmington whites issued a White Declaration of Independence, proclaiming "that we will no longer be ruled ... by men of African origin."

The next day, a vigilante group of armed supremacists forcibly removed the Republican city leaders (both black and white) from office, and took control, burning buildings and shooting blacks. The official death toll was fewer than 20, though African-American oral tradition claims the Cape Fear River was choked with hundreds of bodies. There is no question that thousands of frightened blacks fled.

Neither President McKinley nor the governor of North Carolina (both Republicans) acted to stop or reverse what amounted to a coup and race riot. Soon thereafter, Jim Crow laws undermined basic rights for blacks for the next half century.

One gets a sense of déjà vu listening to today's right-wingers talk. In March, Fox News host Glenn Beck said: "If this country starts to spiral out of control ... there will be parts of the country that will rise up."

That's what happened in Wil­ming­ton in 1898. Those who lost power in elections launched a coup marked by terror. Such a revolutionary impulse resonates again.

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