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This episode explores two stories of fights over the right to vote. 

Texas-based nonprofit True the Vote claims to have evidence of widespread voter fraud in the 2020 election – an idea that former President Donald Trump loudly echoes as part of the Big Lie. But True the Vote has never shown any proof. The lack of evidence hasn’t stopped the group from netting millions of dollars in donations. As reporter Cassandra Jaramillo explains, True the Vote founder Catherine Engelbrecht and board member Gregg Phillips took home hundreds of thousands of dollars in personal loans and payments to companies they’re associated with. Despite this grift, True the Vote’s influence is still expanding. The group provided “research” for a new film called “2000 Mules” that promises to expose widespread voter fraud – with no evidence to back it up. 

The Big Lie sparked the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, an event that is now part of the nation’s election history. But this was not the first time that a violent mob tried to challenge election results. In 1898, a group of armed White supremacists carried out a coup in Wilmington, North Carolina, and seized power from legally elected Black leaders. The Wilmington coup created a blueprint for taking voting rights away from people of color – a legacy of voter suppression that the country is still grappling with today. Host Al Letson pieces together the story with help from the grandson of a prominent member of the Black community in Wilmington.

Dig Deeper

Read: She Helped Create the Big Lie. Records Suggest She Turned It Into a Big Grift.

Read: Group Behind ‘2000 Mules’ Has Deep Ties to Ken Paxton

Read: How the Christian Right Helped Foment Insurrection

Credits

Reporters: Cassandra Jaramillo, Nadia Hamdan, Pamela Kirkland and Katharine Mieszkowski | Editors: Brett Myers and Taki Telonidis, with help from Andy Donohue | Fact checkers: Kimberley Freda and Nikki Frick | Production manager: Amy Mostafa | Digital producer: Sarah Mirk | Episode art: Molly Mendoza | Score and sound design: Jim Briggs and Fernando Arruda | Post-production team: Kathryn Styer Martínez and Steven Rascón | Interim executive producers: Brett Myers and Taki Telonidis | Host: Al Letson

Special thanks: Hannah Breisinger, Rachel Keith and Katelyn Freund at WHQR, Priska Neely and Brett Simpson for their work on the Wilmington story. Thanks to the Cape Fear Museum of History and Science and the Southern Oral History Program at UNC Chapel Hill for archival audio. 

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 Hellman Foundation, Democracy Fund, and the Inasmuch 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.

Al Letson:From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. It’s January in Southeast Texas and Donald Trump is holding another one of his rallies.
Speaker 2:Gentlemen, please welcome up the 45th President of the United States America, Donald J. Trump.
Al Letson:It’s a familiar scene. The former president slowly makes his way on stage, throwing MAGA hats into a cheering crowd, and then he begins his speech.
Donald Trump:Thank you. Thank you. Look at all the media. Look at all the fake news we have. Fake news.
Al Letson:As I said, a familiar scene. And then Trump calls out a name that may be unfamiliar to most people.
Donald Trump:We have a woman with us today, Catherine Engelbrecht.
Al Letson:Catherine Engelbrecht.
Donald Trump:Who heads True the Vote, which has said covered massive illegal ballot harvesting and other forms of ballot fraud.
Al Letson:Trump continues to perpetuate the lie that he lost the 2020 election because of widespread vote of fraud. It’s a lie that Catherine Engelbrecht helped create.
Donald Trump:What a job she’s done. Thank you. Thank you, Catherine.
Al Letson:Catherine engelbrecht founded the Texas based nonprofit, True the Vote back in 2010. She claims to have overwhelming evidence of voter fraud and Trump loudly echoes those claims. There’s just one problem. Every time she’s been asked to show proof, she hasn’t served it up. But that hasn’t stopped her from turning these claims into a lucrative business. Reveal’s Cassandra Jaramillo has been investigating how Catherine and True the Vote turned the big lie into a big grift. Okay, Cassandra, so who is Catherine Engelbrecht?
Cassandra Jaram…:So a lot of people may not know the name Catherine Engelbrecht, but it’s really important to understand that Catherine’s been doing this for a long time. She’s a woman who touts herself as this God-fearing small town Texan.
Catherine Engel…:I am an average American who, prior to 2009, had never been active in the processes of government.
Cassandra Jaram…:She’s this former PTA mom turned Tea Party activist right after Barack Obama’s election.
Catherine Engel…:After volunteering to work in the polls in Texas in the 2009 elections, I saw fundamental procedural problems that I felt couldn’t go unaddressed.
Cassandra Jaram…:And we see her really start to spread misinformation about voter fraud and ultimately she starts her own organizations related to this. So Catherine and her then husband Brian Engelbrecht first create a nonprofit group called King Street Patriots. That group trained volunteers to be poll watchers and were criticized because those poll watchers ended up in mostly Black and Latino neighborhoods in Harris County, Texas. But King Street Patriots ends up getting sued for making illegal political contributions to Republican candidates. And soon after that, Catherine and her husband decided to create a new group called True the Vote.
Catherine Engel…:So I started True the Vote, an organization that grew into a national movement to ensure that every American voter has an opportunity to participate in elections that are free and fair.
Cassandra Jaram…:Pretty quickly, Catherine gets airtime on Fox News and Breitbart. And then in 2016, True the Vote blows up when the group makes an unprecedented claim, one that Trump immediately seizes on.
Speaker 6:The Trump administration is poised to move forward with its accusation of widespread voter fraud.
Speaker 7:In the range of three to 5 million votes by people in this country illegally.
Speaker 8:3 million illegal votes for Hillary Clinton, it’s just false.
Speaker 9:There’s no evidence that supports the voter fraud claims made by President Trump.
Cassandra Jaram…:In 2016, Trump lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton by nearly 3 million votes. And then suddenly, Catherine’s group claims it has data that more than 3 million people voted illegally. True of Vote is really one of the first organizations we see claiming massive voter fraud.
Al Letson:But True the Vote never showed any proof of this, right?
Cassandra Jaram…:No, Al. There’s been nothing. And for some context here, a couple of years before the 2016 election, things started to change at True the Vote. Catherine got a divorce from her husband and then a guy named Gregg Phillips joins the board. And here’s what you need to know about Gregg. He’s someone who’s worked in state governments in Mississippi and Texas and was dogged by allegations of self-dealing. For example, his own company would get government contracts and it was criticized as a major conflict of interest. And really, Gregg was the person who made True the Vote’s big splash right after the 2016 election spreading this lie that 3 million people voted illegally. And he takes these claims on national news shows. Here he is on CNN in 2017 where host Chris Cuomo asked him directly about this.
Chris Cuomo:You said we know that 3 million illegally voted. You did that already.
Greg Phillips:We didn’t name a soul though, we didn’t name a person.
Chris Cuomo:And you still haven’t.
Greg Phillips:But we will.
Chris Cuomo:Do you have the proof?
Greg Phillips:Yes.
Chris Cuomo:Will you provide it?
Greg Phillips:Yes.
Chris Cuomo:Can I have it?
Greg Phillips:No.
Chris Cuomo:Why?
Greg Phillips:We’re not. We’re going to release everything to the public.
Chris Cuomo:When?
Greg Phillips:As soon as we get done with the checks.
Cassandra Jaram…:Right after this aired on CNN, Trump tweeted that 3 million number and even called out Gregg by name. After Trump’s tweet, Catherine and Gregg tried to capitalize on their new found publicity and so they launch a $1 million fundraising campaign to hire data analysts and forensic experts to validate all this data they claim to have had, but they never released any evidence. And then, they come out with a YouTube video shortly after in 2017 where Catherine says that the reason she wasn’t able to produce this audit is because they just never got enough money for it.
Catherine Engel…:We knew that this is a project that would take millions and the major funding commitments just simply haven’t materialized. We took a calculated risk to begin building out this framework thinking that the promised support would come through, but it didn’t.
Al Letson:Okay, so they were never able to prove any fraud in the 2016 election. But what about the 2020 election?
Cassandra Jaram…:Still nothing. But somehow what we see in 2020 is that they’re able to raise even more money this time around.
Catherine Engel…:And welcome to the first ever episode of Red, White, and True News.
Cassandra Jaram…:So the 2020 election was fast approaching and Catherine goes on her True the Vote podcast. Yes, they do have a podcast to warn people that Democrats are going to expand mail-in voting, and True the Vote was going to challenge this.
Catherine Engel…:I don’t think that there’s a more important fight out there right now than protecting the right to vote, the right to a free and fair election.
Cassandra Jaram…:Then election day comes and we all know what happens. Biden wins, but Trump claims victory and again says without proof that he was the victim of massive voter fraud. Trump starts threatening legal action in swing states. Rumors and conspiracies starts spreading like wildfire. And all the while a man named Fred Eshelman is nervously watching this happen. He’s this pharmaceutical entrepreneur and GOP donor from North Carolina who really wanted answers about what was going on. And right after November 5th, Fred wires True the Vote $2.5 million. The goal was to use this money to lead a legal charge against the results of the 2020 election.
Al Letson:All right, so what happens with that $2.5 million?
Cassandra Jaram…:So part of it was to give a $500,000 retainer to True the Vote’s attorney James Bopp, Jr. And James Bopp, Jr. Is really important in the conservative movement, if people haven’t heard of him before. He’s been the legal architect to a lot of the abortion ban laws that we’ve seen. He is also one of the figures behind overhauling campaign finance rules in this country with Citizens United. So he was touted as a big player to help with these lawsuits, right? But Jim only files four of the seven lawsuits that True the Vote had promised to Fred. And to make matters a little weird, True the Vote voluntarily dismisses all four suits less than a week after filing them. So, Al, within 11 days of his donation, the organization somehow spends a third of Fred’s money and still fails to prove anything meaningful in evidence. And as you can probably imagine, Fred was furious.
Cassandra Jaram…:He ultimately sued True the Vote in federal and state court and accused the organization of using his money to enrich themselves. And while Catherine and Gregg declined to be interviewed for this story, I did get a chance to speak with James Bopp, Jr. himself.
Cassandra Jaram…:Jim, I’m glad we’re able to get on the phone again.
Cassandra Jaram…:So I got my hands on the lawsuit and in it, Fred calls the amount billed by Jim’s law firm, “Unconscionable and impossible.” And I asked Jim to respond to Fred’s accusation that the organization is just trying to line its own pockets.
James Bopp, Jr.:That statement is absurd. There were four federal cases I brought, four in four states based on four separate laws, four separate elections, and made motions associated with those, and that was a lot of work.
Cassandra Jaram…:Jim was adamant that there was no wrongdoing and that he did his job.
James Bopp, Jr.:There’s not as a single word in anything that you’ve looked on that even suggests I was paid anything other than for the work that I did.
Cassandra Jaram…:But remember, True the Vote dismissed its own cases less than a week after filing them. Election law expert, Rick Hasen, tells me he thinks that True the Vote may have done that out of fear of perpetuating fraud, like legal fraud on the court.
Al Letson:So if True the Vote hasn’t actually proven any fraud, what have they actually been doing?
Cassandra Jaram…:That’s a great question, Al. While I could never get my hands on any proof of voter fraud, I was able to get my hands on a ton of financial documents. And what I can tell you is that experts I spoke to are confused by True the Vote’s tax returns. And this tax law stuff can get a little wonky, but I’ll do my best to explain it pretty simply here. Basically when I was reporting the story, I saw this pattern of Catherine reporting loans to herself from donations. And the first loan that I saw was in 2015 for about $40,000. And we see another one in 2018 for 61,000. And there wasn’t a lot of information as to why she needed these loans, what were the terms of it? Was it ever paid off? And then in 2019, there’s another one for $113,000.
Cassandra Jaram…:And so why does this matter? It matters because Texas law is actually pretty clear in saying that it does not allow non-profits to loan money to directors, which Catherine was. And when I asked True the Vote’s lawyer, Jim Bopp about this things got heated.
James Bopp, Jr.:I’m not respond to you on this. If you want free legal research, go pay a lawyer to do it on whether or not this is legal under Texas law. I’m not going to go research this with you. This is confidential financial information. Who do you think you are, the IRS?
Cassandra Jaram…:Well, no, I’m not the IRS. But this stuff is not confidential, it’s on a public document. And a bunch of experts looked at this and they all said the IRS or the Texas Attorney General should investigate True the Vote. And on top of those loans to Catherine, I also noticed True the Vote was paying contracts to a bunch of companies, and those companies led right back to Catherine and Gregg. For example, one of the largest amounts we found was paid to Gregg’s company. It was at least $750,000.
Al Letson:$750,000. Is that illegal for them to do that? It seems like it has to be.
Cassandra Jaram…:So the tax law is a little squishy here. It’s really up to the IRS to decide if this was illegal or not, but it’s certainly an ethical question. One of the experts I spoke to called the contract amount eye popping and it all went to one of Gregg’s companies, this place called OpSec Group, LLC, which claims to do voter analysis, but it has no website, no real digital footprint. I mean, this company didn’t even really exist until right before the 2020 election when Trump was seeding the idea of fraud. And so I also asked Jim about this. Do you think that’s a nonprofit best practice to be giving such a sizable contract to a longtime board member and someone who Catherine works closely with?
James Bopp, Jr.:Yes, it is perfectly appropriate to contract with board members to perform services for a not for profit organization. Perfectly appropriate. You just have to make sure that it’s fair market value and the corporation gets what they’re paying for.
Cassandra Jaram…:But that’s the thing, it doesn’t look like OpSec did deliver on what they promised because again, True the Vote has never produced real evidence of voter fraud. And experts like Lauri Styron, the executive director of Charity Watch tells me with the sizable contract and nothing to really show for it, it raises some serious questions.
Lauri Styron:It’s extremely concerning that a very serious conflict of interest can exist. And we don’t necessarily have enough information here to draw definitive conclusions, but certainly in my view, there’s enough information here to say that the IRS should look into this.
Cassandra Jaram…:Altogether, our reporting finds that from 2014 to 2020, companies connected to Catherine and Gregg collected nearly $890,000 from True the Vote and we still don’t quite understand what that money paid for.
Al Letson:Have Catherine or Gregg responded to these allegations?
Cassandra Jaram…:Well, as I said, they haven’t responded to requests for interviews, but while I was reporting this, I obviously reached out to the organization for tax documents and that’s something they have to release. So basically when I asked for the 2019 tax filing, the one True the Vote gave me looked nothing like the one they gave to the IRS. The one I got didn’t show any loan to Catherine and Gregg wasn’t even listed as a board member. But low and behold, the copy that I got from the IRS shows a $113,000 loan to Catherine and Gregg was listed as a board member. When we pushed Catherine for answers about the discrepancies between these two tax filings, Catherine said she was planning to send an updated tax return to the IRS, but experts we talked to said that didn’t make any sense.
Al Letson:Yeah, I mean that doesn’t look good.
Cassandra Jaram…:It really doesn’t, Al. Even people within Catherine’s own circle were starting to sound the alarm about True the Vote. In the lead up to the 2020 election, conservative leaders held this private meeting at the Council for National Policy and one of the panelists there was conservative journalists, John Fund. He’s known Catherine for years and he even wrote about her while he was at the Wall Street Journal, which he says first put her in the national spotlight. But the investigative watchdog documented published a leak video of that event and in it, John Fund says he doesn’t think anyone should be donating to True the Vote.
John Fund:Catherine is still a friend of mine, I’d like Catherine, but she has gone astray. She has hooked up with the wrong associates. And I have to say this with the greatest of sadness, because I have to be honest with you. As much as I like Catherine personally, I would not give her a penny. She’s a good person who’s been let us stray, don’t do it.
Al Letson:So tell me, where do things stand now with Catherine and True the Vote?
Cassandra Jaram…:Al, despite all of this, they’re continuing to make these false claims that the election was stolen. Just this past year, True the Vote provided the research for the film called 2000 Mules. It’s by this conservative provocateur named Dinesh D’Souza and it’s a movie claiming, you guessed it, widespread voter fraud in the 2020 election.
Speaker 16:True the Vote has the largest store of election intelligence for the 2020 elections in the world. No one has more data than we do.
Cassandra Jaram…:The movie claims to have found people who were illegally ballot harvesting. That’s when someone collects and submits a ballot for someone else, which is totally legal in most states, and they claim to have found these people near ballot drop boxes using geolocation data off of their smartphones. But the thing is, that stuff is anonymized and experts say a bunch of cell phone pings around drop boxes isn’t enough to prove voter fraud. And throughout the movie, they refer to these people as mules, co-opting language that we see used to describe drug cartels and [foreign language].
Speaker 16:We identified in Atlanta, 242 mules that went to an average of 24 drop boxes. But Philadelphia alone, we’ve identified more than 1100 mules.
Cassandra Jaram…:I mean, when you watch the trailer, for me, it feels like this 90’s spy movie, like multiple people in these dark rooms surrounded by computers with what looks to be some sort of sophisticated GPS technology. But if you actually watch the movie and you pay some real close attention, it’s basically Gregg Phillips with Google Maps pulled up on his iPad.
Speaker 16:We are not a democracy, we are a criminal cartel masquerading as a democracy. 2000 Mules.
Al Letson:So you’ve watched the film, are you convinced the US is a criminal cartel masquerading as a democracy?
Cassandra Jaram…:No, Al. This movie has been thoroughly debunked. I mean, even former US Attorney General Bill Barr also didn’t seem to think the movie was legit. He said as much back in June during the January 6th hearings.
William Barr:My opinion then, and my opinion now is that the election was not stolen by fraud and I haven’t seen anything since the election that changes my mind on that, including the 2000 Mules movie.
Cassandra Jaram…:There was even a live stream event where Catherine was answering questions about the film. She was reading comments in real time and some were openly critical of True the Vote and 2000 Mules.
Catherine Engel…:Oh, let me just read this aloud. I’m not happy about being scammed by True the Vote and given the apparent holes in the arguments and perhaps even the shots of the graphics, I certainly cannot publicly endorse 2000 Mules. Sorry that you didn’t like the movie. Sorry that you didn’t like the graphics. Take that up with Dinesh. Our information is rock solid. I stand by what we did.
Cassandra Jaram…:Other people on the live stream asked for updates on when they were going to show all of the evidence they had from the movie. It’s been more than three months since the movies launch and still True the Vote isn’t coming up with the goods. And yet, the organization continues to raise money on the basis of these false claims. I mean, only a few months ago, President Trump held a private screening of 2000 Mules at his Mar a Lago Resort. So even with no evidence, the big lie persists.
Al Letson:So the November midterms around the corner, what are we supposed to take away from all this?
Cassandra Jaram…:The big lie is a huge factor in this upcoming election. Our own reporting shows that Trump-backed candidates across the country are campaigning on the lie that the election was stolen. And groups like True the Vote keep promising proof, giving these people the ammo they need. Al, one of the sources I talked to put it very well. They said that what True the Vote has kept up for a lot of years is kind of like this magic show. They make a big performance and then they disappear until their next reveal or really until the next promise of a reveal, but it never happens. It’s all smoke and mirrors. And yet, they’re still influencing so many people and making a lot of money in the process.
Al Letson:That was Reveal’s Cassandra Jaramillo. You can read Cassandra’s full story at revealnews.org. This story was produced by Nadia Hamdan.
Al Letson:When we come back, the story of a long-forgotten election lie and how it changed the course of American history.
Speaker 18:The white supremacist who carried out the coup created a false narrative that lasted almost a hundred years.
Al Letson:You’re listening to Reveal.
Al Letson:From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. Groups like True the Vote breathe life into the big lie. And nearly two years since Trump lost the election, the lie hasn’t gone away. There’s no telling where it will stop or even whether it could lead to further violence like we saw on January 6th, 2021. For a lot of people, the idea that a mob would storm the government and try to overturn the results of an election seemed impossible. But as outrageous as it was, this was not the first time election results were challenged by violence.
Al Letson:In 2020, 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 a hundred years.
Speaker 19:They were just going to kill all the black men.
Al Letson:It was an event that totally changed the city of Wilmington.
Speaker 20:This is not a race riot, it has to be deemed a massacre.
Al Letson:And 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 18:The white supremacists who carried out the coup created a false narrative that lasted almost a hundred 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 we’re bringing that story back today. And before we get started, I should say this piece contains some offensive language and violence. Wilmington’s story begins with the ancestors of this man.
Dr. Lewin Manly…:We went out on the porch round the corner.
Al Letson:Dr. Lewin Manly Jr. He’s out on his back porch in Atlanta. It’s summertime and the crickets and locus are chirping in his yard. Lewin’s a retired dentist who keeps active in his garden. At 89, he keeps track of family history.
Dr. Lewin Manly…:Hey, 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. Lewin Manly…:And he saw my grandmother and she is walking and he said, “Who is that?” And my grandfather said, “Don’t you worry about that, just do your painting up here.” And says, “If you ever get to be a great entrepreneur, 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…:He decided he would start a paper because there was not a paper, 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 :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 formally 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’s one of their daughters, Carrie Taylor Wright talking about her dad in 1981.
Carrie Taylor W…:My father was deputy collector of the United States Customs [inaudible]. He, Mr. Dancy, John Dancy, a negro was collector. He was deputy collector doing 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 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. In 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…:I’ll tell you about the record sometime. I’m too tired and it will bring heartaches to think about it even to this day. She said, I’d like to write cheerful letters and 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. 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’s just a few of the outrageous headlines they ran. More Negros Scoundrelism, Two Negro rape themes. Black beasts continued 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. Lewin Manly…: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 did not protect the white women on the farms and they had to work with the blacks out there. And these black bruts were raping them at leisure.
Al Letson:She said, black bruts were raping white women on farms. Her editorial called for black men to be lynched to better protect white women.
Dr. Lewin Manly…:And she said if they lynch a thousand a week, it wouldn’t be enough. Just a horrible thing. So 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, 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 supremacist campaign. The News and 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, 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 gunman of the white supremacy movement wanted to lynch Alex Manley that day, the day the editorial came out. And 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. 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 dared write it.
Dr. Lewin Manly…:There’s no way I could figure out why in the world where he write something like that and not expect the world would 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, 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.” And those were his exact words.
Al Letson:So what happened on election day, November 8th, 1898?
David Zucchino :They would break in to 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 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 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.
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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 officially over and the white supremacists in Wilmington had succeeded in suppressing the vote. They’d 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.
Al Letson: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.” 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 street cars.
Margaret Willia…: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 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…:And this man came home, the man she was working for and he told her, he said, “Della, you stay here in this house.” Said he came in and said he had a room with a lot of guns and came to get his gun. He said, “You stay here, you’ll be safe though. We going to kill some nigers.”
Al Letson:But Della didn’t listen to him. She was afraid for her nephew, so she went to sound the alarm.
Margaret Willia…:So she say that when he left home, she ran out of the house to warn her sister so she could find her son. And 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 was one of them that was killed. So 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…:And she said when they came looking for him, said they searched their house because they knew where he lived, but 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 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 taken 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…:And it is a violent period, it’s a very violent time. It gets to the point where it is so deadly that blacks are fleeing for their lives. They’re leaving their homes. Word is already out that this overthrow of Wilmington city government is taking place and it’s violent. You have whites that are armed. We are 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 hope 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 journalists, 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 nowhere to be found. His grandson, Lewin reads his grandmother’s account of what happened.
Dr. Lewin Manly…:In this letter she wrote to her sons, here she’s killing 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…: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…: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 that could pass for a white man. He came to a roadblock.
Dr. Lewin Manly…: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…: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 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 seventies.
Jonathan Daniel…: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 illiterate blacks while not disenfranchising the illiterate 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 the 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 that could ride on to the Bible they swore on in court. More laws followed for 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 sixties, the country tried to undo the legacy of those Jim Crow laws, but changing the laws didn’t erase the damage they’d done. 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…:When they had this coup d’etat in Wilmington and the Manlys left, unfortunately, my grandfather never discussed that anymore what really happened. 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. So how did you talk to your children about what happened in Wilmington?
Dr. Lewin Manly…: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…:So I have to look at it more or less from an academic standpoint at this time is that it is 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 are through, so you just do the best you can and hopefully tell the story when you get a chance like now.
Joe Biden:At this hour, our democracy is under unprecedented assault, unlike anything we’ve seen in modern times.
Al Letson:On January 6th of last year, hours after the insurrection at the US 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 and I get it that it’s comforting to believe in the myth and not the truth, but that myth is killing us. The question is, are we willing to face our hard history and make changes or ignore the lessons of the past and repeat them?
Al Letson:Our Story was produced by Pamela Kirkland. She had help from Reveal’s Katharine Mieszkowski. Brett Myers and Taki Telonidis edited the show with additional help from Andy Donahue. Thanks to Hannah Breisinger, Rachel Keith, and Caitlin Freund from WHQR, as well as my friends, Priska Neely and Brett Simpson for their work on the Wilmington story. Also the Cape Fear Museum of History and Science and the Southern Oral History Program at UNC Chapel Hill for archival audio. Nikki Frick is our fact checker. Victoria Baranetsky is our general counsel. Our production manager is Amy, the Great Mostafa. Original score and sound designed by the dynamic duo, Jay Breezy, Mr. Jim Briggs and Fernando, my man, yo, Arruda. Our post production team is the Justice League, and this week it includes Kathryn Styer Martínez and Steven Rascon. Our digital producer is Sarah Merck. Our interim CEO is Robert Rosenthal. Our interim executive producers are Taki Telonidis and Brett Myers.
Al Letson:Our theme music is by Comarado Lightning. 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 Hellman Foundation, the Democracy Fund, and The In As Much Foundation. Reveal is a co-production of the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.
Al Letson:I’m Al Letson. And remember, there is always more to the story.
Speaker 31:From PRX.

Cassandra Jaramillo

Cassandra Jaramillo (she/her) was a reporter for Reveal, focusing on police accountability and threats to democracy. She previously was a reporter at The Dallas Morning News, where she covered the Dallas Police Department and criminal justice issues.

Nadia Hamdan (she/her) is a producer for Reveal. Previously, she was a public radio reporter with NPR station KUT 90.5 in Austin, Texas. Hamdan's reporting has been heard on NPR's “Morning Edition” and “All Things Considered,” WBUR’s “Here & Now” and the BBC’s “World Service,” among other programs. She's won numerous awards for her reporting, including a national Public Media Journalists Association Award, two regional Edward R. Murrow Awards and multiple Texas Associated Press Broadcasters Awards. Hamdan was awarded a Texas Gavel Award from the State Bar of Texas for a podcast on why sexual assaults are so hard to prosecute in Austin. She once conducted an entire interview while riding a mule through downtown Austin, where she is based.

Katharine Mieszkowski

Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior reporter and producer for Reveal. She's also been a senior writer for Salon and Fast Company. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Rolling Stone, Mother Jones, Slate and on NPR's "All Things Considered."

Her coverage has won national awards, including the Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Award two years in a row, an Online News Association Award, a Webby Award and a Society of Environmental Journalists Award. Mieszkowski has a bachelor's degree from Yale University. She is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.

Taki Telonidis is an interim executive producer for Reveal. Previously, he was the media producer for the Western Folklife Center, where he created more than 100 radio features for NPR’s "All Things Considered," "Weekend Edition" and other news magazines. He has produced and directed three public television specials, including "Healing the Warrior’s Heart," a one-hour documentary that explores how the ancient spiritual traditions of our nation’s first warriors, Native Americans, are helping today’s veterans diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Telonidis also was senior content editor for NPR’s "State of the Re:Union." Before moving to the West, he worked for NPR in Washington, where he was senior producer of "Weekend All Things Considered" between 1994 and 1998. His television and radio work has garnered a George Foster Peabody Award, three Rocky Mountain Emmy Awards and the Overseas Press Club Award for breaking news. Telonidis is based in Salt Lake City.

Andy Donohue is the executive editor for projects for Reveal. He’s edited Reveal’s investigations into the treatment of migrant children in government care, Amazon’s labor practices, rehab work camps and sexual abuse in the janitorial industry. He’s been on teams that have twice been Pulitzer Prize finalists and have won Investigative Reporters and Editors, Edward R. Murrow, Online News Association, Third Coast International Audio Festival, Gerald Loeb, Sidney Hillman Foundation and Emmy awards. He previously helped build and lead Voice of San Diego, served on the IRE board for eight years and is an alumnus of the John S. Knight Journalism Fellowship at Stanford University. Donohue is based in Reveal’s Emeryville, California, office.

Nikki Frick is the associate editor for research and copy for Reveal. She previously worked as a copy editor at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and held internships at The Boston Globe, the Los Angeles Times and Washingtonpost.com. She has a bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and was an American Copy Editors Society Aubespin scholar. Frick is based in Milwaukee.

Amy Mostafa (she/they) is the production manager for Reveal. She is a UC Berkeley School of Journalism alum, where she focused on audio and data journalism as a Dean's Merit Fellow and an ISF Scholar. She has reported on science, health and the environment in Anchorage for Alaska Public Media and on city government in Berkeley and San Francisco for KQED. Her work also has appeared on NPR, KALW and KALX. Mostafa holds a bachelor's degree in English literature and public policy. She has most recently reported on housing and aging in the Bay Area. She is based in Reveal’s Emeryville, California, office.

Jim Briggs III is the senior sound designer, engineer and composer for Reveal. He supervises post-production and composes original music for the public radio show and podcast. He also leads Reveal's efforts in composition for data sonification and live performances.

Prior to joining Reveal in 2014, Briggs mixed and recorded for clients such as WNYC Studios, NPR, the CBC and American Public Media. Credits include “Marketplace,” “Selected Shorts,” “Death, Sex & Money,” “The Longest Shortest Time,” NPR’s “Ask Me Another,” “Radiolab,” “Freakonomics Radio” and “Soundcheck.” He also was the sound re-recording mixer and sound editor for several PBS television documentaries, including “American Experience: Walt Whitman,” the 2012 Tea Party documentary "Town Hall" and “The Supreme Court” miniseries. His music credits include albums by R.E.M., Paul Simon and Kelly Clarkson.

Briggs' work with Reveal has been recognized with an Emmy Award (2016) and two Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Awards (2018, 2019). Previously, he was part of the team that won the Dart Award for Excellence in Coverage of Trauma for its work on WNYC’s hourlong documentary special “Living 9/11.” He has taught sound, radio and music production at The New School and Eugene Lang College and has a master's degree in media studies from The New School. Briggs is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.

Fernando Arruda

Fernando Arruda is a sound designer, engineer and composer for Reveal. As a multi-instrumentalist, he contributes to the original music, editing and mixing of the weekly public radio show and podcast. He has held four O-1 visas for individuals with extraordinary abilities. His work has been recognized with Peabody, duPont-Columbia, Edward R. Murrow, Gerald Loeb, Third Coast and Association of Music Producers awards, as well as Emmy and Pulitzer nominations. Prior to joining Reveal, Arruda toured as an international DJ and taught music technology at Dubspot and ESRA International Film School. He worked at Antfood, a creative audio studio for media and TV ads, and co-founded a film-scoring boutique called the Manhattan Composers Collective. He worked with clients such as Marvel, MasterClass and Samsung and ad agencies such as Framestore, Trollbäck+Company, BUCK and Vice. Arruda releases experimental music under the alias FJAZZ and has performed with many jazz, classical and pop ensembles, such as SFJAZZ Monday Night Band, Art&Sax quartet, Krychek, Dark Inc. and the New York Arabic Orchestra. His credits in the podcast and radio world include NPR’s “51 Percent,” WNYC’s “Bad Feminist Happy Hour” and its live broadcast of Orson Welles’ “The Hitchhiker,” Wondery’s “Detective Trapp,” MSNBC’s “Why Is This Happening?” and NBC’s “Born to Rule,” to name a few. Arruda also has a wide catalog of composed music for theatrical, orchestral and chamber music formats, some of which has premiered worldwide. He holds a master’s degree in film scoring and composition from NYU Steinhardt. The original music he makes with Jim Briggs for Reveal can be found on Bandcamp.

Kathryn Styer Martínez

Kathryn Styer Martínez (she/ella) is a production assistant for Reveal. She studies audio and photojournalism at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. She is also a Greater Good Science Center reporting fellow, focusing on Latino well-being.

Martínez was the 2020-21 Toni Randolph reporting fellow at Minnesota Public Radio, the 2019-20 New Economy Reporting Project fellow and the former director of KGPC-LP FM, Peralta Community Radio. Her work has appeared in El Tecolote, The Oaklandside, MPR News, National Public Radio, Outside Online, Talk Poverty, New Life Quarterly and Making Contact.

She earned bachelor’s degrees in Raza studies and political science from San Francisco State University.

Steven Rascón (he/they) is a production assistant for Reveal. He is pursuing a master's degree at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism with a Kaiser Permanente Institute for Health Policy Fellowship. His focus is investigative reporting and audio documentary. He has written for online, magazines and radio. His reporting on underreported fentanyl overdoses in Los Angeles' LGBTQ community aired on KCRW and KQED. Rascón is passionate about telling diverse stories for radio through community engagement. He holds a bachelor of fine arts degree in theater arts and creative writing.