Friday, February 2, 2024

Democracy Lost - Jim Crow Comes to Rural North Carolina

What would the fall of American democracy look like? 

The Jim Crow South provides us with a blueprint of how democracy can fall in America and the role that the media can play in making that a reality.  Telling this story helps us understand the history of rural Southern communities and their relationships with access to justice. 

Any person of color with ancestral roots in the rural South has ancestors who both lived through the fall of democracy and dealt with the aftermath. It would be difficult to argue that the Southern states were functioning democracies during the era of Jim Crow. After all, it was a single party region where leaders were often chosen by party bosses and where a substantial portion (in some cases more than half) of the population was systemically excluded from the democratic process. My ancestral roots are in North Carolina so I will focus on our experience with the matter, but you can find similar stories across the South. 

Post-Reconstruction North Carolina

North Carolina in the late 19th century was primarily an agrarian society. The largest city, Wilmington, was not even among the 100 largest in the country. It was also a reasonably politically balanced state. While the Democrats monopolized the governor's mansion after the end of Reconstruction in 1877, the Republicans usually put-up strong showings in statewide elections. Republican strength in the state was buoyed by the newly enfranchised Black population and rural whites in the mountainous parts of the state. The Democratic Party was openly the party of "white supremacy." In 1892, the Wilmington Star even referred to white supremacy as the "corner stone of Southern society" in their plea to voters to support the Democrats. 

White Supremacist Rule Is Threatened

Democratic rule in North Carolina came under threat in the late 1880s, when a national recession helped birth the Farmers Alliance, which later led to the Populist Party in North Carolina. This chain of events presented an opportunity to Republicans, who frequently came close to toppling Democratic governors but needed an extra boost in order to do so. The Populist movement in North Carolina was driven by disgruntled farmers who were unhappy with the economic conditions that threatened their livelihoods. In the 1892 North Carolina's governor race, Democratic candidate Elias Carr won the election with just 48.3% of the vote. For the first time since Reconstruction, the majority of North Carolina voters had voted to reject the Democrats.

The Republicans saw opportunity, but the Populists were reluctant. The August 8, 1893 edition of the Progressive Farmer (which was founded by the Farmers Alliance) addressed rumors of a Republican-Populist fusion by saying that such rumors were unfounded, even going so far as to say that a Republican-Democrat fusion was more likely. Contemporary reporting also bears out that some Black leaders in the Republican Party were skeptical of the Populists and worried about their power being diluted. Their fears weren't entirely unfounded, North Carolina was the only Southern state in which the Populists were not working with Democrats. 

Despite the reluctance of the parties involved, the Republicans and Populists ultimately formed a Fusionist ticket and took control of the General Assembly in 1894. This victory also allowed them to elect one Republican and one Populist to the United States Senate. In 1896, the Fusionist ticket elected Daniel Russell, a Republican, as governor of North Carolina. 

White Supremacists Strike Back

In their coverage of Governor Russell's January 1897 inaugural address, the Raleigh News and Observer wrote that the governor "hates democracy because democracy stands for white supremacy." This was a preview of the tactics that Democrats would use to regain power in 1898. White farmers had aligned with Populists because of economic concerns and the White Supremacists hoped to bring them back to the Democratic Party by using race baiting. 

In the lead up to the 1898 election, newspapers across North Carolina extolled the virtues of white supremacy and its "essentialness" for democracy. A common tactic was to follow the lead of the News and Observer and equate white supremacy to the preservation of democracy and call it the "natural order." The Fayetteville Observer even ran advertisements (see right) saying that they were the leading advocate for "white reunion against black fusion."

This messaging was also prevalent in small town and rural newspapers. In late 1897, my hometown paper, The Robesonian (in Robeson County, North Carolina), which is located in a county with large Indigenous and Black populations, reprinted an article that said that white supremacy "is the child of necessity." In Craven County, the Goldsboro Weekly Argus printed an editorial in which it decried the fact that every deputy sheriff in the county was Black and blamed the Republican-Populist Fusionists. 

Throughout the year, articles were printed around the state that depicted individual Populists leaving the Fusionist cause over the race issue. In October 1898, the Craven County Populist Party formally renounced Fusionism, threw their support behind white supremacy, and encouraged their fellow Populists to follow suit. The Progressive Farmer held out hope that people would not be persuaded by such arguments. 

There was also the looming threat of violent voter suppression, especially at the hands of South Carolina's Senator (and former governor) Ben Tillman and his Red Shirts, which prompted Republican Senator Jeter Pritchard to ask President William McKinley to deploy federal troops to the state to ensure that everyone had access to the ballot. His request was denied. 

As you might expect, the white supremacist Democrats utilized a combination of violent voter suppression in predominantly Black districts and race baiting to whites to win back the General Assembly. 

Just two days after the election, white supremacists in Wilmington overthrew the city's majority Black government in the only successful coup in American history. The wheels of Jim Crow were in motion. 

And Jim Crow Begins...

Upon regaining power, the White Supremacist Democrats sought to keep Black voters from regaining power in the state. At the time, the Governor of North Carolina had no veto power so Governor Russell (who still had two years left in his term) could only sit idly by. To cement themselves into power, the Democrats proposed Constitutional Amendments that would create a poll tax and literacy test. It would require a popular vote in order to pass these Amendments. 

Democrats deployed many of the same tactics they had used in 1898 to win the passage of these amendments (and the governor's mansion). Tillman and Red Shirts were once again deployed, and the media once again resorted to race baiting. The Semi-Weekly Messenger in Wilmington even attributed the city's recent economic growth to "white supremacy." Not long after this, Wilmington lost its perch as the largest city in the state. 

My local newspaper openly championed white supremacy. In June 1900, a "white supremacy club" (see right for announcement in The Robesonian) was even organized to promote the cause. 

Unsurprisingly, the white supremacists were successful in their endeavor, Jim Crow became enshrined in the North Carolina Constitution, the white supremacists took back the governor's mansion, and democracy fell in North Carolina. 

North Carolinians of Color in 1900 woke up in a world where they were largely excluded from institutional life and forced to become observers of their state government. 

Understanding systems of power in the Rural South requires understanding the paradigm that dominated it in the first half of the 20th century. Democracy in North Carolina fell because of voter suppression and media-aided race baiting.  These legacies don't die overnight. 

Communities of color in rural North Carolina are still dealing with the impacts of Jim Crow. In a future post, we'll dive into historic poverty levels in Eastern North Carolina, home to most of North Carolina's rural POC population. 

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