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Transcript: American Coup

The full episode transcript for American Coup.


Into America

American Coup

Archival Recording: Just right next to me there is a massive amount of what appears to be blood on the ground here.

Archival Recording: One person was shot inside the U.S. Capitol by a member of law enforcement.

Archival Recording: This is an unprecedented security breach in the Capitol. You have so many people here.

Chuck Schumer: They do not represent America.

Joe Biden: America's so much better than what we've seen today.

Archival Recording: This isn't what America is.

Trymaine Lee: The storming of the Capitol Building by white extremists loyal to Donald Trump on January 6th was violent, deadly, and shameful. But it wasn't unprecedented. The Capitol attackers didn't stop the certification of Biden's victory. He'll be sworn into office on January 20th along with his VP, Kamala Harris.

But where the rioters may have gained some ground is keeping alight a centuries old flame of weaponized whiteness. The attempt to overturn Joe Biden's victory in the 2020 presidential election follows a long tradition in America of white violence aimed at undoing democracy.

Now, as unamerican as the sacking of the Capitol Building may feel, that kind of racialized political violence is as American as apple pie. At nearly every turn where this country bent toward freedom, there was a violent backlash. Emancipation and Reconstruction were followed by a period known as Redemption, and the rise of the Klan and other terror organizations who tried to lynch us into submission.

The Civil Rights Movement was met with church bombings and assassinations. And in more recent years, the election of President Barack Obama triggered the resurgence of conservative populism and hate groups. And eventually, the election of Donald Trump.

Donald Trump: You also had people that were very fine people on both sides. You had people in that group, excuse me, excuse me, I saw the same pictures as you did.

Lee: Over the course of his presidency, Trump has pulled from the same old playbook of fearmongering, resentment, and lies.

Trump: There's no way we lost Georgia. There's no way. A rigged, that was a rigged election. But we're still finding...

Lee: And the house nearly came burning down. I'm Trymaine Lee, and this is Into America. To understand the moment we find ourselves in now, we're telling the story of the only successful coup in U.S. history. It's the story of Wilmington, North Carolina, where in 1898, white supremacists carried out a riot and insurrection targeting Black lawmakers and residents. Dozens of people were killed, and over 100 years later, the effects still linger.

Inez Campbell-eason: After 1898, Black people have been at a loss in this community.

Lee: And white violence in response to progress, specifically Black progress, is still a tool of white supremacy.

Dr. Sharlene Sinegal-decuir: It's the fear that white supremacists have about losing control. And in order to maintain control, they revert to violence. They revert to putting us back in our places and showing that you you cannot be uppity, because we can always take it away from you.

Lee: If there's any hope of preventing this in the future, it begins with understanding our past.

Campbell-eason: My family has been here as long as I can remember on both sides, my paternal and maternal sides of the family.

Lee: Inez Campbell-Eason is 58 years old. She was born and raised in Wilmington, North Carolina, where that coup I mentioned is never that far from memory. And like much of the country, she watched in disbelief as the insurrection unfolded in Washington last week.

Campbell-eason: Truthfully, when I first gathered what was happening I laughed, because I was like, "Oh no." Like, "They have actually gone crazy." And then the laughter quickly turned to feelings of anger. And then it turned into tears, because I just started having little flashes of different images of what occurred in 2020, and then what happened November 10th, 1898.

Lee: November 10th, 1898. We'll talk about what happened on that date in just a minute. But to understand that violence, you have to understand what led to it. After slavery ended in 1865, a period known as Reconstruction began. It was an effort to reintegrate the Southern states and the newly freed Black Americans. And by 1870, when Black men were granted the right to vote, it gave them a chance to finally participate in this democracy.

Campbell-eason: My great, great grandfather, who his name was Isham Quick, he was born in 1843 into slavery. And shortly after slavery, he walked from Anderson County, South Carolina, he walked to Wilmington and started his family with his wife, Julia Brown Quick. And they had nine children.

Lee: People like Inez's great, great grandfather, Isham, were able to work their way into the middle and upper classes of society.

Campbell-eason: My family, they never had issues of needing money. You know, they were considered a prestigious family. You know, they were all literate. Everybody could read and write, his children, he and his wife. They were entrepreneurs.

The family was always creating new things for themselves. Everybody was just excited after slavery, you know, trying to make their own way. And for him, in such a short time after slavery to be on a board of directors for a Black-owned bank, which was chartered in 1893. He also had real estate.

Lee: At the time, Wilmington had a population of over 20,000 and was the largest city in North Carolina. 60% Black and 40% white. And for Black folks, Wilmington was popping.

Campbell-eason: You know, Wilmington was pretty much like Atlanta is today. It was considered, like, the Black mecca of the South. Every one to three businesses downtown was Black-owned. And there was a sense of respect amongst everyone in the area. It pretty much demonstrated that post-slavery, Blacks and whites could collaborate and work side by side.

Lee: A key part of that collaboration was in local government. And just a reminder here, back then, in the late 1800s, the Republican Party was still the party of Abraham Lincoln. Most Black Americans were Republicans, while Democrats, who dominated Southern politics, opposed civil rights and efforts of integration.

So this collaboration happened when North Carolina Republicans joined forces with the state's white populists, many of them farmers who were frustrated with the Democratic Party. The coalition came to be known as the Fusion movement, and held considerable power in Wilmington in the late 1800s, even after Reconstruction ended. Black men became aldermen and deputy court clerks. They worked as police officers and postal workers. There was Black progress, but also resentment and resistance.

Campbell-eason: So you have to realize that a lot of the people that were on the Confederate side were still angry about losing the Civil War. So they weren't happy to see it demonstrated that Blacks and whites could live successfully beside each other.

Lee: One stark example of this tension was a speech in the summer of 1897, from Rebecca Felton, a white suffragist from Georgia, who made false claims about sexual violence from Black men. Inez told me about the speech that Felton wrote.

Campbell-eason: She had written many of the white women were being accosted by Black males when their husbands would leave the home. You know, they were in these rural areas, and they were leaving their women at the hands of Black brutes who would have their way with their women.

Lee: Felton offered a solution to the so-called problem. Quote, "If it needs lynching to protect women's dearest possession from the ravening human beast, then I say lynch, a thousand times a week, if necessary." Felton's speech was reprinted in population newspapers around the country. And in Wilmington, Alex Manly, the editor of the city's lone Black-owned paper, The Daily Record, clapped back.

Campbell-eason: His response was it was a mutual situation where they wanted to be in a relationship with those Black males. They weren't being raped, they were willingly participating in relationships.

Lee: Manly's editorial caused outrage among whites in North Carolina, incensed at the mere thought of consensual interracial sexual relationships. And North Carolina's Democratic Party, which was in the minority in state government at the time, saw the op-ed as an opportunity to stir up fear and support ahead of the 1898 midterm elections. They published newspaper caricatures of Black men chasing white women. And as the election approached, the Democrats relied on the help of a white supremacist group to intimidate would-be Black and Republican voters.

Campbell-eason: So there were very prominent white families who utilized a group of militia that they called the Red Shirts. They generally were uneducated, you know, very poor. The poorest of the white demographics in the area.

Lee: The plan worked. On election day, November 8th, 1898, the Democrats achieved sweeping victories in Wilmington and around the state, as many Black voters stayed home to avoid violence from the Red Shirts. The day after, a group of further emboldened white in Wilmington issued the White Declaration of Independence, calling on the remaining Black electeds in local office to give up their seats.

Campbell-eason: November 9th, they sent a letter to the citizens committee made up of entrepreneur men, such as my great, great grandfather. They sent a document called the White Declaration of Independence, which pretty much stated that Blacks in the city of Wilmington would no longer have dominion or, you know, financially they would never dominate or hold positions of power ever again in the city.

Lee: The letter read, quote, "We the undersigned citizens of the city of Wilmington and county of New Hanover do hereby declare that we will no longer be ruled and will never again be ruled by men of African origin." The declaration also demanded that Alex Manly, the author of the op-ed from The Daily Record, leave Wilmington forever, along with the paper's printing press.

The white supremacists gave a group of Black leaders, known as the Committee of Colored Citizens, 12 hours to comply. Reluctantly, the committee agreed, as they put it, "In the interest of peace." It's unclear whether or not the white supremacist group ever received the response. But regardless, the next morning, on November 10th, the violence began.

Campbell-eason: They marched to The Daily Record and burned it down. And when they burned down The Record, they prevented the Black fire department from putting out the fire.

Lee: Alex Manly had already fled Wilmington, but that didn't stop the white mob, which had as many as 2,000 men. They laid seige to the Black community and took control of the local government.

Campbell-eason: After they successfully burned down The Daily Record, they marched down to city hall. They went from store to store to store, pretty much, having people sign a petition. And they swore themselves into office. They had overthrown a legally elected government.

Lee: Inez has letters from Wilmington residents chronicling the massacre. In one of these letters a white woman described the chaos.

Campbell-eason: She basically said that they ran through her house, chasing after a little, young, Black male boy, and just shot him.

Lee: In another letter, an anonymous Black woman wrote directly to President William McKinley a few days after the tragedy.

Campbell-eason: She wrote it on November 13th. "I, a Negro woman of the city, appeal to you from the depths of my heart, to do something." And her writing is so fine, "The Negro in this town have no arms, except pistols, with which to defend themselves from the attack of lawless whites on the 10th.

"Thursday morning, between 8:00 and 9:00, when all Negro men had gone to their places of work, the white men marched from the Light Infantry Armory on Market Street, down 7th to Love and Charity Hall, which was owned by a society of Negroes, and where the Negro daily press was, and set it afire and burned it in front of firing guns, Winchesters. They speak of special police. Every white man and boy from 12 years up had a gun or pistol, and the Negro had nothing. We see how we are slaughtered. When our husbands go to work. We do not look for their return."

Lee: There was no definitive death toll for what happened on November 10th. Numbers range from as few as 20 to over 300. But one thing we do know, all the people who died were Black. The white mob loaded prominent Black citizens onto trains headed north. Hundreds more fled.

Campbell-eason: Many of the families fled into the nearby cemetery. It's called the Pine Forest Cemetery. It's the largest deeded land to Black citizens here. And they hid. It was a cold night. From what I understand, it was a cold, wet night. And they hid in the woods with their children and stayed there for days, for days, for weeks.

Lee: Many would never return.

Campbell-eason: My great, great grandfather's son, Isham, he had to flee the city. So he jumped on a train that was headed to Fayetteville. He made it to Fayetteville, and from Fayetteville, he ended up in New York City. And he didn't return to Wilmington until he was well in his 90s.

Lee: That was 70 years after the coup. Inez was five years old when her great granduncle finally made it back home. Why do you think it was that he never came back after all those years?

Campbell-eason: Trauma. You know, god only knows what they saw, you know, at that time. You know, and he was a young man. So he was 24. I'm quite sure he probably dated interracially, you know? And so that may have been a reason why he had to flee himself. But it's just that fact that he had to leave his business, he had to leave all of his siblings, you know, his father.

Lee: No one was ever prosecuted or punished for the insurrection, and there wouldn't be another Black elected official in Wilmington for 75 years. And Inez's great, great grandfather, Isham, his wife Julia, and their eight remaining kids, survived the violence. Still, their losses were immense.

Campbell-eason: Because they lost a lot of property, you know, lost their businesses, the money from the Black-owned bank that my great, great grandfather was on as far as the board of directors, the money was stolen from that particular bank. Here they have a bank that was bonded for basically $1 million in 1893. And so Black people had invested their money into that bank, and in real estate. And it just disappeared.

Lee: The events of 1898 sit heavy in Inez's heart today. But she didn't grow up knowing this history. Inez wasn't taught about the massacre in school, and she didn't hear about it from her family. Inez learned about it after college while visiting a local museum. Why do you think that was? Why didn't they want to talk about it?

Campbell-eason: Well, it was just an inherent fear of, you know, what happened. And, you know, and in order to exist and coexist in the city, you know, those are things that you just didn't talk about. If you wanted to stay gainfully employed, you just didn't talk about them.

Lee: Inez's family carries that trauma. And many others in the city of Wilmington carry it too.

Campbell-eason: You know, severe trauma and depression, you know, I'm quite sure was rampant throughout the city. Because you're looking at everything that you built, you know, pretty much being taken away. The livelihood and the opportunities that you had foreseen for your children and yourself and your family, to see someone else benefit from the work that you had done, I'm quite sure it was really, really just crippling for many.

It's just something that's really hard to overcome. People say, when they visit the city, they'll say that it's a beautiful city, because it's right on the water. But they'll say in the same breath that there's something really bizarre.

Like, we can feel a vibe. You know, and we often laugh, because we will say that, "Well, yeah, that is true." You know, the ominous feeling those people have often are the remnants of, you know, that electricity and vibe that's still in the air from what happened in 1898.

Lee: More of the consequences of our country's tradition of white violence after the break.

Lee: I'm Trymaine Lee, and we're back with Into America. We just heard the story of the only successful coup in American history that took place in Wilmington, North Carolina, in 1898. The coup was about race and it was about political power, two things that we've never been able to disentangle in this country. But remember, in the Constitution, the actual United States Constitution, we as Black people were considered just three fifths of a person.

Sinegal-decuir: So right there it became something that was racial. And it was there to prevent us from having a voice, an active voice in politics.

Lee: Dr. Sharlene Sinegal-Decuir is an African American history professor at Xavier University in New Orleans. Even before the coup in Wilmington, there were numerous white insurrections during the Reconstruction era of the 1860s and '70s. Dr. Sinegal-Decuir told me about her home state of Louisiana.

Sinegal-decuir: Louisiana became a test case for what Reconstruction would look like, and it was a horrible disaster. This progressive constitution where you have equal public accommodations, equal integrated schools, everything is equal. By 1872, the white citizens in Louisiana, they are upset.

They're fired up. You have the Klan, you have the Knights of White Camelia, and you have the White League, the White Citizens League that had formed. All of these groups are going to come together by 1874 to suppress all of that political power that was happening in Louisiana. And we see the Liberty Place incident.

Lee: The Battle of Liberty Place was carried out in September of 1874, when the White League attacked the integrated Metropolitan Police Force for control of the city of New Orleans.

Sinegal-decuir: They are 100% militarized. They are police officers, they are soldiers, right? And they come in and they take control over Louisiana for three days.

Lee: The White League forcibly deposed Republican governor William Pitt Kellogg, forcing president Ulysses S. Grant to send in federal troops to reinstate Kellogg.

Sinegal-decuir: It's very pivotal, because it was saying that America was tired of Reconstruction. America had threw its hands up and said, "We helped you Black people as much as we can, and now we're done. We did our service and we're good."

Lee: Tired of Reconstruction. That attitude gave way to that coup in Wilmington in 1898 and the violence that continued after, well into the early 20th century.

Sinegal-decuir: Oh my goodness, the violence, it's crazy. The violence was completely crazy. The lynching, so many people were lynched in the South, and not just the South, in the North, in everywhere, for minor reasons. You know, not giving the sidewalk to a white person, to a white woman. Or looking or whistling at a white woman.

Lee: This period of what some people like to call whitelash carried on and on. Dr. Sinegal-Decuir points to the role of a silent film during this period. Birth of a Nation was released in 1915 by D.W. Griffith. Birth of a Nation portrayed Black people as dangerous and aggressive, and the Klan as white saviors.

Sinegal-decuir: Birth of a Nation took this concept of white people, or white supremacists protecting the South, and the Lost Cause of the South, and it made these Southern people justifiable in their violence, in their racism, in their power, and in their claim to democracy. It justified all those things by vilifying African American people and saying that we, or African American people, were bad for democracy.

Lee: And when Black Americans in Tulsa, Oklahoma, achieved financial success in the early 1920s, mobs of white residents attacked the businesses in a section of Tulsa's Greenwood neighborhood, known as Black Wall Street, and burned the thriving neighborhood to the ground.

Sinegal-decuir: They owned property. They can vote now, right? And they now are creating wealth, and not just wealth, generational wealth. That's scary. That's scary for white supremacists, for Black people to have generational wealth. Because if you have generational wealth, then you have generational power.

Lee: We can keep moving through history and moving through examples of this happening again and again. Take the Civil Rights Movement, when people were murdered, churches were bombed, voting rights marchers were regularly bludgeoned, and children were attacked with dogs and fire hoses. Violence that came either directly from the state was carried out by ordinary citizens, as law enforcement often sat back. We talked about one terrifying moment in Anniston, Alabama.

Sinegal-decuir: During the Freedom Rides, there was one incident where police officers allowed Klan members and racist people to come in and beat up on these people for a good ten minutes. And they were literally all over the street, but they just turned a blind eye.

And they said, "Okay, you have ten minutes to inflict as much violence and damage that you want on these people, but then after ten minutes we're gonna have to come in and act like we, you know, we saw something and we tried to stop it." That's been throughout history, where these organizations are turning a blind eye, just, again, like we saw at the Capitol. You had some of the police officers taking selfies.

Lee: Historically speaking, have these insurrections actually worked, you know, slowing or pausing actual progress?

Sinegal-decuir: Yes. They have slowed Black progress down. Because what happens, what you saw in Wilmington, what you saw in Oklahoma, even Louisiana, is that African American people became fearful. They became fearful of voting. They became fearful of seeming to white people that they were uppity, right?

And so what we have been doing is we have been dimming our light so that we make these people comfortable. We have been making them comfortable to be around us. And in doing so, we're stifling our own progress, because we could be so much more and so much further. But we have done that because we are afraid. We are definitely afraid of what may happen to us.

Lee: Have there been incidents throughout history where communities have actually come out stronger? I mean, sometimes I think about Tulsa, all that was lost, and those families still today are suffering. When you think about Wilmington, North Carolina, some of those families and descendants are still suffering. Has there been a time where a community has come together after and, you know, saw the ugliness and decided to do something different? Or even as a nation?

Sinegal-decuir: No, no. Not that I've, unh-uh (NEGATIVE), no. Whenever African American communities were decimated like that, it was extremely hard for them to come back and to gain any kind of prominence or dominance that they had once had. It was just completely lost. So no.

Lee: So knowing all that history, let's turn the lens on the 2020 election. Donald Trump loses. Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, the first African American vice president, win. Congress is now more diverse than ever. As extraordinary as the insurrection was last week at the Capitol, we can see the through line. What happened last week was a new chapter in a very old story.

Sinegal-decuir: The big parallel is how uniform they were, how militarized they were, how strategic they were in their approach to the violence. It didn't just happen, it was planned. It was planned in both incidents.

Lee: What were these people responding to?

Sinegal-decuir: So they were responding to loss of control, loss of power. If you're going back to the racial issues and the undertones in Wilmington, it was about these African American people who were gaining political control. Here in storming the Capitol it's the same thing.

You're looking, these people, these insurrectionists, are looking at the Democratic Party as being symbolic of the Black people. The Black people are now gaining power. They're going to change legislation, and we cannot have that happening.

And so what are we gonna do to stop it? Violence. We're gonna result to violence. And both incidents, they're resulting to violence to end progress and to maintain supremacy, and make sure that Black people are put in their place. And if you're not put in your place, you're gonna be intimidated to go back there.

Lee: Why do you think we saw so many Confederate flags flying over the Capitol on January 6th?

Sinegal-decuir: It goes back to that whole Lost Cause issue of the Civil War, just trying to hold on to that last hope, hold on to that power. Seeing that flag is intimidating to African American people. It sparks something in us, in our memory. It's trauma, right?

Even though we were not obviously there during the Civil War and all those different things, it's trauma. And seeing that flag, just like if you saw somebody walk down the street with a white robe on, it would do something to Black people. Because it's trauma, it's memory, it's fear. And seeing those flags in the Capitol was just showing us that even though we think we have come far, they still have the power to go and tarnish what we feel or see as the American dream.

Lee: After what we saw last Wednesday, President-elect Joe Biden said that, "The chaos at the Capitol does not reflect a true America."

Biden: The scenes of chaos at the Capitol do not reflect a true America, do not represent who we are.

Lee: Do you agree with that, that what we saw last Wednesday does not represent who we are at all?

Sinegal-decuir: No. (LAUGHTER)

Lee: Point blank, period. Nah.

Sinegal-decuir: Point blank, period, no. I think it is exactly who we are. Trump, what he did was he allowed America to view itself in the mirror for the first time. This racism is systematically ingrained in the fabric of American history. And I don't necessarily see this changing at all.

It's going to take a very long time. Because here's the thing. You have parents that actually had kids at the rally. They're teaching their children hate. They're teaching their children these things. And so if you're going to constantly teach the next generation how to hate, because it's a taught thing, then we are never going to change.

Lee: Well, then let me ask you this, though. I mean, we've had this summer of this so-called racial reckoning. Do you think any of what we saw in the last several months has kind of primed us to really reckon with who we are and actually see this violence for what it is?

Sinegal-decuir: I think we are. I think we are in position to see it clearly now. It's always been there. Black people have always seen it, but white people have not always seen it. But I think this is forcing everyone to take a look at themselves, at their families, at what America really is, at African American people, at their colleagues. It's really making America look at itself. And not just America, I mean, we have the world looking at us.

Lee: And that tough look is essential if anything is going to change.

Sinegal-decuir: We need to take this American house down to the studs and rebuild it. Because the foundation that we have is totally cracked.

Lee: There's a saying I use often, that you can't separate the roots of a tree from its leaves. And in that way, there's no way for us to untangle the violence we saw at the Capitol Building from the racial and political violence we've seen all throughout American history.

As we reach back to the past, to better understand where we are today, and perhaps where we're headed, I'll be honest, I'm not really hopeful that we'll find the courage to confront the most fundamental flaws and root sins of our nation. And that hurts. So I hope I'm wrong, because America can be so much better than we've ever been before.

Into America is produced by Isabel Angel, Allison Bailey, Aaron Dalton, Max Jacobs, Barbara Raab, Claire Tighe, Aisha Turner, and Preeti Varathan. Original music by Hannis Brown. Our executive producer is Ellen Frankman. And I'm Trymaine Lee. We'll be back next Thursday.