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Wilmington's Lie by David Zucchino

The Murderous Coup of 1898 and the Rise of White Supremacy

2020, First Grove Atlantic

Winner of the 2021 Pulitzer Prize, Wilmington's Lie is essential reading for all United States citizens. It describes what historians call the only successful coup d'état in US history which took place in Wilmington, North Carolina in 1898. As I turned the pages, shaking my head in dismay at man's capacity for cruelty and inability to live peacefully, it struck me how few extremely significant historical facts about our country I learned in school. Reading about the violent insurrection that overthrew the legally elected biracial government of Wilmington is difficult, but awareness of hard truths can help bring the understanding and empathy needed to continue the fight against racial injustice in our country.

After Emancipation, Blacks started to rise to positions of wealth and political power. But certain Whites determined to "put them back in their place," by whatever means necessary: use of violence to deny Blacks their right to vote; falsification of ballots; destruction of property; insurrection and even murder. They succeeded.

After the coup in Wilmington, the new white supremacist city government warned the Federal government against interfering to protect Blacks' right to vote: "There aren't enough soldiers in the US Army to make whites give up the vote." (p. 310) The message was clear: Whites always win, whatever it takes.

Author Zucchino best summarizes the tragic events and their significance:

The killings and coup in Wilmington inspired white supremacists across the South. No one had ever seen anything like it. Wilmington's whites had mounted a rare armed overthrow of a legally elected government. They had murdered black men with impunity. They had robbed black citizens of their right to vote and hold public office. They had forcibly removed elected officials from office, then banished them forever. They had driven hundreds of black citizens from their jobs and their homes. They had turned a black-majority city into a white citadel.

The white supremacy campaign had demonstrated to the nation that the federal government would reproach whites for attacking and killing black citizens, but it would not punish them or even condemn them. No one was ever charged, much less convicted, of a crime stemming from what whites called their "white revolution." Wilmington's leading white citizens had pioneered a formula that was soon duplicated across the South: deny black citizens the vote, first through terror and violence and then by legislation.

(Epilogue, p. 329)

Historical marker in downtown Wilmington, NC.

Memorial Park monument installed November 8, 2008, Wilmington, NC.

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