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Jan 9, 2021

Democracy under siege

Co-produced with PRX Logo

A mob of Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol, aiming to block the certification of Joe Biden’s election victory. How did we get here? 

We start by examining President Donald Trump’s rhetoric over the last four years, as he stoked conspiracy theories, coddled White supremacists and laid the groundwork for inciting violence. 

Host Al Letson talks with Democratic Massachusetts Rep. Seth Moulton, who took shelter in his office during the insurrection. They discuss what it was like inside the Capitol and the legacy these actions will leave on American democracy. 

We hear from two reporters who were also at the Capitol. Independent reporter Brendan Gutenschwager and Washington Post reporter Marissa J. Lang say there was a big difference between the meager police response to the Trump supporters  compared with the massive show of force with which they met Black Lives Matter protesters over the summer. 

Then we look back at another coup in American history that has eerie echoes of this week’s events. In the late 19th century, Wilmington, North Carolina, was a city where African Americans thrived economically and held elected office. This, however, did not sit well with White supremacists, who plotted to retake control of the city from democratically elected Black leaders. Their coup in 1898 set in place the structural racism that still exists today.  

Credits

Reported by: Anjali Kamat, Pamela Kirkland and Katharine Mieszkowski

Produced by: Najib Aminy, Michael Montgomery, Chris Harland-Dunaway, Pamela Kirkland and Katharine Mieszkowski

Edited by: Jen Chien, Kevin Sullivan and Taki Telonidis

Production manager: Amy Mostafa

Production assistance: Brett Simpson

Mixing, sound design and music by: Jim Briggs and Fernando Arruda

Special thanks: Hannah Breisinger, Rachel Keith and Katelyn Freund at WHQR; Priska Neely; and Reveal’s Esther Kaplan and Robert Rosenthal. Also to the Cape Fear Museum of History and Science and the Southern Oral History Program at UNC Chapel Hill for archival audio.

Executive producer: Kevin Sullivan

Host: Al Letson

Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, Democracy Fund, and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

Transcript

Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal's radio stories is the audio.

Speaker 1:

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Al Letson:

From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson.

Al Letson:

Last Wednesday's attack on the Capitol didn't just happen. It was a part of a long-running campaign to overthrow the election results.

Speaker 3:

I've got a question for you. Is there any person here that actually thinks that Joe Biden won this election?

Crowd:

No!

Al Letson:

The president, his family, and allies had been waging the campaign for weeks, and the morning of the attack, the president himself riled up supporters with an incendiary message.

Donald Trump:

I've been in two elections. I won them both. And the second one, I won much bigger than the first, okay?

Al Letson:

The rally in front of the White House turned into a march.

Donald Trump:

After this, we're going to walk down, and I'll be there with you. We're going to walk down-

Al Letson:

That march turned into an insurrection.

Al Letson:

When Trump supporters got in, they paraded a Confederate flag through the U.S. Capitol building. Members of Congress were forced to flee, and the vote to certify the presidential election was put on hold.

Crowd:

Stop the steal! Stop the steal! Stop the steal! Stop the steal!

Speaker 7:

You want a fight? You better believe you've got one.

Al Letson:

This is what the president told his supporters afterwards.

Donald Trump:

Go home. We love you. You're very special. You've seen what happens. You see the way others are treated that are so bad and so evil. I know how you feel.

Al Letson:

The Capitol was breached, and here we are.

Al Letson:

Trump started laying the groundwork for this moment during his 2016 campaign. This is what he said in October of that year.

Donald Trump:

The process is rigged. This whole election is being rigged.

Al Letson:

This was at the same time that Pizzagate was coming to light.

Speaker 8:

People actually believe a conspiracy theory that Hillary Clinton and her former campaign manager John Podesta ran a child sex ring at a pizzeria in D.C.

Al Letson:

Now, it may have seemed like a joke then, but in hindsight it signaled the beginning of a new age of disinformation and violence. Time and time again, the president responded by making excuses for or siding with people threatening our democracy, the white supremacists in Charlottesville.

Donald Trump:

Very fine people on both sides.

Al Letson:

QAnon conspiracy theorists.

Donald Trump:

I've heard these are people that love our country, and they just don't like seeing it. I don't know really anything about it, other than they do supposedly like me.

Al Letson:

Deadly assaults at Black Lives Matter protests.

Donald Trump:

When there's looting, people get shot and they die. If you looked at what happened last night and the night before, you see that. It's very common.

Al Letson:

After a plot to kidnap the governor of Michigan was exposed.

Donald Trump:

Then I guess they said she was threatened. She was threatened, and she blamed me. She blamed me.

Al Letson:

In his message to the Proud Boys, a violent far-right group.

Donald Trump:

What do you want to call them? Give me a name. Give me a name.

Chris Wallace:

White supremacists and-

Donald Trump:

Go ahead.

Joe Biden:

White supremacists.

Donald Trump:

Who would you like me to condemn?

Joe Biden:

Proud Boys.

Chris Wallace:

White supremacists and right-wing militia.

Donald Trump:

Proud Boys? Stand back and stand by.

Al Letson:

But at the Capitol this past week, they were no longer standing by. White nationalists, Proud Boys, QAnon, and other extremist Trump supporters, they took action.

Al Letson:

On Wednesday afternoon, Congressman Seth Moulton was in his office in the Capitol complex trying to keep track of everything that was going on. Lawmakers were gathering on the inside, and extremist Trump supporters were massing on the outside. There was a knock on his door.

Seth Moulton:

Well, it wasn't just a knock on the door. It was a rap at the door. I didn't know if it was police or protesters. I went up to the front of the office and heard them shouting, "Police! Police!" I opened the door and saw indeed it was several officers who were trying to corral a number of members of Congress and usher us to a secure location.

Al Letson:

Moulton is a Democrat from Massachusetts. He's also a Marine Corps veteran who served four tours of duty in Iraq, so he knows a few things about staying calm under fire. You can hear that in his voice. We talked to him right after he came out of hours of lockdown.

Seth Moulton:

Looking at the situation from a security perspective, I recognized that we were very vulnerable in our offices because the relatively few law enforcement personnel who were at the Capitol complex all had to rush over to protect the building itself, which meant that all the interconnected office buildings, even just across the street, like my own, had almost no police protection whatsoever. We're lucky those protesters didn't just turn around and walk 100 yards and bust into this building because they would not have been stopped.

Seth Moulton:

They ushered us out, and we made sure to lock the door, took a few things, and went down to the secure location, which of course I can't disclose. There were hundreds of lawmakers, both sides of the aisle, both inciters of this protest and people who were trying to protect our democracy against it, and we were all put in this room with a few bottles of water and occasional updates from the sergeant-at-arms telling us what was going on.

Seth Moulton:

This is the kind of thing I expected in Iraq as a United States Marine, when the idea of democracy was regularly under assault. It's not something I ever expected as a United States congressman here in Washington D.C. There were Republicans who were clearly questioning their judgment in supporting the president in this attempt to undermine the vote, the vote of the American people. There was also a small cabal of Republicans who were standing around proudly refusing to wear their masks.

Al Letson:

Would you label that as a tense gathering? I'm talking about tense because of the feelings inside the room, not just the chaos on the outside.

Seth Moulton:

Honestly, the only real tense moment was when some of us Democrats asked these Republicans to put their masks on because so many of us were crowded in this room together. We were supposed to be there to keep us safe, and yet these Republicans were making it unsafe by refusing to wear their masks.

Seth Moulton:

But in terms of what was going on, it wasn't that tense because I think everyone recognized that this utter chaos was worse than we ever imagined. I pulled aside one Republican colleague who's a friend of mine because he's a fellow veteran, and he's someone who, I'm embarrassed to say, has supported this protest vote. I implored him to change his mind. He said he wasn't sure he was going to change his vote, but he has started telling people that the commander in chief should be relieved of duty. I agree with that.

Al Letson:

So you think the president of the United States should actually stand trial for this?

Seth Moulton:

I think he should. I think what he has done has not only violated his oath of office, but it's fundamentally broken laws of the United States. He's attempted a coup from the highest office in the land. That's what this is. You can't underestimate this. This is the first time since the War of 1812 that the United States Capitol has been breached. Think about that as a moment in history. That's how dangerous Donald Trump is to our country.

Al Letson:

I'm curious because when the Black Lives Matter protests were happening in the capital, police were everywhere. National Guard was everywhere. If you just looked at what was being said on the right, it was pretty clear that something could take place today, and yet still we didn't see the same police presence that we see when we're talking about Black Lives Matter protests.

Seth Moulton:

The president had no problem calling federal law enforcement from all over this country to beat up peaceful protestors in the streets when they were standing up for the rights of people of color. Yet when his white supporters wanted to storm the halls of our government, he not only did nothing to stop it. He actually encouraged them. He stood at the White House and told them to march down the street to go to the United States Capitol and use violence against all of us.

Al Letson:

How do you go back to working with members who are across the aisle from you after something like this happens?

Seth Moulton:

I think you have to hold them accountable. I don't think it's enough to just say, "Well, this is a very divided country, and we've got to figure out how to work together." You have to hold them accountable. These lawless Republican lawmakers incited and supported the domestic terrorists who breached the building, and we cannot separate those two. This is not just about controlling a mob. It's about stopping those who incited it. That begins with the president of the United States, but it goes right through my Republican colleagues in Congress. I think they all need to be held accountable. I just think that that's the right thing to do.

Al Letson:

Are you angry?

Seth Moulton:

Yes, I'm angry, but I think more than that, I'm sad. I'm sad for our country. I'm embarrassed at many of my colleagues, and I'm concerned about the example that this sets for people all over the globe who look to the United States of America as the example, the leader for freedom, for democracy, for the values that we hold dear and that we all swear an oath to protect and defend in our Constitution. All of those values have been under assault today.

Al Letson:

Do you think more violence is going to come?

Seth Moulton:

Yes. Look, in many ways, this has been years in the making. These folks outside, I talked to some of them yesterday. They believe these ridiculous untrue conspiracy theories of the president, and he's been peddling these theories since before he was even elected to office. This is the man who, almost a decade ago, was claiming that President Obama wasn't an American citizen. It's going to take a long time to undo this. This isn't going to be just quelled by police presence tonight. We're going to have to have a serious reckoning in our country with what a democracy is all about because Trump and his allies have done terrible, terrible damage to it over the past four years.

Al Letson:

Are you worried about your family?

Seth Moulton:

My family is safe at home, but yes, of course, I'm concerned because these are domestic terrorists. These are people with guns and military vests who showed up today, and they could show up in our hometowns just as easily, maybe even more easily than they showed up in Washington D.C.

Al Letson:

Yeah. I saw a picture of one of these extremists sitting at Nancy Pelosi's desk. Did they break into your offices?

Seth Moulton:

They didn't make it into my office in particular, thank God, but the fact that they were sitting at Speaker Pelosi's desk just shows that the security problems that unfolded this afternoon are going to continue to unfold for the coming weeks and months. We don't know what kind of sensitive or perhaps even classified information was compromised. I think it would be terribly naïve to assume that there weren't foreign agents among these domestic terrorists. Russia or China would've been terribly stupid not to take advantage of this moment and come in with this mob. This has implications for our national security, not just for the security of the United States Congress.

Al Letson:

Congressman Moulton, thank you so much for taking time out to talk to us.

Seth Moulton:

Thank you.

Al Letson:

Seth Moulton is a Democratic congressman from Massachusetts. He spoke with me from his office just hours after Trump extremists stormed the Capitol building. Our story was produced by Michael Montgomery and Najeeb Amini with help from Stan Alcorn.

Al Letson:

It was no secret that violence could erupt at the Capitol on January 6th. Members of Congress had been bracing for it for weeks. So what happened to law enforcement? There will likely be developments in the days and weeks ahead, but we talked to two journalists the day after the storming of the Capitol for their take on what happened in the moment, independent journalist Brendan Gutenschwager and Washington Post reporter Marissa Lang.

Al Letson:

Brendan, the day started with President Trump inciting this mob and spurring them on. You were there. Can you describe what that was like?

Brendan Gutenschwager:

The crowd was very, very excited there. They were just thrilled to have President Trump speaking to them, especially in Washington D.C., which was a very unique thing. When he told them that he wanted them to walk to the Capitol, they were thrilled, and many of them got right going then.

Al Letson:

What was it like being inside the Capitol while all this is going down?

Brendan Gutenschwager:

It was very overwhelming. It was something that really has no other parallel other than maybe the early 1800s. It just defies logic to see this in the modern era. Just the whole time, it was just this shock that any of this was truly happening. I also was really in shock that the police, who, even in the city of D.C., at previous protests, not at the Capitol, but in other parts of the city, were known for getting aggressive if necessary with certain protests if things got out of hand, I was very shocked to see them overwhelmed so quickly and ultimately having to stand down in many instances as people just ran through.

Marissa J. Lang:

It was night and day from what I was expecting and what I have seen at other protests. In those instances, as you mentioned, we saw mass arrests, but we also saw a lot more aggressive riot control police response. We saw police officers who were firing flashbangs and Stinger balls and rubber bullets and tear gas, tear gas that blanketed entire city blocks in those cases, pepper spray, using batons and shields and kettling folks. It was just a very different scene.

Marissa J. Lang:

Using that as pretext, I was thinking, "All right. Well, I know this crowd is going to try to do something." I had some sort of advance inkling that they were going to try to rush the Capitol, maybe get up the stairs. I was thinking, "They'll do that, and the police will unload these munitions, unload these chemical irritants, and probably get it under control pretty quick, because in my experience they have not been shy about using that kind of munition to respond to protests that they feel are getting out of hand." When that didn't happen and these protesters were running up the steps and they were banging on the doors, banging on the windows, pushing officers out of the way, it was pretty stunning to see just nothing in response. It was like, "Where are they?"

Al Letson:

Marissa, for two weeks you've been reporting on the possibility of violence on the day Congress was certifying the presidential election results. Did you come prepared to see what actually ended up happening?

Marissa J. Lang:

I came prepared for violence. I had been paying attention to these message boards where some of these right-wing extremists have been enumerating their plans for weeks. They have been saying, "We're going to bring our guns to the District. We're going to bring weapons to the District. We need to move in groups so that the police are not able to detain us. We're going to storm the Capitol. We're going to string up these Democrat lawmakers that we don't like." These threats were real, and they were repeated over and over. When they did break the line, push past the officers, and climb the steps of the Capitol, I was still, I would say, not surprised. I was still sort of in the mindset of "okay, we knew this would happen. We knew this would happen." I sort of figured that if I knew that it would happen, then so did law enforcement.

Al Letson:

That's the thing I keep thinking, is that if you knew this was going to happen, and a lot of people predicted that something like this would happen, I'm curious why the police weren't prepared.

Marissa J. Lang:

I think that's the million-dollar question. I think there were a lot of us who were paying attention to these message boards who did know this would happen, and I wonder if it's a question of how much people took this seriously.

Al Letson:

I saw some videos from a couple days ago when the Proud Boys were clashing with police a little bit, but there were other times that they've been roaming around D.C. and they haven't been checked. The question that comes to mind is, is law enforcement fearful to hold these guys accountable, or is it also that law enforcement may have some sympathies with these groups?

Marissa J. Lang:

It's a great question. It's something that I have tried to pin down with some of our local police officers. I've written quite a bit about some accusations of favoritism, that our local activists feel the police do have when these right-wing folks come to town. We have seen right-wing protesters posing for selfies with police officers. The question becomes, how do you stand up to these people when you're also acting so buddy-buddy with them?

Al Letson:

Yeah, I've seen video of police taking pictures with these extremists inside the Capitol building.

Marissa J. Lang:

Yeah, I've also seen those. That is shocking because it's not just outside in what you might consider a peaceful protest. It's after they've already broken past three lines of police and entered a government building illegally.

Al Letson:

Yesterday, we saw that many of the Trump supporters seemed to walk away. They went back to their hotels like nothing happened. At the time that we're recording this interview, more than 50 people have been arrested, but the vast majority were arrested for violating the curfew that the mayor put in place. There have definitely been calls for law enforcement to go through the video feeds, identify these extremists, and go after them. What do the two of you think is going to happen next?

Marissa J. Lang:

We've already seen calls for accountability with the chief of Capitol Police and the sergeant-at-arms in the Senate. I think this is going to have a huge impact on what we can expect during the inauguration of President-elect Biden and also the police response that we're going to see that week and perhaps beyond.

Al Letson:

What do you think the future is going to be for America when we talk about these political fights and political arguments that are breaking out all across the country? This isn't a new thing at this point. We've seen this over and over and over in different cities for different reasons. These groups are kind of here to say, so what do you imagine we're going to see in the future?

Brendan Gutenschwager:

Unfortunately, I think for the near future there still will be a lot of this division, but I really just see so much anger still there and so much hostility between sides, it's going to be a big healing process. People are going to have to do a lot of deep thinking about what has happened, not just with this incident but everything over the last few years, and just how the political discourse has changed.

Marissa J. Lang:

I would say that I think the split and the division that we're seeing is only going to get worse. I was talking to some of the Trump supporters out there yesterday who were hanging back and were not storming the Capitol and seemed kind of stunned by what they were seeing as well. When I asked them where do they think this is going and what happens when they wake up tomorrow and Joe Biden is officially the president-elect, they said they think that certain states are going to decide if they want Joe Biden to be their president, certain states are going to decide if they want President Trump to continue to be their president, and very unironically were talking about secession, were talking about things like civil war. I think a lot of folks really do believe that's where we're headed.

Al Letson:

Yeah. I don't think what we have coming is a second civil war. I believe that we never stopped fighting the first one. This is just the next iteration of those battles.

Marissa J. Lang:

Yeah. There were people walking around the United States Capitol building with the Confederate flag yesterday.

Al Letson:

Yeah. Marissa Lang of the Washington Post, thanks so much for talking to me.

Marissa J. Lang:

Happy to be here.

Al Letson:

And Brendan Gutenschwager, thank you so much for talking.

Brendan Gutenschwager:

Thank you so much for having me.

Al Letson:

Just a few decades after the Civil War, there was another election that in an eerie way foreshadowed the assault we just saw against the government. That story in a moment. You're listening to Reveal.

Al Letson:

From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson.

Al Letson:

For a lot of people, the idea that a mob would storm the government to try and overturn the results of an election seemed impossible. That could never happen in America. But it did, and it's not the first time. Before the election, we brought you the story of Wilmington, North Carolina, and the election of 1898. It's a dark, nearly forgotten chapter of America's voting history that people tried to suppress for more than 100 years.

Speaker 14:

They were just going to kill all the Black men.

Al Letson:

It was an event that totally changed the city of Wilmington.

Speaker 15:

This is not a race riot. It has to be deemed a massacre.

Al Letson:

It also created a blueprint for embedding structural racism in American life and taking voting rights away from people of color, problems we're still facing today.

Speaker 16:

The white supremacists who carried out the coup created a false narrative that lasted almost 100 years.

Al Letson:

When I learned about what happened here, I realized that Wilmington has so much to say about why things are the way they are, which is why I wanted to bring back that story for this week's show as we try and make sense of the attempted takeover of the Capitol. Before we get started, I should say this piece contains some offensive language and violence.

Al Letson:

Wilmington's story begins with the ancestors of this man.

Dr. Lewin Manly Jr.:

We went out on the porch, around the corner.

Al Letson:

Dr. Lewin Manly Jr. He's out on his back porch in Atlanta. It's summertime, and the crickets and locust are chirping in his yard. Lewin is a retired dentist who keeps active in his garden. At 87, he keeps track of family history.

Dr. Lewin Manly Jr.:

Here I have a series of letters that my grandmother wrote to her sons.

Al Letson:

Lewin's grandparents met in Wilmington in the 1890s. The story goes that his granddad, Alexander Manly, was working with a contractor painting a house. A young, pretty woman walked by. It happened to be the contractor's daughter.

Dr. Lewin Manly Jr.:

He saw my grandmother. She's walking, and he said, "Who is that?" My grandpa said, "Don't you worry about that. Just do your painting up here," and says, "If you ever get to be a great entrepreneur or whatever, you might get a chance to meet her."

Al Letson:

Alexander had gone to Hampton University and studied printing. He eventually became that entrepreneur.

Dr. Lewin Manly Jr.:

He decided he would start a paper because there was not a Black paper in Wilmington, so he became a recorder of deeds. He had a newspaper, and he had friends among whites, Blacks, everybody.

Al Letson:

Going to college and starting a newspaper only 30-some years after slavery ended was remarkable. And Alexander, who eventually married the contractor's daughter, was just one of many prominent professional Black men in Wilmington. There were ministers, doctors, lawyers.

David Zucchino:

It was really an outlier. First of all, it was the biggest city in North Carolina then, and it was a very important port. It was a city of some 20,000.

Al Letson:

David Zucchino is a journalist and author of Wilmington's Lie. He spent years researching the city's history.

David Zucchino:

Because of the port, and because it was a railroad terminus, there were just a proliferation of new jobs that opened up after the Civil War and during Reconstruction.

Al Letson:

A lot of formerly enslaved people took those jobs, and some of them were really good jobs. As far as we know, there are no recordings of those Black leaders in Wilmington, but here is one of their daughters, Carrie Taylor Wright, talking about her dad in 1981.

Carrie Taylor Wright:

My father was deputy collector of the United States Custom House. He and Mr. John Dancy, a Negro, was collector. He was deputy collector during a Republican era. He was city treasurer of the City of Wilmington for many years.

Al Letson:

Back in the 1890s, the Republican Party was still the party of Abraham Lincoln. Democrats opposed civil rights and voting rights for Blacks. Of course, at this time only men could vote. In the years right after the Civil War, Democrats dominated politics in the South, but after a while, white farmers became frustrated with the party.

David Zucchino:

There was a terrible recession, and crop prices failed. White farmers were disillusioned with the Democrats, so they made this unusual alignment called fusion with Republicans, which meant that they aligned themselves with Black Republicans as well as white Republicans.

Al Letson:

This fusion movement was very progressive for its time, and it believed in giving African-Americans not just economic opportunity, but political power too. And sometimes white people found themselves on the other side of it.

David Zucchino:

White people were coming before the courts and facing a Black magistrate, sometimes would be arrested by a Black police officer, and this was just intolerable to the white supremacists who had been used to running Wilmington.

Al Letson:

In fact, the more that Black people flourished in Wilmington, the more intolerable it became for white supremacists. By 1898, they were scheming to run Wilmington again, and Alexander's newspaper, The Daily Record, would be at the center of their campaign. Lewin picks up and reads one of the letters his grandmother, Caroline, wrote in the 1950s.

Dr. Lewin Manly Jr.:

I'll tell you about the Record sometime. I'm too tired now. It will bring heartaches to think about it, even to this day. She said, "I like to write cheerful letters, but there is too much sadness about that newspaper for me to tell you now, so I will wait until I can find courage to tell you. I wish I could forget it."

Al Letson:

There was an election in 1898, and white supremacists saw it as an opportunity to retake control of the city and strip away the gains Black people had made.

David Zucchino:

They said they were not going to tolerate what they called Negro rule. That was the term they used for it. They said, "We're not going to tolerate it," and they announced that they were going to remove the multiracial government and keep Black men from voting and from holding public office.

Al Letson:

During the summer before the election, the white elite in Wilmington came up with a plan. It started with what today we call fake news, stories in the press that stoked fears about Black men.

David Zucchino:

There were accusations from the white supremacist newspapers across the state that there was an epidemic of rapes of white women by Black men. I looked into the crime figures, and of course there was no such thing. But the newspapers fanned this fear of what they called in print the black beast rapist. They used that term quite a bit.

Al Letson:

The biggest newspaper in North Carolina was the News & Observer, owned by Josephus Daniels. Here's just a few of the outrageous headlines they ran. More Negro Scoundrelism. Two Negro Rape Fiends. Black Beasts Continue to Outrage the Young Daughter of a Respectable Farmer. Roped for Rape. The message to white readers of the News & Observer and other papers was relentless, and for people who couldn't read, the papers used racist cartoons.

David Zucchino:

They got this steady diet of Black men as criminals, Black men as rapists, Black men as incompetent, who had no right to vote. At the same time, white voters were told that whites will rule North Carolina, whites will rule Wilmington; it is their God-given right. We are the superior race, and the African-Americans are here for our purposes to work for us. That's the way it has to be.

Al Letson:

Then in August, the paper published an editorial written by an influential woman from Georgia. That editorial caught the attention of Lewin's grandfather, Alexander.

Dr. Lewin Manly Jr.:

My grandfather responded to an editorial by a lady named Rebecca Latimer Felton, who made a speech called Women on the Farm, discussing how white men do not protect the white women on the farms and they had to work with the Blacks out there, and these Black brutes were raping them at leisure.

Al Letson:

She said Black brutes were raping white women on farms. Her editorial called for Black men to be lynched to better protect white women.

Dr. Lewin Manly Jr.:

She said if they lynch a thousand a week, it wouldn't be enough. That's a horrible thing. My grandfather responded to that lecture, and he was irate by what she was saying. Actually, he placed Black women on the same level as white women, said Black women were more prone to be raped than white women were.

Al Letson:

Alexander published his own editorial, arguing that Black men and white women were having consensual relationships and that there was a long history of white men raping Black women. While true, these points were so scandalous that Alexander's editorial ended up playing right into the white supremacists' campaign. The News & Observer even republished his editorial several times. So that one editorial kind of gave them the fuel that they need to push forward this agenda?

David Zucchino:

Yes. What's interesting, just to show you how calculated this whole coup was, the vigilantes known as Red Shirts, and they were basically the KKK, and that was the vigilante and the gunmen of the white supremacy movement, wanted to lynch Alex Manly that day, the day the editorial came out. The white leadership said, "No, let's wait. We can have a much greater political effect if we wait until November closer to the election, and then I promise you, you can burn his newspaper down and you can lynch him."

Al Letson:

It looked like Alexander Manly's editorial could cost him his life. Even today, his grandson is shocked he dare write it.

Dr. Lewin Manly Jr.:

There is no way I can figure out why in the world would he write something like that and not expect the world to come tumbling down on him.

Al Letson:

As the election got closer, the conflict was moving from the newspapers into the streets. In addition to the terrorists called the Red Shirts, the white supremacists had two state militias at their command. Some of their members were former Confederates. These groups were heavily armed, and the night before the election, they were ready for a fight.

David Zucchino:

The leader of the coup, a former Confederate colonel named Alfred Moore Waddell, gave a speech in which he told whites that, "If you see the Negro out voting tomorrow, tell him to stop. If he doesn't, shoot him down. Shoot him down in his tracks." Those were his exact words.

Al Letson:

So what happened on election day, November 8, 1898?

David Zucchino:

They would break into voting precincts, to counting offices in the black wards and take the lanterns, throw them on the ground, start a fire, and then while everyone was distracted, would pull out all the Republican votes and stuff the ballot boxes with Democratic votes.

Al Letson:

The white supremacists had started fires to create a distraction and stuffed the ballot boxes. The Black vote was stolen. But the conspirators still had a problem. It was a midterm election, and the local government, where most of the Black politicians held office, was not up for reelection, so the white supremacists decided they would overthrow that government by force.

David Zucchino:

They made a list of what they considered the leading Black men in Wilmington. It was almost 30 men, and they sent the Red Shirts out to gather these people up. They brought them into a meeting, and they laid down the law and they said, "First of all, we demand that you bring us Alex Manly, the editor, that you close down the Black newspaper, and then you renounce all positions of power, or if you don't do this by tomorrow, then we'll take matters into our own hands."

Al Letson:

Members of the city government and prominent men from the Black community had until the next morning to give up everything they had. When we come back, what happened when the sun came up. You're listening to Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.

Al Letson:

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Al Letson:

From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson.

Al Letson:

The election of 1898 was officially over, and the white supremacists in Wilmington had succeeded in suppressing the vote. They had stuffed ballot boxes and terrorized Black men to keep them from voting. White Democrats took back some seats in the North Carolina Statehouse and they did well in county elections, but the local government in Wilmington, which included several Black aldermen, was not up for reelection. The day after the election, the white supremacists sent their ultimatum to Black officials. It said, "Leave office and give us Alexander Manly, the Black newspaper publisher, or there will be bloodshed."

Al Letson:

The officials wrote a response in which they distanced themselves from Alexander and offered to "use our influence to have your wishes carried out." But that message never reached the white supremacists. On November 10th, these terrorists held a rally at the armory, then headed for the neighborhoods, some hopping on streetcars.

Margaret Williams Neal:

Well, she used to talk to me about old times.

Al Letson:

That's Margaret Williams Neal. She's talking about her grandmother, Della Wright.

Margaret Williams Neal:

She talked about the riot here in Wilmington. She was 12 years old, she said, when that happened.

Al Letson:

Della was working at a white man's house. He came up to her and gave her a warning, which we need to let you know contains the N word.

Margaret Williams Neal:

This man came home, the man she was working for, and he told her, he said, "Della, you stay here in this house." He came in. See, he had a room with a lot of guns. He came to get his gun. He said, "You stay here and you'll be safe, but we going to kill some niggers."

Al Letson:

Della didn't listen to him. She was afraid for her nephew, so she went to sound the alarm.

Margaret Williams Neal:

She said that when he left home, she ran out of the house to warn her sister so she could find her son. She said she ran on home, and she got home. They were living on Front Street during that time. She said when she got home, she told her sister, and her son happened to be there at the time. They were so glad because she said he knew he would've been one of them that was killed. They put him up under the house up in the chimney.

Al Letson:

Della's nephew was a good-looking single guy who was popular with white women. He was right to hide.

Margaret Williams Neal:

She said when they came looking for him, she said they searched their house because they knew where he lived because he'd been in so much trouble, and she said that they ran all up underneath the house and everywhere, but he was still up in that chimney. They didn't go up in there to look.

Al Letson:

Della's nephew was safe, but around town the violence was building, first, at Alexander's newspaper, the Daily Record. The Red Shirts went there, and they didn't find Alexander, but they burned the building down, printing press and all. Then they moved on.

Glen Anthony Harris:

When they cross over Market Street and go into the north side, these are where the first three murders take place.

Al Letson:

Glen Anthony Harris lives in Wilmington and teaches history at the UNC campus there.

Glen Anthony Harris:

This is where the first intimidation is taking place. This is where the shots take place. This is where the fights take place.

Al Letson:

Glen says the terrorists even mounted a machine gun on a wagon. That gun was cutting-edge technology at the time, and they turned it on Black residents.

Glen Anthony Harris:

It is a violent period. It is a very violent time. It gets to the point where it is so deadly that Blacks are fleeing for their lives. They are leaving their homes. Word is already out that this overthrow of Wilmington city government is taking place, and it is violent. You have whites that are armed. We had already laws in Wilmington where Blacks cannot arm themselves, so they're either packing up, taking what they can, leaving and going into the swamps, going into the woods to conceal themselves, to hide themselves.

Al Letson:

Some families fled to the Black cemetery to hide, the one place in town they hoped the white supremacists wouldn't look. The coup leaders tracked down prominent Black men and their white allies, and at gunpoint, gave them a choice. Here's journalist David Zucchino again.

David Zucchino:

Any Black leaders who counseled accommodation and did not stand up to the white supremacists were allowed to stay. All others were banished from the town. There was a formal banishment campaign in which 50 or 60 of the top leaders in the city, Black and white, were marched to the train station at gunpoint on the day of the coup and put on the trains, and said, "Leave Wilmington. Never come back," and not one of them ever did.

Al Letson:

In a matter of days, the political power and much of the wealth of the Black community was stolen. After the coup was over, 2,100 Black residents had fled town. As many as 60 Black men were dead. But the one man that the coup leaders wanted to punish more than anyone else, Alexander, the newspaper publisher, was nowhere to be found. His grandson Lewin reads his grandmother's account of what happened.

Dr. Lewin Manly Jr.:

In this letter she wrote to her sons, here she's telling them how their father was involved in the coup and the effect it had upon her.

Al Letson:

She writes that Alexander had gotten a tip from a white friend.

Dr. Lewin Manly Jr.:

"A white man who was a friend of your father sent for him and told him they're going to lynch him that very night, and he must get out of Wilmington."

Al Letson:

The Red Shirts were patrolling the roads, steamboats, and railroads, and no one could leave town unless they knew a secret password.

Dr. Lewin Manly Jr.:

"This friend gave him $25 and said, 'This is the password, and may God be with you, my boy. You are too fine to be swung up to a tree.'"

Al Letson:

With the $25 and that password, Alexander made his way to the edge of town. He was light skinned and could pass for a white man. He came to a roadblock.

Dr. Lewin Manly Jr.:

"He used the password and escaped in the woods and over Fulton Bridge. The guards at the bridge said, 'Halt.' He used the password again, and they said, 'We are having a necktie party in Wilmington. Where are you gentlemen going?' 'We're going after that scoundrel Manly.' And the guards loaded their buggies with Winchester rifles."

Al Letson:

The guards had no idea the man they were talking to was the man they were hunting. Not only did they let him get away; they gave him weapons.

Dr. Lewin Manly Jr.:

"That is how your father's life was saved."

Al Letson:

Alexander escaped with his life, but the coup had been a success, what historians say was the only successful one in American history. And the coup wouldn't just reshape the government in Wilmington. It wrote some of the first lines of Jim Crow history in America.

Al Letson:

Wilmington was about to have a big effect on the rest of the country. After the coup, Josephus Daniels, the white owner of the News & Observer, went on a mission. His paper had stirred up the mob violence with racist stories, and now he wanted to figure out how to suppress the Black vote permanently. His son, Jonathan Worth Daniels, talked about his father's plan in an oral history in the '70s.

Jonathan Worth Daniels:

My father had been the man chosen by the Democratic Party in North Carolina to go all over the South and devise the best, and hopefully the most constitutional, system to disenfranchise the elected Blacks, while not disenfranchising the elected whites. Well, he went down to Louisiana and a number of places and came back with the legislation which was adopted.

Al Letson:

Josephus Daniels came back with an idea that Democrats wrote into the state constitution in 1899. It required that anyone who wanted to vote had to show they could read, but to make sure illiterate white people could still vote, the law exempted any citizen whose ancestor voted before 1868, the first year Black men could vote.

Al Letson:

After Democrats took over the North Carolina state legislature, they started passing laws separating white and black people, from which train car they could ride on to the Bible they swore on in court. More laws followed for schools, housing, libraries, and parks. Soon, Jim Crow laws modeled after North Carolina's swept the South. By 1914, every Southern state had passed laws mandating segregation. During the civil rights era in the '60s, the country tried to undo the legacy of those Jim Crow laws, but changing the laws didn't erase the damage they'd done.

Al Letson:

As for Lewin Manly, whose grandfather ran Wilmington's Black newspaper, the coup changed everything for his family. After Alexander wrote that editorial, he lost all that he had and had to start all over again. That history was so painful, Lewin's grandfather never told his family what happened.

Dr. Lewin Manly Jr.:

When they had this coup d'état in Wilmington and the Manlys left, unfortunately my grandfather never discussed that anymore, what really happened, because he probably went to his grave thinking that he was a perpetuator of what happened there, which he wasn't.

Al Letson:

It wasn't until decades later that Lewin's grandmother wrote letters to her sons explaining the violence in Wilmington, the plot to lynch their father, and his escape. Lewin didn't find out until he was an adult.

Al Letson:

How did you talk to your children about what happened in Wilmington?

Dr. Lewin Manly Jr.:

Well, the same as I'm talking to you. It's just a matter of history. Know your history and be on the alert at all times because you never know who is your friend and who is not your friend.

Al Letson:

For everything the Manlys lost, the property, the newspaper, Lewin feels his family was fortunate to just survive.

Dr. Lewin Manly Jr.:

I have to look at it, more or less, from an academic standpoint at this time. It's just so many families have gone through situations worse than us, people lynched for no reason. If you let it get too much into your soul, then you're through. You just do the best you can and hopefully tell the story when you get a chance like now.

Al Letson:

Our story was produced by Pamela Kirkland. She had help from Reveal's Katherine Katharine Mieszkowski.

Joe Biden:

At this hour, our democracy is under unprecedented assault.

Al Letson:

On the day of the insurrection at the D.C. Capitol, President-elect Joe Biden spoke to the nation.

Joe Biden:

Let me be very clear. The scenes of chaos at the Capitol do not reflect a true America, do not represent who we are.

Al Letson:

With all due respect, that statement is wrong. This is who we are. We see it throughout American history. I get that it's comforting to believe in a myth and not the truth, but that myth is killing us. Now is the time to either face that hard history and make changes or ignore the lessons of the past and repeat them.

Al Letson:

Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, the Democracy Fund, and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation. Reveal is a co-production of the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. I'm Al Letson, and remember, there is always more to the story.

Speaker 23:

From PRX.