The Worst of Times? The Indiana Pope, Fluoride, Daniels, and Wilmington (concluded)

          America has been fueled by conspiracies throughout its history, many concerning race. And its government has always been populated with racists. Recently, many of us learned what we had not been taught before, the racism of Woodrow Wilson. But let’s consider the lesser-known Josephus Daniels. I first learned about him in biographies of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Daniels was Secretary of the Navy during World War I, and FDR served as his Assistant Secretary of the Navy. The two became friends, and when he became President, Roosevelt appointed Daniels to be ambassador to Mexico, a position he filled from 1933 to 1941. These biographies told me that Daniels for decades at the end of the nineteenth century controlled and edited the Raleigh, North Carolina, News and Observer. He held progressive political positions, supporting public schools and public works, seeking more regulation of trusts and railroads, supporting prohibition and women’s suffrage. However, I don’t remember those books telling me that Daniels was a vehement racist and white supremacist. He maintained that America’s greatest mistake was to give Blacks the vote, and his newspaper published vicious editorials, letters, articles, and cartoons about what was labeled the “horrors of negro rule.” Through his newspaper and personal contacts, he was a promotor of a successful overthrow of a validly elected American government, what has been called the Wilmington Insurrection of 1898. Yes, this country has had precursors to the January 6, 2021, insurrection. Wilmington was one.

          The oppression of the Jim Crow laws had not yet descended upon North Carolina in the 1890s, but economic disparities had. A populist party with an emphasis on the needs of poor whites allied with the biracial Republican party to form Fusionist slates that won statewide offices during that decade. Wilmington, then the largest city in North Carolina, was majority Black, and Blacks held political offices in a biracial government. Moreover, they held economic power by being successful in many professions and by owning butcher shops, restaurants, carpentry businesses, and a newspaper.

          To regain its ascendance, the statewide Democratic party, with Josephus Daniels as one of its leaders, consciously used white supremacist rhetoric, leaning heavily on the unfounded fear of rapes of white women by Blacks. Finding this propaganda insufficient, a NC Democratic official said, “We cannot outnumber the negroes, and so we must outcheat, outcount or outshoot them!” Blacks had to be either frightened away from the polls or be forcibly resisted when they tried to vote. And in the 1898 elections for statewide office, the Democrats were successful—perhaps, many thought, with the aid of stuffed ballot boxes—in removing the integrated Fusionists. Local officials, however, were not part of this election, and the biracial government of Wilmington remained.

          A self-appointed committee of nine white men who were not happy with such a government issued a manifesto telling the Wilmington elected officials to leave and insisting further that if Blacks were not going to be servile to whites in the future, they, too, should depart. Next day, not seeing the demanded exodus, up to a thousand whites exercised what today would be called their Second Amendment rights by arming themselves, not just with rifles, pistols, and shotguns, but also with a gatling gun. Accurate records of the ensuing carnage were not kept, but the estimates of Blacks killed go from 60 up to 300. The rampaging whites installed their own unelected government officials.

          Americans often profess a belief in democracy and elections, but in Wilmington a duly elected government was violently overthrown and replaced without any voting. The slaughter was the coup. Then came the revolution. The white insurrections recognized that without further steps, they might face a biracial government again. After the 1898 election, the white supremacist government gave North Carolina voting officials, who of course would be white, broad discretion in deciding who was eligible to vote. They could ask any “material” question on identity and qualifications. Legislators advocated for a poll tax and literacy test, but others pointed out that these devices could also prevent whites from voting. North Carolina then adopted the “grandfather clause” that exempted those who had voted before 1867 or whose father or grandfather had voted before 1867 from a poll tax or literacy test. In 1868, 80,000 blacks were registered to vote; by 1900, it was 15,000, and “perhaps half of them were able to vote.” By 1906, about 6,100 North Carolina Blacks were registered to vote.

          The Wilmington Insurrection pioneered a formula that would be used throughout the South: deny black citizens the vote, first through terror and then by legislation. And even when the Supreme Court did rule in 1915 that the grandfather clause violated the Fifteenth Amendment, the South found other ways to suppress the Black vote.

          Although I consider myself reasonably well versed in American history, I had not heard of the Wilmington Insurrection until recently. For those who want to learn more, I recommend David Zucchino, Wilmington’s Lie: The Murderous Coup of 1898 and the Rise of White Supremacy (2020). Zucchino goes on to point out that Blacks in North Carolina did not vote after 1898 in significant numbers until after Voting Rights Act of 1965.

          However, NC Republicans in 2012 started collecting data on such things as how many Blacks did not have a driver’s license; how many used early voting hours; how many voted on Sundays. A voter identification law was thwarted by the preclearance provision of Voting Rights Act, but in 2013, the Supreme Court in Shelby County v. Holder gutted the democratically enacted Voting Rights Act, and North Carolina immediately enacted a voter ID law, which is now enshrined in the state constitution. The crazy, conspiratorial actions of today follow the steps taken in 1898 in Wilmington.

Democracy Dies When Elections Don’t Matter (continued)

We might not know what we mean by democracy, but we Americans have often felt that our democratic system was under attack. For most of the twentieth century, we found our enemies abroad, or with “foreigners” within our land or with those who had adopted “foreign” ideologies, from communist countries or elsewhere. We had to be especially vigilant against these subversives because they did not operate openly, and their secret cells had to be ruthlessly rooted out lest they spread.

Today, however, the enemies of democracy are different. They are not hidden but public officials and local, state, and national leaders, with their secret sides, but also operating openly. This apparent openness may make us less vigilant concerning the dangers they present to democracy. We are often more concerned about what we fear is in the shadows than what is in front of our eyes. Because our vigilance may lessen when the threats to democracy come from public officials, the menace may in fact be greater.

 The dangers to our democracy are many, but they fall into several categories. The last presidential election had record voter turnouts. That should produce huzzahs for the strength of our democracy. Instead, it has spurred efforts to make it harder to vote, or at least harder for some people to vote. One segment of Americans wants fewer “other” Americans to cast ballots. Of course, when voting is not equally accessible for all, democracy is subverted.

Many do not condemn these voting restrictions but instead applaud them citing justifications without factual bases. Perhaps this acceptance comes easily because similar subversions of the electoral process have been part of the American way for much of our history. Biased literacy tests, poll taxes, and voter intimidation — all part of Jim Crow America that arose after Republicans abandoned Reconstruction — had the effect of suppressing votes. Today the motive is not solely racial but also partisan, but the goals of those wanting to make it harder to vote are similar to those of the past.

We should be concerned when voting is not equal for all of the people. Surprisingly, however, these anti-democratic efforts indicate an acceptance of the central democratic principle that elections do matter. These subverters expect that the majority of the ballots cast will determine the outcome, but they want to reduce the votes for the other side so that they will have the majority. As dangerous as these subverters are, they still accept some democratic norms.

Another attack on our democracy, however, has fewer parallels in our history and is less accepting of democratic tenets. In the last year, we have seen many efforts to undermine faith in our elections. Much of this is akin to the whiny schoolyard kid who can’t accept that he lost a game. His cry: I didn’t lose; somebody must have been cheating.

There’s this strange movement afoot that elections should not be trusted unless our side has won. Polls show that a large percentage of Republicans believe that Joe Biden did not win the last presidential election, and it seems clear that there is no evidence that will change their minds. We have a long history of electing loony people to office. In this tradition, perhaps leading the parade, are Republican officials who were elected to office in 2020, but who maintain that while they were validly elected, Trump, on the same ballot, was shafted.

All of this is seeding the ground for the claim that the results of future elections should not be accepted if our side does not win. These claims may come from across the political spectrum. If it loses, that side will say that the anti-democratic efforts to suppress votes made the elections untrustworthy. The other side, if it loses, will say the election can’t trusted because . . . well, just because they lost.

By itself, the claims of steal or illegitimacy attack democracy. We may not like the results of an election, but if we believe in democracy, we accept the results. I did not like it that Trump won in 2016, and I feel that it is a flaw in our electoral structure that the person who got 3 million fewer votes became president. That result highlighted that our country is not a true democracy, but I accepted that under our system that the now Has Been Guy was your president and mine.

Grumbling about an election is the American way, as I did in 2016, and claims of a stealor illegitimacy may just be another version of that. On the other hand, the cries of theft may truly be a democratic danger if they give many a “reason” to resist, legally and otherwise, the lawful outcome of an election.

Whatever the true purpose of Stop-the-Steal movements, it is clear that the goal of gerrymandering is anti-democratic. With “improved” gerrymandering, more and more elections are becoming mere formalities. And with each cut from another meaningless election, democracy bleeds away.*


*The gerrymander term comes from Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry, who pronounced his last name with a hard G, as if the name were Gary. And in the who-would-have-thought-it department, Ronald Reagan knew that and pronounced gerrymander with a hard G, unlike most people, including me and Supreme Court Justices, who use that term.

(Concluded December 22)