Walter Rodgers

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.

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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.

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.

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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.

This spring, covering an antitax "tea party" protest in Boston, Fox News Business anchor Cody Willard raged, "Guys, when are we going to wake up and start fighting the fascism that seems to be permeating this country?"

The Rev. William J. Barber, president of the North Carolina NAACP, recalls similar sentiment on Southern billboards during the civil-rights era, "painting Martin Luther King as a communist, a socialist, and anti-American."

As in 1898, a prominent black American's patriotism and legitimacy are questioned. Today, the radical, reactionary right asks whether Obama is really an American citizen. Mr. Barber warns of what he calls "a rebirth of dangerous rhetoric," reminding us that "all forms of violence are preceded by violent language."

Today, the hate barometer is climbing dangerously upward. In August, Steven Anderson of the Faithful Word Baptist church of Tempe, Ariz., told his congregants he prays for Obama's death. So, too, does the Rev. Wiley Drake in California.

The lesson is obvious: Healthy language produces healthy communities. Unhealthy language results in unhealthy communities. "The 1898 Wilmington violence laid the foundation for a one-party state, driving a wedge between peoples for political ends," says David Cecelski, a North Carolina historian. "It strikes me as immoral."

Wilmington still struggles with the legacy of these events more than a century later. Generations of black children were condemned to third-rate educations. Today, under the banner of "neighborhood schools," the city, like other municipalities nationwide, faces subtle efforts to resegregate classrooms. Perhaps the most tragic facet of white-hot rhetoric then and now is that democracy was betrayed; and trust, the linchpin of democracy, was destroyed.

A year ago, Wilmington community leaders such as District Attorney Ben David helped launch a reconciliation campaign to restore interracial trust and move beyond blame and defensiveness toward healing. It is a slow process.

Nationally, Americans need to have a similar conversation to avoid repeating the country's painful racial history. Today's fire-eaters and right-wing bloggers might consider the long-term human and social damage inflicted on Wilmington by an earlier generation of alienated politicians. Then they should tamp down their toxic brew of incitement, hateful language, and subtly disguised racism.

Walter Rodgers, a former senior international correspondent for CNN, writes a biweekly column for the Monitor's weekly print edition.

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