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Rev. William Barber: 123 Years After Wilmington Massacre by White Supremacists, Voting Rights Fight Continues

Web ExclusiveNovember 15, 2021
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Image Credit: Melissa Sue Gerrits/Getty Images

A long-overdue commemoration was held this month in Wilmington, North Carolina, in memory of Joshua Halsey, who was killed by white supremacists during the November 10, 1898, Wilmington massacre. His unmarked grave got a headstone, and he was honored with a funeral, after he became one of the first identified victims in the massacre that killed at least 100 people, and possibly as many as 250. At the time of the massacre, Wilmington had a thriving Black community, and Black residents were also part of the city’s government. We look at the long-overlooked massacre and its relevance to today’s ongoing fight for civil and voting rights with Bishop William Barber of the Poor People’s Campaign, who gave the eulogy at Halsey’s funeral 123 years after he was killed.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

A long-overdue commemoration was held this month in Wilmington, North Carolina, in memory of Joshua Halsey, who was killed by white supremacists during the 1898 Wilmington massacre. It’s 123 years later that his unmarked grave got a headstone and he was honored with a funeral, after he became one of the first identified victims in the massacre that killed at least 100 people, and possibly as many as 250.

In 1898, at the time of the massacre, Wilmington had a thriving Black community, and Black residents were also a part of the city’s government, similar to that scene in Tulsa, Oklahoma, before the massacre there.

On the anniversary of the massacre, a horse-drawn hearse carried to the funeral soil collected from the site of Halsey’s home. Reverend William Barber, Bishop William Barber of the Poor People’s Campaign, gave the eulogy surrounded by several of Halsey’s relatives,

REV. WILLIAM BARBER II: The blood of Joshua Halsey still cries. And the question is: Can we hear it? We must hear it. Joshua was murdered by a system, and others like him were murdered by a system. It was not just a group of white supremacists acting on their own. To remember this history like that is to remember it wrong.

AMY GOODMAN: Bishop William Barber, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, president of Repairs of the Breach. He recently returned from a visit with the community and family of Ahmaud Arbery in Brunswick, Georgia. We’re going to focus now on the Wilmington massacre. Most people in this country haven’t heard of it. It’s not often taught in the history books, Bishop Barber. Can you tell us this story from 1898?

REV. WILLIAM BARBER II: You’re so right. For years, it wasn’t taught in the history books, only recently.

Let me back up just a little bit from 1898 to tell the story. This is at the end of Reconstruction in the South, where Black and whites were forming together, poor Blacks and poor whites, to form fusion coalitions all over the South, rewriting constitutions, guaranteeing public education for all people, talking about labor rights for all people. And in 1896, one of the Democratic — and at that time, the Jefferson Davis Democratic candidates lost the governorship and refused to accept it and began a campaign with a group called The Nine. And they said that they were going to totally disrupt fusion politics and were going to engage in a coup d’état, an insurrection.

They chose men who could write. They made The News & Observer at that time, the Fox News of today. That paper would engage in propaganda showing Black men, politicians, looking like vampires, who would have white women in one hand that looked like a claw and pushing back and killing white men with the other — the white women in one hand and pushing back white men with the other. Then they wanted men who could speak, and they chose Charles B. Aycock, who was later awarded the governorship of North Carolina. He was a tremendous orator, but his job was to go all over the state, tell lies and have big rallies, would tell people, white men particularly, it was their duty to protect white women by destroying fusion coalition politics. And then they’d call for men who could ride. And those were the Red Shirts. These were men who deliberately went into the Spanish-American War, many of them, to learn military tactics in order to bring it back home to engage in race violence. And that was two years that led up to this.

And then, on November 10th, the day of an election, they rode into town with a Gatling gun. They burned down the Black newspaper, that was actually led by a mulatto African American, part Black, part white. And they killed, some historians say, more people per capita than died on 9/11. Wilmington was a majority-Black city. It was on its way to become the Atlanta of the South. It was the closest port to Africa and Europe. The wealthiest people in that city were Black, and some of them was among the wealthiest in the state. And by the end of the day, they had killed so many people and had literally forced Black and white people out of office. And then, by 1901, they ran the last African American out of Congress. Charles B. Aycock was put in as governor. The guy who ran The News & Observer, he became secretary of the Navy under Woodrow Wilson. He was rewarded for his racism. Josephus Daniels was his name.

This was a complete plot. And if you look at it, it’s so eerie how it lines up with what we’re seeing today, particularly in the aftermath of Donald Trump and the insurrection of January the 6th, and also the continuing political insurrections of voter suppression. All of those things, they did for two years prior to the massive killing.

AMY GOODMAN: The white press at the time — Black press was burned to the ground. The white press called it a race riot, as they so often — right? — blamed people of color for what took place, that it was really, essentially, a coup. Is that right?

REV. WILLIAM BARBER II: It was the only-of-its-kind coup d’état. And when you look at all the other ones that happened, riots, they’re billed as a coup d’état. In fact, on Sunday, before the riot, there were worship services to prepare for it. And after it happened and was successful, the record shows that they sent telegrams around the country, and they said, “This is how you undermine Negro domination. This is how you turn back the Reconstruction. This is how you destroy the possibility of Black-white fusion politics in the South and save our country.” Some language even said, “And make our country great.”

And it’s important that we remember this history, particularly with where we are now. We have a president — a former president, who refuses to accept that he lost. He continues to go around the country promoting lies. There are people who are promoting violence and stirring up violence. We’ve seen an insurrection. We now see this massive attempt to undermine the right to vote and turn back progressive policies, which is the same thing that happened between 1896 and 1898.

You know, I pastor about an hour and a half from Wilmington. One of the speeches that Charles B. Aycock did, he did it in Eureka, near Goldsboro, North Carolina, in 1896. And they say, when he finished — he spoke to a thousand white men. And when he finished telling them what they had to do and how wrong they were if they didn’t protect white women, if they didn’t undermine this fusion politics between Black and white people, and stop Negro domination — when he finished telling them, in all of his graphic, oratorical ways, it said the men were foaming at the mouth like dogs. They were so angry that they were ready to destroy anything in their way.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think this is getting more attention because of the attention now, well deserved, being paid to the Tulsa massacre that took place, what, a quarter of a century later, in 1921?

REV. WILLIAM BARBER II: Well, I don’t know. You know, for a long time, as you said, we would hear about Tulsa, but you wouldn’t hear about Wilmington. And Wilmington actually preceded Tulsa, and it preceded the riots in Springfield, Ohio. And it was a different kind, because in some of those, it was just riding. People here will literally run out of office. And I want folks to understand, this was very, very political. They didn’t just burn down the area, as bad as and horrific as that is. They literally ran the Black and white people out of office — killed the Black, ran the white out — who were engaged in this fusion coalition politics that were led by — that was led by the Lincoln Republicans.

I don’t know all the reasons it’s getting attention, but I will tell you, we’d better pay attention to it, because of the way in which you can plot some of the things that are happening now by looking through the lens of what happened then. You know, by the time this was over, and the aftermath of it, the changing of the governor — the governor went and became a Jefferson Davis-type Democrat — and they ran the last congressperson out of the United States Congress, you know, it took North Carolina 90 years to return another person to the Congress, after George White was run out because of what happened in this coup d’état.

People didn’t know where their loved ones were. There were no burials. People ran into the swamps. It used to be said of Wilmington that the ghosts of Wilmington — the ghosts of Wilmington were always there, because people knew it, but it was never really acknowledged as to what happened. And I think that’s a tragedy.

In North Carolina, for instance, when they decided which counties would be precovered under the Voting Rights Act, those counties in that area were not covered. They were not covered under Section 5. Only 40 counties in North Carolina were covered. And many of those in the Wilmington area were not covered. Well, why wouldn’t they be covered, with this history of racism and intentional destruction? Because it was not [inaudible]. It was not talked about. It was not put in the record. It was not in the Congressional Record.

We need to study this more and more and more, because the flip side of it is another question. Imagine if today Wilmington was Atlanta. Imagine if a city like that, predominantly Black City, was in North Carolina. Imagine that the closest port to Europe and Africa had been controlled by African Americans and progressive whites. What would that look like?

You know, we’ve never given the people even reparations, those whose family members were killed. They’ve received nothing. They received a plaque, maybe a statue, then, of course, something like this.

But that’s why I said at the eulogy, you can’t just celebrate this. In fact, it’s not a celebration. You can’t just have a commemoration. You really have to have a repentance and a deep, serious look. And the only way we can honor Halsey and others is to look at what happened then and, through the lens of that, expose the continuing realities that many of the forces and mindsets that killed Joshua Halsey are still exhibited today. Many of the forces that undermine the politics and progressive politics of that day are very much alive today. And so, the only way we can really honor Halsey and all those others is to stand up and challenge those forces that we see today. Truth is, it’s very dangerous stuff, when you think about it.

AMY GOODMAN: You also have who gets to tell the story. Of course, the white press, again, calling this a race riot. But go back to 1892, when Ida B. Wells, who was the great journalist and publisher who championed the cause, the fight against lynching, her printing press burned down in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1892. And then you have Alex Manley, the Daily Record in Wilmington, six years later, in 1898, they burned his press to the ground.

REV. WILLIAM BARBER II: That’s right, yeah. And he was white. He was the mulatto child of a governor who had a child by a Black woman. And he wrote an article challenging this notion that the undermining of Black and white fusion politics was necessary for the womanhood and the protection of the white woman. And they came after him and burned that paper to the ground. They didn’t kill him, but they came after him. And The News & Observer, some years ago, did a whole story and did a repentance, because the editor of The News & Observer literally turned his paper into the propaganda machine. And that’s why I say, if you look at that now then, and you look at Fox News now, you know, we see some eerie connectors that we would do well not to ignore.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, in your eulogy for Joshua Halsey, you said that “I’m here to tell you what killed Joshua is still alive today, 123 years later,” as people still are trying to uncover the names of all those who were buried in unmarked graves. That’s changed for Joshua Halsey now. Talk about the continued — I don’t know if you can say reincarnation, because it has continued for all these years, for more than a century.

REV. WILLIAM BARBER II: Yeah, it never went away. Remember, after 1898, African American men were being killed on an average of one per day, right on up into the 1920s. You know, from — you get at 1896, Plessy v. Ferguson; 1898, Wilmington; the 1900s, you get the Springfield riots and others and Tulsa. You get Red Summer. You get Woodrow Wilson, who became president, played Birth of a Nation in the Oval Office, celebrated that ugly horror film that suggested that the Klan was the real heroes of the South, began to turn back the laws. So, we never had an ending, so you can’t say reincarnation.

But we have to be real. In that day, there were — that’s when Jim Crow started. That was when the attempts to roll back voting rights started. What do we see today? Rolling back of voting rights, rolling — trying to undermine access to the ballot. And during the fusion coalition politics, they had said that education was a public right to all. The new crowd didn’t want that to be so. They didn’t want education to be the same for a Black person as for the white. We see violence today. We see the insurrection. You see people in these paramilitary groups. What did we have then? Paramilitary groups, the Red Shirts. We have politicians, from Trump to — what’s his name? — Cruz out of Texas, and I could go on and on, going all around the country spreading lies, racial lies, spreading lies about an election, dividing the country. That traces all the way back to the Southern Strategy’s goal of what they call positive polarization. That’s what we saw in 1896 to 1898. We’re seeing some of the same things today. We saw a high office holder, the governor, refuse to accept the election, claim that it was fraudulent, and use that to continue to build regressive public political momentum. What do we see today? Same kind of thing happening across the country.

At some point, America is going to have to face these things. And one of the things I wish we would stop doing in this country is saying, “We just need to go back to when things were different,” as back sometimes is worse. But also, we have to stop acting as though what we see, for instance, under Trump is just an individual, rather than a part of a system of systems that has continued down through the years, that has often had very, very deadly consequences.

That is why, Amy, lastly, one of the things that bothered me so bad the day January the 6th happened, coming from eastern North Carolina, having just come from Tulsa, is how much of the media said, “We’ve never seen this before. This is a first-of-its-kind insurrection.” It just wasn’t true — maybe on that side of the steps of the Capitol. But to ignore all these other periods of history where there were these serious insurrections and killing is to ignore the kind of history we need to know, so that maybe we can see things coming before they ever happen, and we don’t just ignore it or act like it’s just a bunch of crazy people. This was not, in Wilmington, a bunch of crazy, backwater people who were just mean. This was the high echelon. This was the upper class. These were the educated people in North Carolina, who led and planned and executed successfully this coup d’état.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you so much for being with us, Bishop William Barber, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, president of Repairers of the Breach. He happens to be in Washington, D.C., today to participate in a major protest around fighting for infrastructure in this country, for voting rights, for immigration reform, among a number of issues, though normally based in North Carolina.

This is Democracy Now! To see Part 1 of our discussion, go to democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks for joining us.

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