Trump, Wilmington, And The Importance Of History

On Tuesday, August 9th, while campaigning in Wilmington, North Carolina, Donald Trump committed one more gaffe for the ages, appearing to implicitly suggest that supporters of the Second Amendment might want to assassinate Hillary Clinton, lest she attempt to overturn the amendment's protections via her picks for the Supreme Court. After repeatedly hammering home former Secretary Clinton's intentions to strengthen regulations on firearms, Trump lamented, "If she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks." Amidst the boos, the Republican nominee, added: "Although the Second Amendment people -- maybe there is, I don't know."

Media response was swift and unforgiving, with figures such as Dan Rather citing Trump's remarks as a new low in his campaign, if not in the history of American politics. Though the Donald's campaign machinery quickly responded, suggesting that the candidate was merely calling for supporters of the Right to Bear Arms to organize and vote, few have bought into this, the latest attempt to explain, qualify and rework his words by a candidate who claims to say what he means and mean what he says.

That Trump is being widely condemned for his remarks is not surprising or unique. What is surprising, however, is how few media outlets have put the nominee's words into context, how little has been said about what it means that Trump suggested all this in Wilmington, North Carolina.

On November 10, 1898, Wilmington experienced what NPR has referred to as "the only coup d'etat in U.S. history," when a mob of nearly 2,000 armed white supremacists attacked the Wilmington City Hall, and overthrew the elected local government. Also attacked were a number of African-American run businesses and the state's only African-American run newspaper, The Daily Record. Storming predominantly black neighborhoods, these insurgents destroyed massive amounts of property. The Wilmington Light Infantry and Federal Naval Reserves called in to put down the insurrection, quickly joined in the violence themselves, mowing down black citizens as they fled. While there is no formal death toll, it is estimated that between 60 and 90 black Americans were killed.

As NPR notes, this was not a random or sudden act of violence. Rather it had been carefully planned by the white supremacist politicians, who, in 1894, had lost control of North Carolina to the then-progressive and bi-racial Republican party. That, at the time, Wilmington was a prime example of a multi-racial community, composed of white, black, and indigenous Americans only made the city a more perfect target for white supremacist violence.

In the lead-up to the November 8, 1898 elections, white supremacists made a concerted and coordinated effort to keep African-Americans from voting, as the newly enfranchised black voters had been largely responsible for ousting conservative white leaders in the state. This involved a number of white supremacist rallies, and the building of smaller lynch mobs and militias composed of so-called "Red Shirts" who could use violence to keep African-Americans from the polls.

After the 1898 election restored the Southern Democrats to power, the militias went to work "fixing" the government of Wilmington (the city council of which was itself biracial), and forcibly instating Col. Alfred Moore Waddell as mayor -- a man, who, prior to the elections had promised to fill the Cape Fear River with the bodies of so many black men and women that it would "choke the current."

All of this violence was supported and encouraged by one Josephus Daniels, who owned the Raleigh News and Observer. In 2006, the paper acknowledged its role in the insurrection in a piece entitled "The Ghosts of 1898." In this piece, reporter Timothy Tyson wrote:

On Nov. 10, 1898, heavily armed columns of white men marched into the black neighbor-hoods of Wilmington. In the name of white supremacy, this well-ordered mob burned the offices of the local black newspaper, murdered perhaps dozens of black residents -- the precise number isn't known -- and banished many successful black citizens and their so-called "white nigger" allies. A new social order was born in the blood and the flames, rooted in what The News and Observer's publisher, Josephus Daniels, heralded as "permanent good government by the party of the White Man."

It wasn't until a hundred years after the events in Wilmington that a conversation about it began, and the insurrection is still excluded from most discussions of American history. Still, the specter of this violence -- of the racialized nature of conservative white rebellion -- hangs heavy over the city.

The Wilmington Insurrection is a reminder of something that we as a nation rarely acknowledge about the Second Amendment: it has always been a discriminatory provision, and the rebellion that its most ardent supporters seem to believe it protects has always been rooted in anti-black violence. Recent events and history both make this clear. While during the 2016 RNC, Cleveland paid host to white men proudly brandishing assault weapons, Philando Castile was killed by police less than a month prior, while following police protocol and informing the officer that pulled him over that he had, in the vehicle, a licensed firearm he had no intention of using. Young black Americans are treated as "thugs" and animals when they make any reference to weapons, in music or in photographs, but white Americans openly carry high powered guns into fast food restaurants simply to show they can. And though defenders of the Second Amendment will gleefully remind critics that it was local militias who helped America gain her independence, following this nation's founding, the most notable use of armed insurrection was the American Civil War, when white Americans took up arms in order to defend their right to own black Americans, to deny them personhood. Historically, the Second Amendment is steeped in anti-black violence, and armed rebellion in America is never more passionately embraced than by white men who have stopped getting everything they want.

For a presidential candidate, Trump's coded call for violence against a progressive whose policies champion the further enfranchisement of African Americans may be unprecedented. But it is far from unprecedented for Wilmington, and it is far from unprecedented for America. America's history is unabashedly the history of a nation trying to deal with race, and the history of the Second Amendment is of a coalition of predominantly white Americans attempting to hold their nation hostage to the precepts of race from which they benefit most. If the Republicans truly want to consider themselves the party of Lincoln, then they might consider being more wary of what happens when a white sore loser gets his hand on a gun.

That Donald Trump called for armed revolt in a city most famous for just that seems like too much of a coincidence, no matter what his campaign has to say. Even in the unlikely chance that this is some grotesque version of the stars aligning, it is not a mistake of history. From the beginning this election has been about who has the right to live in America, to speak, to survive. It's about which emotions we turn to in the most difficult of times. That the violence of Wilmington's history has reentered the picture now is no accident. It's a reminder of what happens when we fail to choose correctly.