Why you should care
The Tar Heel State is far from putting a nasty history of voter disenfranchisement and political power plays behind it.
Several political developments last year left some analysts wondering whether the state of North Carolina was still a functioning democracy. From gerrymandering legislative districts to voter suppression laws designed to reduce African-American turnout to stripping newly elected Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper of many of his executive powers, North Carolina’s Republican-controlled state assembly has been pushing the boundaries of the law and democratic norms to consolidate its hold over the state.
— UNC Global (@UNC_Global) January 14, 2017
Such actions, however, are not the Tar Heel State’s first, or worst, detour from democracy. In the years after the Civil War, Reconstruction Era Republicans in North Carolina were able to expand voting rights and political representation for African-Americans in their state. But, in 1898, the Democrats — then the party of white Southern conservatives — struck back with a “white supremacy” electoral campaign, and subsequent disenfranchisement strategy, that would devastate the state’s democracy for decades to come.
As Michael Perman chronicles in Struggle for Mastery: Disfranchisement in the South, 1888–1908, in North Carolina, as in other Southern states, the Reconstruction period was a contentious one. But by the 1890s, a coalition of Republicans and Populists, known as the “fusion” government, had come to power, and African-Americans had seen their political participation levels increase dramatically, both as voters and officeholders. Lost in the political wilderness, the Democratic Party, and its white conservative base, knew it would have to act boldly to avoid becoming a political minority in the state. “The only sure way to overcome these difficulties,” writes Perman, “was for the Democrats to mount an electrifying campaign that would galvanize white voters and overawe and intimidate the opposition.”
And the Democrats knew just the issue that would do it. Calling themselves the “white man’s party,” they threw down the gauntlet for the 1898 election, proclaiming “North Carolina is a WHITE MAN’s state and WHITE MEN will rule it.” But white supremacy alone was not the ticket back to power: Voters had to be scared into believing that white rule was in danger. Under the fusion government, there were hundreds of new Black officeholders — more than ever before — but most were low-level functionaries like coroners, postmasters and magistrates. So to convince North Carolina’s white voters that rising “negro dominance” was a proven threat, the Democrats turned to their new party chairman, Furnifold Simmons, a skilled organizer with a vast knowledge of state politics, who would leave an indelible mark — some would say stain — on the state’s history.
Once in power, the Democrats immediately set to work … to disenfranchise Black voters.
Simmons sent talented orators across the state to whip locals into a rhetorical frenzy at picnics and large gatherings, while Democrats engaged in a massive fake-news campaign, filling newspapers with what Perman calls “lurid stories depicting incidents of African-American audacity and insolence.” And Simmons cut deals with major state businesses, promising tax relief if they helped fund the propaganda.
Simmons and the Democrats also established more than 800 branches of the White Government Union throughout North Carolina, even going so far as to reinforce their community organizing and propaganda with threats of violence. Groups of “Red Shirts” — armed men on horseback — fanned out across the state, loitering around Black polling places and brandishing weapons to intimidate potential fusionist voters.
The fusionist forces were overwhelmed and the Democrats scored a massive victory, taking back control of the state Legislature. As the Hickory Times-Mercury summarized it afterward, the Democrats “used money, liquor, lying, fraud, bulldozing, ostricism [sic] and every meanness [that] can be thought of.” Two days after the election, in Wilmington, where a biracial, fusionist-controlled city council managed to win election, white mobs burned and ransacked Black neighborhoods in a “race riot” that would be blamed on the city’s Black residents.
Once in power, the Democrats immediately set to work on several measures, including a constitutional amendment, to disenfranchise Black voters. The Democrats “used their control of the polling places to stuff the ballot box, particularly in heavily Black counties,” says J. Morgan Kousser, a history professor at the California Institute of Technology and author of The Shaping of Southern Politics, “and to pass the constitutional amendment in an orgy of voting fraud unprecedented in North Carolina’s history.”
By February 1899, the amendment, containing a literacy requirement and poll tax (as well as a “grandfather clause” to ensure illiterate whites could still vote), had been passed, and was rapidly enforced to disenfranchise most of the state’s Black population. The effects were devastating and long-lasting. Very few Blacks would vote in North Carolina for the next 50 years. The Populist Party died out, and a Black state legislator would not be elected until 1968, nor a Republican governor until 1972. The causalities went well beyond political participation. “A one-party, whites-only political system redistributed resources upward,” says Kousser, “and doomed the state for more than a half-century to a stifled economic and social development.”
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