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Oct 24, 2020

Remembering a White supremacist coup

Co-produced with PRX Logo

On the eve of a contentious election, Reveal looks back to the nearly forgotten election of 1898 in Wilmington, North Carolina, where a coup d’etat gave birth to much of the structural racism that exists today. 

First, we learn that in the late 19th century, Wilmington 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.  

The story continues with accounts of violence against Black voters on Election Day 1898 and the subsequent overthrow of the local government. We then explore how the Wilmington coup provided a blueprint for the Jim Crow South and continues to influence issues of race to this day. 

We end with a story from Reveal’s Will Carless about an organization called the Public Interest Legal Foundation, which for almost a decade has perpetuated false claims of widespread voter fraud in U.S. elections.

Dig Deeper

Listen: Monumental lies

Listen: Whose vote will count?

Read: Confederate monuments topple in Virginia 

Credits

Reported by: Pamela Kirkland, Katharine Mieszkowski and Will Carless

Produced by: Pamela Kirkland, Katharine Mieszkowski and Najib Aminy

Lead producer: Katharine Mieszkowski

Edited by: Taki Telonidis

Production manager: Amy Mostafa

Production assistance: Brett Simpson

Sound design and music: Jim Briggs and Fernando Arruda

Mixing: Jim Briggs and Fernando Arruda

Episode art: Molly Mendoza

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. And to Daniel Rivero at WLRN and Geoffrey Hing and Tom Scheck at APM Reports for their work on the PILF story.

Executive producer: Kevin Sullivan

Host: Al Letson

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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Speaker 2:

The election of our lifetimes is here. With Americans on edge and a nation in the balance, will there be a blue wave? Will Donald Trump defy polling? On election night, join MSNBC as Rachel Maddow, Nicole Wallace, Joy Reid, Brian Williams, and their team of experts analyze it all from every angle. Steve Korancki will be at the big board breaking down the data state by state and county by county. Coverage begins Tuesday November 3rd, at 6:00 pm eastern. Stay with MSNBC until the last vote is counted.

Al Letson:

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

(singing)

It's almost Election Day in Wilmington, North Carolina. We're at the YWCA. A DJ is practicing his scratching and mixing for a voter registration drive.

(singing)

Janequa Palmer is one of the organizers. She's from North Carolina, and she and her family moved to Wilmington a few years ago.

Janequa Palmer:

I am excited about voting for this election. I can say I'm probably nervous because I don't know what the outcome is going to be, and the past four years have been slightly traumatizing as a black woman. I'm excited because I have a glimmer of hope that change may be on the horizon.

Al Letson:

In this contentious election year, North Carolina is a key battleground state, and it's long been at the center of fights over voting, things like voter ID, voter registration, and racial gerrymandering. This year, people here are more politically engaged than usual, especially after what happened over the summer.

Speaker 5:

I can't breathe! I can't breathe! I can't breathe!

Al Letson:

Like many cities around the country, Wilmington saw nightly protests demanding justice over the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.

Janequa Palmer:

I think you also saw people in the community that weren't just black, but that were brown and indigenous, and there were white, saying, "Enough is enough."

Al Letson:

That was a big change for the city. It's been racially divided for a long time, for some reasons you might expect and some you can't imagine.

Janequa Palmer:

It wasn't something that was taught to me when I was in school, but then when I look at how Wilmington's systems are strategically placed so that communities within Wilmington don't ever see each other, don't ever interact with each other, there are people who grow up in the north side who will never live in Wrightsville Beach, and there are people in Wrightsville Beach who's never been to the north side. They don't know what the north side looks like.

Al Letson:

People on one side of town don't go to the other. It's like a dividing line, drawn down Market Street, a deep scar in Wilmington more than 100 years old. The Black community still feels it.

Janequa Palmer:

Even though it may not live consciously in your mind, that your body remembers it and that your family's bodies remember it, and that the trauma of knowing that there were people hiding in swamps because there were white mobs that were looking to kill them for no other reason but the color of their skin. That lives somewhere deep inside of you.

Al Letson:

Today, we're going deep inside a chapter of Wilmington's past that people tried to suppress for 100 years.

Speaker 6:

They were just going to kill all the black men.

Al Letson:

It was an event that totally changed this place.

Speaker 7:

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

Al Letson:

It also created a blueprint for embedding structural racism and inequity in American life, even after slavery was outlawed.

Speaker 8:

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. Before we get started, I should say this story contains some offensive language and violence.

It begins with the ancestors of this man.

Dr. Manley:

We went out on the porch, around the corner.

Al Letson:

Dr. Lewin Manley, Jr. He's out on his back porch in Atlanta. It's summer time 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. Manley:

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 Manley was working with a contractor painting a house. A young, pretty woman walked by. It happened to be the contractor's daughter.

Dr. Manley:

He saw my grandmother as she's walking and he said, who is that. And my grandpa said, don't you worry about that, just do your painting up here. He says, if you ever get 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. Manley:

He decided he would start a paper print because there was not a paper, like 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 something 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 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:

And 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 W...:

My father was deputy collector of the US [inaudible]. He and Mr. Dancy, 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 fell and 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. Manley:

I'll tell you about the Record sometimes. 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 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. And 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 and Observer owned by Josephus Daniels. Here are just a few of the outrageous headlines that 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 and 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 and 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 and 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. Manley:

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. Manley:

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 and actually he placed black women on the same level as white women saying 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 and Observer even republished his editorial several times. That one editorial kind of gave them the fuel that they need to push forward this agenda.

David Zucchino:

Yes. And 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 Manley 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 Manley's editorial could cost him his life. Even today, his grandson is shocked he dare right it.

Dr. Manley:

There is no way I could 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 stop. If he doesn't, shoot him down. Shoot him down in his tracks." And those were his exact words.

Al Letson:

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

David Zucchino:

They would break into voting precincts, the 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 and 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 Manley, 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.

Speaker 1:

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Al Letson:

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

The election of 1898 was official 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 State House 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 Manley, the black newspaper publisher or there will be bloodshed.

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 and then headed for the neighborhoods. Some hopping on streetcars.

Margaret Willia...:

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 Willia...:

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 Willia...:

This man came home. The man she was working for, and he told her, he said, "Della, you stay here in this house." He had a room with a lot of guns, he came to get his gun. He said, "You stay here. 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 Willia...:

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 she knew he was 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 Willia...:

She said when they came looking for him, she said they searched their house for they knew where he lived because he'd been in so much trouble. 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 Ha...:

When they cross over Market Street and go onto 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 Ha...:

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 Ha...:

It is a violent period, it is a very violent time. It gets to the point where it is so deadly that blacks are playing 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 already have laws in Wilmington where blacks can not arm themselves so they are either packing up and taking what they can and leaving, 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 and there was a banishment, 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, 2100 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 no where to be found. His grandson, Lewin, reads his grandmother's account of what happened.

Dr. Manley:

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

Al Letson:

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

Dr. Manley:

A white man who was a friend of your father sent for him and told him they are 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. Manley:

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, he could pass for a white man. He came to a road block.

Dr. Manley:

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 Manley and the guards lowered their [inaudible] 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. Manley:

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. 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 and 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 ...:

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. 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. 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 towards schools, housing, libraries and parks. And 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. And the violent coup, even in Wilmington the history of that coup and massacre have largely been ignored for 100 years.

Bertha Todd:

I came here 54 years after the 1898 incident.

Al Letson:

Bertha Todd was the driving force behind a centennial held in 1998 to remember the coup. It was a watershed moment for Wilmington. The centennial explored the impact the coup had on the city, the state, and the nation. And it encouraged people from the black and white communities to talk about its legacy.

Bertha Todd:

And I can't begin to tell you what I really felt inside. People were not talking with each other. Whites were not talking with blacks except those who worked for them. And I continued to wonder what is wrong with Wilmington.

Al Letson:

The centennial came and went but the conversation it started continues in the present with Glen Harris who teaches history at UNC-Wilmington. Do you see what happened in Wilmington connecting outside of Wilmington? I'm thinking about the death of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others at the hands of police today. Do you see a connection between the two?

Glen Anthony Ha...:

I see a direct line, a direct connection between those events. What happened with George Floyd, and you and I know and society knows, that's not a one-off incident. I teach African-American history. Just because we're talking about George Floyd in 2020 doesn't mean that we weren't having these conversations five years ago. We have always had these conversations. We have always put forward an argument that how blacks are treated in American society is not a one-off event. Part of the problem is that to suppress it, you look at these as one-off events. Every year of my life there is always a conversation, there's always a discussion, there's always a debate, there's always a deal about me being black in American society.

Al Letson:

Glen says being black means being racially profiled in his home town and on his own campus and that makes him constantly aware, even hyper-aware of how he's perceived by people around him.

Glen Anthony Ha...:

At 5:30 or quarter to six in the morning, I'm walking in the street after running and I see this white lady walking up the sidewalk with her dog, my immediate reaction is to move from the side of the street that she's on to the full opposite side of the street. My instincts tell me to do that. My mentality tells me to do that. But you ask, who has to do that. And I'm not saying that she felt threatened, I was going to make sure that that thought didn't even have to enter her mind. But who has to think like that?

Al Letson:

It's so interesting to me because that happens to me numerous times in a month and I think that my white friends never have to think about it at all. If they are walking down the street and they see a white woman coming towards them, they are not thinking about I should switch over just because I don't want her feeling threatened. Imagine for a moment, we're in 2020 and I'm feeling that. Imagine for a moment what that feeling of emotion and the feeling of threat is in 1898 when before November 10th in the black community everything seemed to be going smoothly, where you don't understand that behind closed doors on the opposite side of town there are people that are conspiring to upset your livelihood, that are conspiring to upset your life. Not only that, are conspiring to make sure that you leave the city in which you live. Something as simple as walking down the street and having to move over is a small way of saying, hey, something's not right here.

Glen Anthony Ha...:

It's the protection mechanism, the understanding of when you're black in America you have to think about things that other people just take for granted and that is the lynch pin of how something that happened in 1898 can still reverberate in Wilmington in 2020 because that there was an event that affected not just that generation, but the generations to come. That story that is being told, not within white society, but that is told over and over within black society, know your place because if you step out of line, what's the worse that can happen. Let me tell you the story about 1898.

Al Letson:

Even today, 1898 shapes the lives of black and white people in Wilmington. We're at one of Wilmington's oldest parks on a fall day in September. There's a group of kids on the playground. There's a baseball game going on. This is a place that has become significant for two women who are meeting up at the park. Meg McCrae is the great granddaughter of one of the coup leaders, Hugh McCrae. The park was named after him.

Meg McCrae:

I actually, to be perfectly honest, haven't been in this park in probably over 20 years.

Al Letson:

For Sonya Patrick, this park was always a place to avoid.

Sonya Patrick:

Growing up here in Wilmington, black people did not come to Hugh McCrae Park. We did not know anything about 1898. We just didn't come to Hugh McCrae Park.

Al Letson:

When Hugh McCrae donated the land, he said it was to be a whites only park. That rule was changed decades ago, but the reputation stuck. This year, with monuments all over the country coming down, there was a movement to change the name. Sonya is the head of Black Lives Matter Wilmington.

Sonya Patrick:

To me it was just emotional, just to drive by and say, gosh, it's Wilmington. It's still glorifying this legacy of the 1898 Massacre and the descendants still have not gotten reparations, it's been 120 years.

Al Letson:

Meg came out in support of changing the name.

Meg McCrae:

It was time for people to pay attention to what these voices are saying, not my voice, not just your voice, but everybody's voice and try to do something that might make a lasting change or plant a seed anyway.

Al Letson:

In July, they debated it at the county commission and the name change passed.

Sonya Patrick:

I was surprised it happened so fast. This was emotional for me.

Meg McCrae:

Me too.

Sonya Patrick:

Because I drove by, the bus would come by this way when I would go to the [inaudible] and you would see Hugh McCrae on the street.

Meg McCrae:

That big archway.

Sonya Patrick:

That big arch. So when they took that big arch down, it was emotional for me because I could not believe it and they wasted no time doing it.

Al Letson:

This park is now called Long Leaf Park.

Sonya Patrick:

When I come to this park now and after talking to Meg, there's a certain peace there. She can't change the past, but it touches me to know, okay, we're going to have a better future together because we are stronger as a nation when we're together.

Al Letson:

And it's not just this park, this summer, a school named after one of the coup leaders was stripped of its name and in Raleigh, the statute of the newspaper publisher, Josephus Daniels was taken down. As for Lewin Manley, whose grandfather lost his newspaper, he's glad the park's been renamed.

Dr. Manley:

They should get his name off of everything it's on because these are just evil people. You are perpetuating and saluting evil people.

Al Letson:

The coup shifted the trajectory of Lewin's family. After Alexander wrote that editorial, he lost everything. That history is so painful, Lewin's grandfather never told his family what happened.

Dr. Manley:

When they this coup d'etat in Wilmington and the Manley's 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. How did you talk to your children about what happened in Wilmington?

Dr. Manley:

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 Manley's lost, the property, the newspaper, Lewin feels his family was fortunate to just survive.

Dr. Manley:

I had to look at 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, you're through. You just do the best you can and hopefully tell the story when you get a chance like now.

Al Letson:

And we have to keep telling these stories. Not just because it's our past, but it's very much our present. The coup in Wilmington was overt, but the horrific violence and families losing everything wasn't the end. The leaders of the coup planted a seed that grew and cracked through the new foundation laid down by reconstruction. Many of the advances black people achieved were dissolved. And Jim Crow laws spread through the south like Kudzu vines. And that might seem like ancient history, like that's what the civil rights movement was supposed to take care of, right? But Kudzu vines are hard to kill and you can still see them today. Just think about the ridiculously long lines to vote in black communities. Voters being purged for no reason and laws a federal court said were designed to target African-Americans with surgical precision to stop them from voting. All of this springs from the same exact place as the violence in Wilmington in 1898. White supremacy. Today it looks different, but in many ways, the results are similar.

Our story was produced by Pamela Kirkman.

When we come back we look at this year's election and efforts to stoke false fears about people voting illegally.

Richard Hassan:

There is a whole voter fraud industrial complex of groups that are aimed at trying to show that widespread voter fraud is a major problem.

Al Letson:

You're listening to Reveal.

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

Overthrowing an elected government by force may be the most extreme way to discredit an election, but this year we're hearing lots of talk about how this election will be compromised by voter fraud and it's coming from the President.

President Trump:

And I'll tell you what, whether it's in North Carolina, whether it's in Michigan, whether it's in other states where they are sending out, they are going to be sending out, they are going to be sending out 80 million ballots and it's democrats. They are trying to rig this election.

Al Letson:

President Trump made this claim that's completely false during a rally held in Nevada back in September. He's been lying about voter fraud since 2016 when he lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton by almost three million people. He even formed something called the Commission on Election Integrity to investigate voter fraud. That commission included the leader of a controversial group called, the Public Interest Legal Foundation, or PILF, which has spent much of the last decade pushing the myth of voter fraud. As you'll hear, the commission never found widespread fraud, but groups like PILF continue to stir up fears about the integrity of our elections.

Here's Reveal's Will Carless.

Will Carless:

The president is a big fan of the man who founded PILF.

President Trump:

President and General Counsel of the Public Interest Legal Foundation, great group. J. Christian Adams.

Will Carless:

J. Christian Adams was an attorney at the Justice Department in the mid-2000s. He's now become one of the loudest voices claiming that voter fraud is a real and present danger to elections. When he joined Trump's commission, he made several bold claims.

J. Christian Ad...:

We know that non-citizens are getting registered and voting and we know the system is broken down, that people are actually marking on their voter registration forms, no, I'm not a citizen and still getting registered to vote in places.

Will Carless:

PILF is part of a cluster of similar groups that have made their mission to prove that voter fraud is a major problem. They filed lawsuits and published a steady stream of reports that the GOP has used to question the validity of elections. But on the other side of the aisle, these groups have a different reputation.

Matthew Dunlap:

So if somebody were to say to me, what do you think about PILF, I'd say, they are a sham organization.

Will Carless:

Democrat Matthew Dunlap is the Secretary of State of Maine. He sat two seats away from J. Christian Adams at the first meeting of the commission back in the summer of 2017. Dunlap says he soon noticed the group wasn't really interested in investigating whether or not voter fraud actually exists. He says it was almost like the commission had reached a decision before they ever met. He says they cut him out of key discussions and when Dunlap eventually sued the commission for lack of transparency, this is how J. Christian Adams responded.

J. Christian Ad...:

What's happening is all of the hack-tavists and hack-ademics, and I use an H in both of those words, the hack-tavists and hack-ademics are pressuring Dunlop, all of these people are opposed to President Trump's effort to get to the truth about voter fraud and Matt Dunlop-

Will Carless:

President Trump's effort. That's exactly Dunlap's point about having J. Christian Adams on that commission. Dunlap says despite all the name calling, which he dismissed, he tried to steer the commission in the right direction, away from the influence of highly partisan members like Adams.

J. Christian Ad...:

He has a policy agenda and the policy agenda is that, at least in terms of the work of the commission, was that we should really absolve the President of the United States from the embarrassment of losing an election. And that's what this is all about.

Will Carless:

In 2018, Trump abruptly disbanded the commission. They hadn't achieved much, really, other than in-fighting between members and racking up several lawsuits, both between members and from voting rights groups, but while the commission may have gone away, Adams and PILF kept pushing their voter fraud agenda. Just before Adams joined the commission, PILF published a couple of scary sounding reports called, Alien Invasion in Virginia and Alien Invasion II, which claimed there was widespread voter fraud happening in the state of Virginia. And conservative media ate it up.

Tucker Carlson:

The Public Interest Legal Foundation says that more than 5000 people in the state of Virginia alone successfully registered to vote despite being foreign citizens and therefore banned from voting. J. Christian Adams is the president and general counsel of the Public Interest Legal Foundation for whom we are grateful and he joins us tonight. I know this isn't true, because it's never happened in American history, right?

J. Christian Ad...:

Voter fraud is a myth, Tucker. Didn't you hear that?

Will Carless:

This time PILF didn't just say that voter fraud was happening, they published the names of more than 1000 people they claimed were non-citizens who illegally voted, which is a felony.

Elliott:

I was like, can you believe this?

Will Carless:

Elliott [inaudible] was one of the people PILF named. He's an engineer who lives in northern Virginia and has voted all his life.

Elliott:

I'm a US citizen from birth, regular voter, contributor to society.

Will Carless:

And he finds out he's on this list after an activist group calls him multiple times during work hours and leaves a voice mail. That eventually leads Elliott and other voters named in PILF's report to file a lawsuit against the group. Last year, PILF agreed to a settlement. J. Christian Adams had to publicly apologize for falsely accusing the plaintiffs of illegally voting. The organization also retracted large sections of its report.

Elliott:

I was lucky and I was indignant enough to say, hey, let's go for it. A US citizen should not have to depend on luck to have their rights respected.

Will Carless:

For this election, PILF is pressuring local election officials to remove people from voter rolls. They've written stern letters to officials across the country and filed lawsuits against counties in Texas, Arizona, Michigan and other states. In Florida's Palm Beach County, where President Trump is registered to vote, PILF took another approach. They sent a spreadsheet and records to the county's election supervisor, Wendy Sartory Link, flagging people they believe were voting illegally, including casting ballots in more than one state. Then they published a report about problems with the county's voter rolls called, Calm Before the Storm. Here's what Wendy told a reporter at WLRN Public Radio in Miami.

Wendy Sartory L...:

So we've seen, I'm not sure which of the groups, because there is actually a number of groups that always will come, Public Interest Legal Foundation. They presented their information to us. Some of it was, this person voted in New York or Pennsylvania and here.

Will Carless:

In addition to claiming voters had cast ballots in more than one state, the spreadsheet PILF sent also included a list of dead people who had voted in recent elections or so they claimed. Thanks to a watchdog group called American Oversight who obtained hundreds of pages of emails between PILF and election officials, I was able to get that list and I started making phone calls.

Debra Fayhe:

It's all bogus.

Will Carless:

That's Debra Fayhe. She was pretty surprised when I called her a few weeks ago to tell her that I had found her mother, Mary Cox, on that list. PILF claimed that Mary had died in 2004 and they questioned the votes cast in her name in 2004, 2006, and 2008. Debra had a simple answer.

Debra Fayhe:

She died in 2018.

Will Carless:

Mary was 96 years old when she passed away.

Debra Fayhe:

They are probably figuring if they pick somebody that old, nobody's around to contradict it or care. But let me tell you, she did vote and she voted up until 2016. It was extremely important to her. She was a good, strong Christian liberal.

Will Carless:

I called a bunch of the voters PILF claimed had died. And I had some pretty bizarre and upsetting conversations. Some of them were still alive and confused about why their names were on the list. Others, like Mary, had only died recently, which meant the ballots PILF had flagged were actually valid. Quite a few had common names suggesting PILF had mixed them up with other people who had passed away years ago. Mary's daughter, Debra, was upset by what PILF did and she's says her mom would be angry too.

Debra Fayhe:

She would be so pissed. She would, yeah, she would be mad. She wouldn't want to stand by and let that happen. One vote is one vote. All our votes matter.

Will Carless:

I sent my findings to PILF for a response but they wouldn't provide any evidence at all to back up the claims made about Palm Beach County. I asked J. Christian Adams several times for an interview for weeks and sent him a detailed list of questions. What I got back was an email from a PILF spokesman who said that I was, "Misrepresenting the Foundation's work." Election supervisor, Wendy Sartory Link, told me in an email that they too looked into PILF's findings. They concluded that "many of their claims are unfounded and we have relayed that information directly to them." But in spite of all the evidence to the contrary, people are still trying to push the idea of voter fraud.

Chris Kobach:

It is simply false to say that voter fraud is insignificant or non existent. It's a crime of opportunity.

Will Carless:

Chris Kobach oversaw elections in Kansas was he was Secretary of State there. He was also co-chair of President Trump's election integrity commission, which we heard about earlier.

Chris Kobach:

People realize that they have the ability to vote twice and they are tempted and many people do it. There is some misinformation about this issue, but it's undeniable that it is a significant problem.

Will Carless:

Kobach isn't in office now, but he's still spreading that same false narrative of widespread voter fraud. And Professor Richard Hassan of the University of California, Irvin says he's not alone.

Richard Hassan:

There's a whole voter fraud industrial complex of groups that are aimed at trying to show that widespread voter fraud is a major problem.

Will Carless:

Hassan studies advocacy groups that try to influence American elections. He says the goal of these groups is to create the impression that voter fraud is happening everywhere and all the time.

Richard Hassan:

I think some of these lawsuits and complaints are being raised not necessarily to get actual changes, but to raise accusations that can then be pointed to by others as plausible evidence. They succeed just by raising the claim even if they ultimately can't usually prove it.

Will Carless:

When we asked PILF to back up their claims, they wouldn't. Nor would the leaders of a handful of other organizations I reached out to who prop up claims of voter fraud. But that doesn't mean you won't be hearing plenty from them especially if the election results are contested in political ads and attacks as well as across social media and statements from politicians and maybe even from the winner or loser of November's presidential election.

Al Letson:

That story was reported by Will Carless and produced by Najib Aminy. Our lead producer for this week's show is Kathrine Mieszkowski. She had help from Pamela Kirkland. [inaudible] edited the show. Thanks to Hannah Brasinger, Rachael Kish, and Katelyn [inaudible] of WHQR, as well as Chris Kameli, Rosie Rosenthal, Brett Simpson and our production manager, Amy Mostafa for their work on the Wilmington story. Also, to the Cape Fear Museum of History and Science and the Southern Oral History Program at UNC-Chapel Hill for archival audio. And thanks to Daniel Revero at WLRN and Jeffrey Hing and Tom Scheck at APM Reports. And to Reveal's Esther Kaplan. Victoria Baranestsky is our general counsel. Score and sound design by the dynamic duo, Jay Breezy, Mr. Jim Briggs, and Fernando, My Man, Arruda. Our CEO is Christa Scharfenberg. Matt Thompson is our editor in chief and our executive producer is Kevin Sullivan. Our theme music is by [inaudible] Lightning.

Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the John D. and Katherine T. McArthur 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 1:

From PRX.