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The winner of this year’s Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction was Wilmington’s Lie, a tour-de-force about a white supremacist takeover and violent massacre that occurred in our state more than 120 years ago in what was then North Carolina’s largest city. That seems like such a long time ago, but this book and the story it tells has important lessons for today about race relations and political polarization in our state and nation. To understand why this is so is the purpose of this course.

We will read and discuss selected chapters among the 38 (plus an important epilogue) that constitute David Zucchino’s book. (Actually, I’ll suggest that you read the whole book, but I will alert you to the particular chapters we’ll discuss next.) But to truly understand what happened in Wilmington and its lessons for today, you will need to learn about the 35 years of North Carolina political and social conflict that led up to the Wilmington coup—from the Civil War, through Reconstruction, and through the 20-years of post-Reconstruction “Redeemer” power and influence. What happened during that period—as much a conflict between the wealthiest 10% of North Carolinians and the majority of white “yeoman” farmers and tradesmen—is a story with profound parallels to today’s political culture of voter suppression and working-class “Trumpism.” The result of a temporary victory for an interracial coalition of moderate whites and blacks—in Wilmington but also in North Carolina as a whole—was that not long afterwards democracy was destroyed and 60 years of Jim Crow racism dominated our state.

Wilmington’s Lie’s author, David Zucchino, is a UNC grad who has had a successful career as a journalist, covering contemporary inter-ethnic violence in places like Iraq, South Africa, Libya, and Afghanistan. So behind this book is not just excellent historical scholarship and clear journalistic writing but his own broad experience in similar situations of gross inequality across ethnic divisions.

The political and social history of North Carolina during the last third of the 19th century will occupy our attention for most of the semester. However, after imbibing the lived experiences of the black community of Wilmington in 1898 and their white populist and moderate Republican colleagues, we will step forward to try to understand race relations in a portion of rural North Carolina that seems to have changed little since then—the southeastern North Carolina county of Bladen. A five-part audio podcast called “The Improvement Association” recounts stories about voter fraud. It was a decade-long attempt to deflect criticism from those who actually committed voter fraud to an African-American political organization in Bladen County that was attempting—within the existing rules—to provide political power to that cultural minority.

What ties these two stories together—Wilmington in the late 19th century and Bladen County in the early 21st century? At least two ideas: (1) that “dirty” politics and the lies that come from it cannot be easily eliminated from American democracy; and (2) that cultural identities are hard to change—in particular, the exclusion of poor people outside one’s identity group—the people who we think of as “us.” A related message is that a temporary political victory can result in disastrous subsequent consequences. (The 1890s in North Carolina provide a striking parallel to Trump’s presidency following Obama’s.) But rather than ending on such pessimism, our final discussion will focus on the things that we can do to move us beyond the narrow-minded and self-defeating strategies that have prevented the development of a healthy, inclusive society.

The course will be a mixture of four activities:
  • Viewing interviews, lectures, and question-and-answer sessions with Wilmington’s Lie’s author, David Zucchino.
  • Presentations by the course moderator on the political and social climate in North Carolina from the end of the Civil War to the 1898 Coup and the commencement of legalized Jim Crow discrimination in this state.
  • Discussing most of the chapters in the book, Wilmington’s Lie, which describes in detail the events of 1898 that led up to and followed from the November 10th election that year.
  • Jumping ahead to the present day, discussing the podcast series, The (Bladen County) Improvement Association, which class members will listen to between class meetings, as a means of better understanding the long-term consequences of the sentiments and policies that underlaid the Wilmington Coup.

We will examine how “white supremacy” in the 19th century was a psychological strategy designed by prominent whites worried that poorer whites would identify more with downtrodden blacks than with the “betters” among their own racial group. But we will also attempt to understand the situation of that time—not just using the moral standards of the present day, in which well-deserved sympathy for the plight of blacks in America is easily felt—but from how whites of that era viewed the past couple generations of their regional history and how they viewed their current situation from their perspective.

Reading and writing: I suggest that people read the whole book, Wilmington's Lie, although we will discuss only sections of it in detail. Also, I will provide a few reading selections from other material about the the decades in North Carolina that led up to the Wilmington coup. Finally, a course website will give people an opportunity to share their views outside of class time as well as other relevant information they may have.

Here is a preliminary outline of how the semester might unfold.

  • Week 1: Interviews, lectures, & Q&A with David Zucchino, the book’s author. Book reviews of Wilmington’s Lie. Some incidents that encapsulate the critical period of the coup in October and November of 1898.
  • Week 2: The Civil War and Reconstruction in North Carolina.
    Read ahead: Chapters 1-6
  • Week 3: The Birth of White Supremacy as a Strategy for Political Power; its ups and downs during the twenty years between 1877 to the 1897.
    Read ahead: Chapters 7-10
  • Week 4: Sociology and social psychology of group identity and group identification of self-interest. Selected discussion of chapters 1-16.
    Read: Chapters 11-16
  • Week 5: October 1898: The White Supremacist Movement Picks Up Steam
    Read: Chapters 17-21
  • Week 6: Election Day and the Day After
    Read: Chapters 22-25
  • Week 7: White Violence and the Takeover of Wilmington Government
    Read: Chapters 26-28
  • Week 8: Banishment, Celebration, and Newspaper Accounts
    Read: Chapters 29-33
  • Week 9: Black Exodus, the Federal Response, and Complete Black Voter Suppression
    Read: Chapters 34-36
  • Week 10: Birth of Jim Crow, the Lives of the Banished, the Commission of 1998.
    Read: Chapters 37-38 & Epilogue
  • Week 11: The (Bladen County) Improvement Association: episodes 1, 2, and 3
    Listen to the Podcast (or read the transcript)
  • Week 12: The Improvement Association, episodes 4 & 5. What’s the right strategy for blacks to use to attain their fair share of political influence and public benefits?
    Listen to the Podcast (or read the transcript)
  • Week 13: What’s needed to create a political culture that values truth and has an inclusive definition of “who we are” in which race is not a boundary?
    Reading: several articles including David Brooks, How Racist is America; and “The Bitter Heartland.”