“The killers came by streetcar. Their boots struck the packed clay earth like muffled drumbeats as they bounded from the cars and began to patrol the wide dirt roads. The men scanned the sidewalks and alleyways for targets.”
That’s how David Zucchino, perhaps the greatest reporter North Carolina ever produced, begins his gripping new book about the most evil and shameful chapter in North Carolina’s history: white supremacists’ massacre of black citizens in Wilmington in 1898, their violent overthrow of the city’s lawfully elected government and the ensuing entrenchment of white supremacy across the state.
In “Wilmington’s Lie: The Murderous Coup of 1898 and the Rise of White Supremacy” (Atlantic Monthly Press), Zucchino tells the story as only a gifted reporter and writer can. Few people can write as well as he does. Even fewer can report like him.
Now a contributing writer for The New York Times, Zucchino won a Pulitzer Prize at The Philadelphia Inquirer for reporting on apartheid in South Africa. He’s a four-time Pulitzer finalist for reporting in Iraq, Lebanon, South Africa and inner-city Philadelphia. A graduate of UNC Journalism School, he began his career at The News & Observer.
For nearly a century, what happened in Wilmington was portrayed, even in history texts, as a “race riot.” It wasn’t, Zucchino shows. It was deliberate, premeditated murder of blacks by whites.
On November 10, 1898, the killers swept through black neighborhoods. They met little resistance. They murdered blacks indiscriminately. At least 60 died. More than 2,000 fled the city. Many never came back.
The overthrow of the city’s government, a coalition of blacks and white Republicans, was orchestrated by Furnifold Simmons, chairman of the state Democratic Party, and Josephus Daniels, founder and publisher of The News & Observer.
Afterward, Simmons and Daniels worked together to disenfranchise black voters and assure white control of North Carolina’s government for decades to come.
Both the Democratic Party and the N&O changed later. Beginning the 1960s, the Democratic Party embraced civil rights and voting rights for African-Americans. The N&O, owned by the Daniels family until 1995, become a strong progressive voice.
But Zucchino says racial politics isn’t dead. After Republicans took control of the General Assembly in 2010, he writes, “white legislators reprised a tactic perfected by their forbears in 1898: suppressing the black vote.”
They passed a voter ID law “that included a set of restrictions aimed at black voters.” They “adopted yet another tool of Wilmington’s white supremacists: gerrymandering.”
The past is not always past.
On a personal note, I was at the N&O in the 1970s when Zucchino worked there. Everyone in the newsroom knew “Zook” would be a star.
Jim Jenkins, the retired editorial writer at the N&O, recalls a story about an officious newsroom editor who ordered reporters to write memos about their plans for each day.
Zucchino’s memo began: “10:15: Try to slip in late without being noticed. 10:30: Get Sun Drop from snack bar. 11:15: Start planning where to go for lunch. We went to Marcus’ yesterday, so the Mecca might be good.” And so on.
Enraged, the editor stormed into the office of Claude Sitton, the N&O’s legendarily no-nonsense editor, and declared, “We can’t have this kind of insubordination.”
Sitton stared at him and said, “Well, I’ve been in journalism a long time. I worked at The New York Times. David Zucchino is one of the best young reporters who’s ever come through this newsroom. If it’s you or him, you better start packing.”
I don’t know what became of the editor. But Zook proved Sitton right.