Racist Violence in Wilmington’s Past Echoes in Police Officer Recordings TodayRoundup
tags: racism, Reconstruction, North Carolina, Police, White Supremacy
Crystal R. Sanders is a sixth generation North Carolinian and an associate professor of history at Pennsylvania State University. She is the author of the award-winning book A Chance for Change: Head Start and Mississippi's Black Freedom Struggle.
In Wilmington, N.C., three city police officers were fired Wednesday after being caught on camera making racist and disparaging comments about a fellow black officer, a black magistrate and a black arrestee. As the officers discussed the nationwide protests sparked after George Floyd’s killing, one remarked that he believed a civil war was on the horizon. He went on to admit that he planned to buy a new assault weapon because “we are just going to go out and start slaughtering them f------ n------. I can’t wait. God, I can’t wait.” In his own words, the officer threatened harm to black Americans rather than protecting them, as he was employed to do.
Wilmington in 1898 was the largest city in North Carolina and had a black majority. An interracial political alliance between black Republicans and white Populists resulted in black elected officials across the state but especially in Wilmington, where three of the city’s 10 aldermen, the justice of the peace and the deputy clerk of court were African American. Black people also served as policemen, postal workers, the coroner and the collector of customs.
The leaders of this interracial “fusion” movement called for popular control of local government, meaning officials would be elected rather than appointed — to the chagrin of Democrats. White supremacists opposed the change because it was more democratic and promoted black participation in electoral politics.
The opposition from Democrats to fusionism stemmed from more than just a desire to regain power, however. Fusionists provided debt relief to white and black Southerners alike by capping interest rates, which outraged lenders, who were overwhelmingly Democrats.
Wilmington proved to be the perfect storm, as its biracial government was antithetical to the kind of hierarchical, conservative society that white Democrats desired. Under the leadership of Furnifold Simmons, chairman of the North Carolina Democratic Executive Committee and a future U.S. senator, they pledged not to accept “Negro rule” and devised a plan to fracture the fusionist alliance between blacks and lower-class whites, replacing it with an all-white coalition joined by race. Democrats sought to redeem the state through a white-supremacy campaign that would deliver victory by any means necessary, including fraud, intimidation and violence.
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