Starting with discussion over our Civil War statues here in Virginia, I’ve often heard the Confederate States of America equated with Nazi Germany. It’s true both the Nazis and the Confederates were racist and militaristic and wore gray uniforms, and neither lasted very long, but those making the comparison were claiming something more. They were claiming the Confederacy was fascist in an ideological sense.
But the American South furnishes much better examples of European-style fascist movements and governments; the kind of examples that really help us see what fascism is, beyond the stock footage of Blitzkrieg dive-bombers, rumbling Tiger tanks, and the piled bodies of concentration camp victims. I’m speaking of the specific, violent racist movements that came after the fall of the Confederacy. This was during the century between the Civil War and the Civil Rights Act, a century little-known but important as a precursor of what happened in Europe fifty years later. I’m going to walk you through one of these movements. I’d like to use the South to help us understand fascism and use fascism to help us understand the South. But even if you’re not interested in fascism, it’s good history to know a little more about.
The Civil War ended with the Confederacy defeated and broken up with its individual states under military occupation. In the 1870s Federal troops withdrew (which is another story), and this set off waves of anti-democratic political activity and organizing. It’s ironic that the anti-democratic activity and organizing came from an entity we call the ‘Democratic Party’ but that is the case. (I’ve capitalized political parties in the rest of this post to prevent confusion between the party and the form of government.) Segregation or ‘Jim Crow’ laws (as racist and segregationist legislation were called) never happened by accident, nor did they bubble up out of any primordial hatred of man against man. Everywhere they were imposed by the Democratic Party. The stories of each state are worth telling, and in many cases these histories, though little known, are far more important and interesting than the Civil War. Sometime when I have a free afternoon I’d love to share the story of how the bi-racial Readjuster Party of Virginia led by former Confederate general William Mahone (Not many statues of him around, huh?) won legislative control in 1879 and 1881 but were defeated after riots in Danville. The Mississippi constitution of 1890 would be another good story. But today I want to share the story of the 1898 Democratic campaign in North Carolina, since it’s culminating event–the Wilmington coup–is somewhat well-known but seldom rooted in the larger campaign it was part of.
Furnifold and Fusion
In the 1890s the bigwigs of the North Carolina Democratic Party had a problem. To their newly chosen Party Chairman Furnifold Simmons (Horrible guy, great name!) things looked bleak. Twenty years before in the 1870s as Federal troops pulled out of the state the Democrats ran as the party against the status quo, the party against the occupation. They’d managed to win control of the legislature for the first time since the Civil War, and quickly pushed through the favored policies of the North Carolina railroads, banks, and corporate interests who funded their campaign (In most cases the Democrat leaders were the stockholders of the railroads, banks, and corporate interests). Like most political parties they passed legislation to insulate these policies from local opposition and secure an advantage in future elections. Specifically, the state legislature gave themselves the power to nullify local government. And they passed laws outlawing interracial marriage and outlawing integrated schools. All this made the Democrats popular in the western part of the state (which was almost entirely white), but the east proved more dicey. Here far more of the voters were black, and they tended to vote Republican (Back then still the party of Lincoln and Emancipation) and clearly saw the school segregation laws as a harbinger of trouble to come. But don’t project what came later backwards. In these years blacks could vote, own property, serve in office and do everything white people could do. The black population wasn’t large enough to win statewide election by themselves and the Democrats knew this, but in the east were also poor white cotton farmers who were hurt by the Dems’ pro-railroads and bank policies. Richer people who tended to own stock in railroads and banks wanted high interest rates, high railroad rates, and stock income taxed at a lower rate than salaries and wages. Poorer people wanted low interest rates, low railroad rates, and stock income taxes the same or higher than other income. These poorer white farmers were drawn to the rising ‘Populist Movement’ then expanding from the Midwest.
When in 1892 a depression hit the U.S. populism became more popular and, frozen out of the Democratic party in North Carolina, the populists and the Republicans banded together. In the late-19th century in NC and elsewhere these white-black joint parties were called ‘fusion parties.’ The North Carolina Fusion Party made big gains in 1892 and in the election of 1894 the Fusion Party won every statewide office and took control of the legislature outright. They won everything again in1896. Which takes us back to Furnifold Simmons.
At that time Wilmington was the largest city in the state. and the city with the largest black population. It was a Republican stronghold and therefore a Fusion Party stronghold. There had been a sizeable free black population even before the Civil War. By the 1890s it had become a prosperous middle class. Blacks were elected to many government positions. Several aldermen were black, one of the five Audit and Finance Board members was black, and blacks served the city as police, clerks, mail carriers, and justices of the peace. Also the Wilmington Daily Record was one of the few black newspapers in the state. The black community in Wilmington was not segregated like ‘Black Wall Street’ in Tulsa, OK a generation later. Wilmington was an integrated city with black holding about 1/3 of public offices.
However, a group of nine white Wilmington business leaders found this situation intolerable. They formed a cabal: ‘The Secret Nine’. They certainly seem to have hated seeing black people in power, but their deeper grievance was that black power meant control by the Fusiion party, which in turn mean Fusion policies: railroad regulation, low interest rates, proportional tax rates, and stocks taxed as property. The Secret Nine had nowhere near the votes to change these things, and they were cut out of the patronage loops of city hall. So they looked to the state Democratic Party to give them control of the city, while the state Democratic Party looked to the Secret Nine to finance takeover of the state.
As Furnifold Simmons saw things, the Fusion Party had been in control for 6 years, which wasn’t so long, but where was its weakness? How would things ever change? The Democrats had come to power in the 1870s on the backlash against military occupation and fear of black equality. Then they had gerrymandered and amended the constitution and fixed themselves to the business interests, but now they had nothing else to offer. Their actual policies–high railroad profits, high interest rates, and low taxes for the rich–weren’t popular (and never had been). And the Democratic Party leaders couldn’t change their policies since from the standpoint of the Democratic Party leaders policies favoring the rich were the whole point of being Democratic Party leaders. Meanwhile the Fusion combination of blacks and poor whites had a solid-enough majority that it looked invincible.
Naturally Simmons thought of race-baiting. The Democrats had never stopped race-baiting. But during their first return to power in the 1870s they’d been able to appeal to the fears of whites who had never known equality with blacks. Now it was thirty years since the Civil War, the occupation was a memory, and warnings of blacks had not come true. Black leaders turned out to be, well, just like white leaders. Black business people turned out to be just like white business people. The sky hadn’t fallen. Everything was fine. Simmons decided he would have to invent grievances. He would have to invent an entire ideology of grievance that would pair the resentments of whites out of power in eastern parts of the state with the fears of whites losing power in the western parts of the state. Simmons decided on a new, more explicit, more ideological race-baiting. Southern racism is often portrayed as a deep-seated hatred exploding almost mindlessly into policy ideas, but the architects of segregation left lots of lots of accounts of what they were doing and why they were doing it–from speeches to letters to congressional testimony and all these accounts agree: segregation was a deliberate attempt to exert control over the state. ‘White Supremacy’ is not a woke euphemism imposed on the past. ‘White Supremacy’ is literally what Simmons decided on as the Democratic Party’s campaign slogan. And this time the racism would be expressed in a new more aggressive, violent style of organization and propaganda. And he would attack the Fusion Party at its strongest point. He would make Wilmington–the state’s blackest, largest, most prosperous, and least Democratic city–the symbol of everything bad about the state. The Secret Nine would finance it. As Democratic party leader Daniel Schenck promised, ‘It will be the meanest, vilest, dirtiest campaign since 1876.’
Write, Speak, and Ride
To build his campaign Simmons recruited those who could, as he put it, ‘Write, Speak, and Ride.’ Writers would contribute to a network of racist newspapers inventing and disseminating images of black violence, anarchy, and insult; Speakers would be racist orators who would provide passionate justifications for ‘White Supremacy’ with appeals to history, science, culture, and God; Riders would organize and carry out acts of terror and violence to reduce voting, silence opponents, and excite scandals that the writers and speakers would blame on Fusion rule and the inherent nature of blackness. As muscle to support the riders Simmons restarted the Red Shirts, paramilitary clubs first organized by the Democrats in the 1870s after the Federal government suppressed secret terrorist groups like the Ku Klux Klan. The Red Shirts were to be groups of young men who would gather and march and proclaim their pride in ‘White Civilization’ (Something like the Proud Boys of our own time but more popular). Meanwhile for the higher classes Secret Nine protege George Rountree organized White Supremacy Clubs. White middle-class business owners across the state were pressured to join or be cut off from loans, wholesale goods, railroad access, and social ties controlled by their richer (Democratic) white neighbors.
The campaign began in earnest in late October with a ‘White Supremacy Convention’ in Goldsboro. The best ‘Speaker’ was an out-of-work politician Simmons had recruited named Alfred Waddell, a Wilmington man ashamed that his failing law practice required him to live off his wife’s piano-lesson income, and happy to earn his pay from the Secret Nine. In the keynote speech Waddell swore he would exiles blacks and their white supporters from the state altogether. The revved-up Red Shirts rushed out of the convention to rampage through black neighborhoods firing guns and whipping people. Red Shirt marches followed in towns and cities all over the state. In Wilmington Simmons hired an out-of-work fireman named Mike Dowling to lead the local Red Shirt efforts. On November 1st he led a march of 1000 Red Shirts and allies through Wilmington’s black neighborhoods. The next day he led a ‘White Man’s Rally’ that culminated in shooting into black homes for fun. After this Red Shirt events were a daily occurrence. The Democrats formed White Citizen Patrols to disrupt black churches and community meetings. The Secret Nine even purchased the Wilmington Red Shirts a brand-new Gatling Gun.
(All of this was far beyond the capacity of local law enforcement to stop. At the time law enforcement consisted of city and county sheriffs, usually elected, and their handfuls of deputies.)
The most effective White Supremacist in the state was probably Josephus Daniels, publisher and editor of Raleigh’s News and Observer. He proclaimed his paper to be ‘The militant voice of White Supremacy’ and was it ever. Since business interests tended to be Democratic and newspapers were paid for by advertisements by business interests, most of the states newspapers were Democratic. These papers either didn’t publish any account of Red Shirt violence or they portrayed the Red Shirts as brave defenders against villainous black and Fusionist threats that sheriffs were too corrupt (if they were Fusionist) or too overwhelmed (if they were Democrats) to stop. Daniels’ particular specialty, however, was concocted stories of white women alone in public who barely escaped assault by nefarious blacks. (He laughingly admitted later these were fabrications.) Often these stories were set in Wilmington where the blacks were allegedly incited by ‘black control’ of the government, which according to the News and Observer would be coming soon to the entire state if the Fusionists weren’t voted out of office. Stories fabricated by the News and Observer would be reprinted by other Democratic newspapers across the state citing the News and Observer as the source.
White suffragist Rebecca Felton was a favorite of Democratic media. (The women’s suffrage movement grew from the abolitionist movement originally, but later had a much more complicated relationship with black civil rights. Many suffragists were avowed white supremacists.) In speeches from her native Georgia that summer Felton had appealed already for an increase in lynching (Actual quote: ‘I say lynch, a thousand times a week if necessary!’), and claimed that the biggest issue for white farmers was their wives being raped by black men. Her speeches and essays were reprinted often throughout the 1898 campaign.
The daily violence in Wilmington by the Red Shirts led many blacks to look for weapons for their own protection, but the only local gun dealers were white and wouldn’t cross the White Supremacy Clubs to sell guns to blacks. Blacks appealed directly to gun manufacturers, but they wouldn’t sell except through their local agents. Meanwhile the Democratic newspapers, when they got wind of these efforts at self-defense, breathlessly reported a conspiracy by the blacks to buy guns in order to kill all the whites and seize the government. Why black people would need to seize the government when, according to those same newspapers, they already controlled the government was never explained. (The Democratic Party hired private detectives to turn up real black conspiracies but found none. No matter, the newspapers invented them.)
Voting came November 8th. Governor Daniel Russell (sitting governor elected on the Fusionist ticket) tried to come to Wilmington himself to encourage turnout but the Red Shirts blocked his train and threatened to lynch him. After so many months of unchecked threats and intimidation not surprisingly turnout at the polls was low. Most voters simply stayed home. But leaving nothing to chance the Democrats, according to later testimony by Red Shirt leader Mike Dowling, had trained Red Shirts to switch Fusion votes for Democratic votes while working the polls. To no one’s surprise, the Democrats won the vote statewide and even their proclaimed victory in Wilmington was plausible enough since no one dare dispute it.
The Fusionists perceived it as just a single election. They would try again in two years by which time the intensity of the Red Shirts would wane, plus since not all offices were up for election and even those that were did not immediately change hands, the Fusion Party still governed Wilmington.
But the Democrats weren’t going to risk any of this. One fraudulent election wasn’t enough. The Secret Nine ordered Alfred Waddell’s Committee of Twenty-Five to issue a ‘White Declaration of Independence’ which would strip blacks of voting rights. The day after the election Waddell addressed a group of five hundred whites at the courthouse in Wilmington. He read the ‘White Declaration of Independence’ and declared that the black residents of Wilmington would be given 12 hours to comply with its confusing, belligerent, and lawless demands. The Committee of Twenty-Five summoned a group of 32 prominent black citizens, and handed them the declaration and insisted they respond immediately. The group quickly sent a response. No matter. The next morning Waddell claimed he had received no response, gathered five hundred whites at the armory with rifles, unveiled the Gatling gun, and set to work. First they burned down the black newspaper building (The publishers had slipped out of the city the night before). Then they terrorized black neighborhoods, burning homes and businesses, and assaulting and murdering people. At least 60 black citizens were killed, perhaps as many as 300. Hundreds more fled the city to hide in the swamps.
Meanwhile Waddell marched to city hall where at gunpoint he forced the mayor, board of aldermen, and police chief to resign. That afternoon a new city government with Waddell as mayor declared themselves the rulers of Wilmington. The next morning with a list provided by the Secret Nine, Waddell and his mob army rounded up the few black leaders who had not already dead or fled and marched them to the train where they were escorted out of the state by armed guards. Then he rounded up whites who had led or publicly supported the Fusionists and paraded them around the city for public abuse and humiliation.
The Grandfather of Grandfather Clauses
The 1898 Democratic campaign was a coup d’etat against the elected government of Wilmington, but it was also a revolution against the state of North Carolina itself. The Democrats wanted much more than an edge in future elections or higher railroad profits. When the new Democratic majority took power in the state legislature they moved quickly to make North Carolina a one-party state and make future opposition impossible. The best way to do this was simply to keep black citizens from voting, but how to do that without running afoul of the U.S. Constitution? White Supremacy Club originator George Rountree was tasked with creating the new program. Based on the 1890 Mississippi constitution (imposed on that state through an even more violent campaign) he proposed a literacy test. Each citizen must prove literacy by reading and writing a section of the Constitution to the satisfaction of a (Democratic-Party-appointed) clerk. There was no appeal, so the clerk could simply fail enough black voters to keep any future Fusionist candidate from being able to win. However, to keep this from disenfranchising whites in the western part of the state who also were often genuinely illiterate–too illiterate for a clerk to pretend otherwise, Rountree included another Mississippi invention, the ‘Grandfather Clause.’ A citizen could skip the literacy requirement if they had an ancestor who was eligible to vote before 1867. That was the year when North Carolina gave blacks the vote. So any white person who had an ancestor in North Carolina back when only white people could vote didn’t need to pass a literacy test.
Beyond this, and in some respects even worse than this, the Democrats passed a new, totalitarian set of segregation laws. It’s difficult for modern readers to grasp how totalitarian segregation really was. Segregation was as oppressive as anything Stalin devised. The law outlawed blacks and whites from riding trains together, sitting together in public spaces, or even sharing the same bible. Back in the 1870s Democrats had outlawed integrated schools and marriage, but this was a new regime that regulated all public behavior, making it virtually impossible for blacks and whites to interact publicly as equals anywhere, anyhow, anytime in the state. They couldn’t meet, form partnerships, or even have open conversations.
All of this was so the Democratic establishment could hold power without further challenge, and their entire justification was a grandfather clause of sorts: Their grandfathers had ruled so they should too.
Race Riots and Winner Take All
Some of the architects of the 1898 campaign were highly attuned to the media and this has influenced perceptions to this day. Wilmington coup-leader Alfred Waddell, like many truly awful people, had a flair for public relations. Within weeks of leading a violent overthrow of an elected government he convinced Collier’s Weekly, a respected national magazine, to publish his own account of it: ‘The Story of The Wilmington, North Carolina, Race Riots.’ In it Waddell portrayed himself as a reluctant hero drawn into the city’s struggles by the desperate need to protect the innocent whites from rampaging black villainy. This article introduced the term ‘Race Riot’ to the English language and cemented the national view of Southern violence that has lingered to the present day as either black-caused or as the tragic flaring up of deep, mutual tensions beyond the power of any individual to control. Of course, ironically ‘race riot’ was fairly accurate if one remembers which race actually rioted.
Similar literacy tests with grandfather clauses and the new totalitarian segregation laws imposed often through violent campaigns would spread throughout the South until one-party rule descended on the region for more than half a century. The Democratic party would choose its officers and candidates through caucuses that only white, local party leaders could attend and those slates would run basically unopposed in sham general elections. Again, the Soviet Union is a good analogy. Meanwhile the leaders of the 1898 Democratic White Supremacist Campaign prospered:
Furnifold Simmons, the original mastermind of it all, served as U.S. Senator from North Carolina for over thirty years. He paid no penalties for the violence and cruelty he instigated.
Alfred Waddell, armed insurrectionist, murderer, orator, and featured Collier’s correspondent occupied the office of Wilmington’s mayor till 1905 and died peacefully in 1912. He paid no penalties for the violence and cruelty he instigated.
George Rountree, author of North Carolina’s voter suppression and racial segregation laws and founder of the White Supremacy Clubs, went on to co-found the North Carolina Bar Association. He paid no penalties for the violence and cruelty he instigated.
Josephus Daniels, virulent racist newspaper owner and propagandist, was later appointed President Woodrow Wilson’s Secretary of the Navy and FDR’s Ambassador to Mexico! There was even a statue to celebrate him erected in Raleigh’s Nash Square in 1985 but it was taken down this past summer. Needless to say he paid no penalties for the violence and cruelty he instigated.
Fascists and Proto-Fascists or Black Shirts or Red?
The 1898 Democrats launched a popular movement from the right using propaganda and violence to overthrow democratic rule and establish the state as synonymous with a particular group within it. There are other definitions of fascism, but isn’t that irreducible core of all of them? A popular movement of the right using violence and propaganda to overthrow a democratic state to establish the supremacy of group. There’s a lot more we associate with fascism, and most of it was there in 1898: thugs dressed alike, bigotry, marches, crude slogans and inflammatory rhetoric. Much of the campaign’s terminology– ‘Red Shirts’, ‘Committee of Twenty-Five’, ‘Secret Nine’–even sounds like 1930s totalitarianism. Of course the 1898 White Supremacist campaign was as racist as any European fascist group. So why do I only call it ‘proto-fascist’ and not plain ‘fascist’?
Mostly, because the 1898 campaign had no charismatic figure at its center, no dictator. The three most famous European fascist movements, the ones that succeeded (for a while), organized their anti-democratic violence, bigotry, group identity, and propaganda around an individual leader who embodied the state. Mussolini and Hitler created their own mythical leadership roles as they molded the Fasces and Nazis respectively. Franco joined and took over the Spanish Falange. Neither in North Carolina nor in any Southern state that I know of did segregationist forces coalesce around the cult of personality of a dictator. Many European fascist parties also failed to find their Hitlers, but those, unlike North Carolina, seldom took power, and never for long. For whatever reason the 1898 campaign (and similar white supremacist movements in other Southern states) successfully imposed a racist, totalitarian, one-party state through propaganda and violence, but did not center their efforts around a dictator. How to account for this difference? Perhaps it was due to newspapers versus film and radio as the medium of propaganda. Perhaps it was the model of military command structure in the 19th versus 20th century. Perhaps it was the simpler, less bureaucratic pre-20th century state. Perhaps it was because Southern states weren’t sovereign entities and had to contend with the power of the federal government. Or had more limited power in executive offices limiting the symbolism of central power for propaganda. Or maybe they lacked wars and armies. Or maybe all of the above. But mostly European fascists called themselves fascists so it seems anachronistic to use a term that wasn’t invented yet. So ‘proto-fascist’ gets across the similarity well-enough.
There’s a parlor game we play with Hitler and the Nazis. (Most of us don’t know enough about Mussolini or Franco to play the game with them.) It’s the game of what could have been done to stop them. Couldn’t a political alliance here, a general strike there, courage by someone somewhere have kept them out of power? Maybe. But these games always assume that Hitler could not have changed tactics to cope with changes in tactics of his opponents. Certainly, when we try to play that game in North Carolina we’re not left with obviously answers. The Fusionists held a majority of the voters, but they did not have the weapons, organization, or wealth. What could they have done? I can’t think of anything.
And if there’s nothing they could have done, what does that mean for the viability of democratic states? What if fascism is a sort of democratic hostage taking that doesn’t leave a lot of counter-moves?
Here’s a few books on Wilmington:
Wilmington’s Lie, David Zucchino (Atlantic Monthly Press. 2020)
The Wilmington Insurrection of 1898, Chester Douglas (Ind. 2020)
The 1898 Wilmington, North Carolina Coup D’etat, David McCoy (Ind. 2018)