1898 to 2021: From Wilmington to Washington and the Role of Racism in Right-wing Coups

Impeachment trial in the Senate harkens back to the successful efforts to overturn Reconstruction

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By Abayomi Azikiwe

At the time of this writing (Feb. 1q0, 2021 – editor) the Senate impeachment trial was well underway where evidence was being presented aimed at convicting former United States President Donald J. Trump for inciting insurrection on January 6.

On that fateful day, thousands of Trump supporters including the most ultra-right political tendencies in the U.S., rallied and later stormed the Capitol building in a failed attempt to halt the certification of the national presidential elections.

Many commentators and news analysts have stated repeatedly that this represented the worst attack on the bourgeois democratic system which had ever occurred in the nation’s history. The situation was such that it would take several hours for law-enforcement and National Guard units to regain total control of the legislative body.

Numerous video recordings, podcasts, social media posts and photographs were utilized by the Democratic representatives to make a clear and incontrovertible case against Trump and his supporters. Nonetheless, with the balance of forces within the Senate, where this chamber of Congress is equally divided (50-50), allowing Vice President Kamala Harris to cast a deciding vote for the passage of legislation if necessary, it will take seventeen Republican Senators voting in conjunction with all of their Democratic counterparts to win a conviction.

Such a conviction would bar Trump from seeking federal office again. Although Trump was forced to leave the White House on January 20, over 70 million people voted for him last year and the majority of them are convinced that the elections were stolen on behalf of the existing administration led by President Joe Biden and Vice President Harris.

Despite the racist and fascist character of the attacks on January 6, this was not the first time in U.S. history that violent attacks were launched to nullify the political will of African Americans and their allies. After the Civil War (1861-1865) and the passage of numerous legislative measures to end institutional racism and national oppression during the late 1860s and 1870s, the disputed elections of 1876, prompted the withdrawal of federal forces from the South beginning the decades long reversal of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution along with numerous Civil Rights Acts ostensibly designed to guarantee the democratic rights of the formerly enslaved African population.

The founding of the Ku Klux Klan in 1866 by former ruling class elements during the era of slavery and the eventual adoption of the Black Codes and other Jim Crow laws which enshrined legalized segregation, were all part and parcel of the process of maintaining white supremacy and capitalism. As many scholars have argued from Karl Marx to Eric Williams, W.E.B. Du Bois, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Walter Rodney, among others, the enslavement of Africans in Europe and North America set the stage for the rise of monopoly capitalism, institutional racism and imperialism.

Today in 2021, elements within the capitalist ruling class which are represented by Trump and his cohorts, view the current historical period as an important conjuncture in determining the future of the country. The rapidly shifting demographic composition of the U.S. where people of color communities could very well become a combined majority by the middle of the century, has alarmed many whites. Trump and the right-wing are inflaming these racist sentiments encouraging disruptive and violent actions against oppressed peoples and anyone not in complete agreement with their neo-fascist politics.

Yet there should not be bewilderment in regard to these developments. U.S. history is filled with racist mob violence and pseudo-legal intolerance of the exploited and downtrodden.

The 1898 Wilmington Massacre and Its Relevance to 2021

One of the most egregious incidents during the post-Reconstruction period was the violent overthrow of a multi-racial municipal government in Wilmington, North Carolina in November of 1898. What is important to understand is that the redeployment of federal troops from the South in 1877 did not result in the immediate end to Reconstruction.

African Americans were quickly ejected from the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate. Nevertheless, many continued to participate in statewide, county and municipal elections in some southern states. For example, in the state of Tennessee, there were at least 12 African American men who held office in the legislature during the 1880s. They, of course, were violently forced out of statewide offices by the end of that decade. However, a few continued to hold office as magistrates and other local positions until the first decade of the 20th century.

The parallels between 1898 in Wilmington and the 2021 insurrection in Washington, D.C. has been noted by a number of corporate media outlets and National Public Radio (NPR). An article published by the News & Observer in North Carolina recounted that:

“More than 100 years ago, another mob bore down on the center of government power, this time in Wilmington, which at that point was North Carolina’s largest city. For weeks, the throng of angry white men had been incited, incensed and cajoled by an elite band of conservatives pushing a manufactured message of fear and grievance, an effort aided and abetted by the state’s most powerful media voices, The News & Observer and its publisher. The mob, adherents to a campaign of white supremacy, brandished weapons of war and burned a newsroom to the ground. They posed for a photo in front of its smoking ruins.”

These events took place within the context of a precipitous rise in the lynching of African Americans and the forced removals of entire communities in several states. Ida B. Wells-Barnett, an African American educator, journalist and organizer, initiated an international campaign in 1892-94 to draw attention to these horrendous and genocidal attacks. Wells-Barnett was eventually driven from her home in Memphis where the offices of her newspaper were firebombed in the aftermath of a successful boycott against white-owned businesses and the public transportation system. Soon enough, thousands of African Americans migrated from Tennessee to Oklahoma and Kansas to avoid further racist violence and economic deprivation.

Ida B. Wells-Barnett - The Red Record
Ida B. Wells-Barnett The Red Record

With specific reference to the terrorist attacks in Wilmington during 1898, the same above-mentioned newspaper said:

“By the time their march of terror was complete, they had killed dozens of Black people and forced the resignations of the city’s leadership, among them Black and white members of a ‘Fusionist’ party of Republicans and Populists. And in the aftermath, the mob’s actions went entirely unpunished by state or federal leaders, entrenching a Democratic Party that brought about decades of Jim Crow policies aimed at keeping white people in power. The coup d’etat in Wilmington on Nov. 10, 1898, succeeded. The insurrection in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6, 2021, did not. But when North Carolina’s political leaders contended that Wednesday’s events aren’t what America is about — isn’t who we are — historians and longtime observers say they aren’t so sure that’s the case.”

Implications for 2021 and Beyond

Even though the coup on January 6 was not victorious for the neo-fascists and racists, their forces remain largely intact. Some 200 people have been arrested in connection with the attempted insurrection at the Capitol building.

However, the culpability for the violent attacks designed to disenfranchise tens of millions of African Americans, Latin Americans and other members of the electorate, far exceeds those who have been charged with relatively minor crimes. Questions about the complicity of those within law-enforcement, intelligence, political officials and the military were raised in the days after the assaults.

A further investigation into the institutional collaboration with the coup makers would reveal the level of penetration by racists and neo-fascists in all of these state structures. In fact, the history of the political evolution of the U.S. is inseparable from the ideologies of white supremacy, unbridled capitalism and imperialism.

Consequently, the oppressed peoples of the U.S. and the working class as a whole must organize and mobilize to ensure that the next attempted right-wing coup is also defeated. Given a different set of social circumstances and political balance of forces, the overthrow of the meagre existence of African American and proletarian democratic rights could very well take place.

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