Daniels made no concessions toward journalistic impartiality, and in the fall of 1898, he led a full-throttle attempt to overthrow what he called “Negro rule.” His target was the Fusion Party, a populist alliance of poor White farmers and African Americans that had come to dominate state politics, particularly in eastern North Carolina.
This was especially true in the thriving port city of Wilmington, North Carolina’s most populous metropolis, with more than 20,000 people, the majority of whom were African Americans. The cosmopolitan city featured a growing Black middle class and a vibrant Black newspaper, the Daily Record. Reflecting its demographics, Wilmington had an integrated government with Black officials, as well as many Black policemen and firemen.
Daniels found this intolerable. He huddled up with Furnifold Simmons, the state Democratic Party chairman — at that time the party of White supremacy in North Carolina. Daniels and Simmons knew that if everyone voted their side would lose. That meant ensuring that everyone did not vote, by fearmongering about the calamitous results if the other side won, gerrymandering, spreading misinformation about the rights of citizens to vote and direct intimidation at polling places.
Throughout it all, there was a consistent message: If you don’t vote for us, you won’t be safe. They argued that chaos would reign if African Americans were allowed to vote. The News and Observer was particularly effective in spreading this message. David Zucchino, whose recent book, “Wilmington’s Lie,” tells the story of 1898, writes that “More than a century before fake news attacks targeted social media websites, Daniels’s manipulation of White readers was perhaps the most daring and effective disinformation campaign of the era.”
This campaign wasn’t subtle. It upheld the racist message that the African American threat could lead to a reign of terror. Black rapists, they suggested, were coming after White women. You had better arm yourself and be ready.
Although this racist propaganda was effective, Daniels had another hurdle to clear to pry apart the budding alliance between Black North Carolinians and less-educated and less-affluent White people. Many of his poor White readers actually could not read.
This was where Jennett, and his gift for caricature, came into play. Every day that fall, the News and Observer featured a new front-page cartoon by the 21-year-old Jennett, and if the paper’s editorials, written by Daniels, could not drive home their crude points to his illiterate nonreaders, the cartoons could.
That fall, a particularly popular cartoon of Jennett’s, which, like most of the others was given its title by Daniels, was called “The Vampire that Hovers Over North Carolina.” It featured a giant winged Black man guarding the ballot box while his elongated arms stretched out and reached for White Southern women. In this cartoon world, African Americans weren’t only portrayed as monsters. They were also portrayed as clowns, thick-lipped big-eyed fools who must be bopped on the head with a club labeled “Honest White Man” (“Get Back! We Will Not Stand it.”) and as a giant foot crushing a poor helpless White person (“A Serious Question — How Long Will this Last?”).
The Jennet-Daniels team also relentlessly mocked Daniel Russell, the Republican governor who rode into power on Fusionist support. Jennett drew Russell as fat and servile, a servant of the Black man. One of these cartoons showed a huge Black hand, heavily crosshatched with hair and with long nails that could prick skin. In that open palm were the fat bulb-eyed governor and his skinny Fusionist lackeys, dancing foolish jigs. “Dance or I Will Crush You,” was the title.
The 1898 campaign was so effective that by the night of the election, the White populace was armed to the teeth, and the majority-Black population was kept from voting in Wilmington. But that was not enough for the usurpers. White goon squads, called Red Shirts, whipped into a frenzy by speeches about Black dominance and threats to White women, guarded polling places and later set fire to the Black-owned newspaper building, making sure that not just lives but also sentences were lost that night.
Intimidation and violence took care of the elected state officials, but there was still the matter of the mayor, police chief and alderman, who were not running for reelection. They abdicated at gunpoint. Then the true violence began: the slaughter of at least 60 Black citizens, shot down in the streets, and the driving of the thousands of survivors from town. Daniels hailed his young cartoonist whose efforts were “vital to the election effort.” After the election, Democratic leaders pooled together their funds and gave young Norman a gift of $63, telling him that he was “one of the powers that brought about the revolution.”
The Wilmington coup, though lost to history for most of the 20th century, is starting to gain new recognition as the only true coup d’etat in American history. In the years to follow, new tools were employed to suppress the Black vote, including poll taxes, voter roll purges and continued intimidation at polling places. Zucchino reports that the number of registered Black voters in North Carolina plummeted from 126,000 in 1896 to 6,100 in 1902.
This story is one we need to hear as the 2020 campaign races to a conclusion. It isn’t just that the rhetoric President Trump and his allies are using sounds a lot like that of Josephus Daniels. The Republicans today face a problem similar to the one Daniels faced: Polling indicates that they, too, are outnumbered. The answer? Make it harder to vote. Many of the tactics used are the same ones employed after the 1898 coup, though they have been limited in some cases by courts.
Trump’s overheated rhetoric — warning ominously of rigged elections and stuffed ballot boxes, despite no evidence to support these claims — also risks the sort of violence perpetrated by White men in North Carolina at the prodding of Daniels, with an assist from Jennett. Yesterday’s Red Shirts would not feel out of place at today’s Trump rallies.
The coup is a direct reminder that words matter. Advocacy and fearmongering can precipitate violence, tip the scales in an election and lead very quickly to minority rule. Only action to prevent voter intimidation and preserve the integrity of elections can safeguard against this possibility.