To the Editor:
Coup d’etat is a French language expression defined in my dictionary as “A sudden, violent and illegal seizure of power from an existing government.” We tend to think that coups happen only in unstable countries where democracy is tenuous or nonexistent, but we suffered such an event in our own United States on Nov. 10, 1898, in Wilmington, N.C.
Soon after the election of a biracial city council, white supremacists illegally seized power from the elected government, declaring, “We will no longer be ruled … by men of African origin.”* A white mob destroyed the offices of a Black-owned newspaper and expelled community leaders and elected officials from the city. They killed up to 100 people in a rampage through Black neighborhoods.
Before the overthrow, the city had been well integrated, with African-Americans working as policemen, firemen and magistrates. To escape ongoing violence, more than 2,000 Black citizens permanently left town. The racists appointed their own mayor and aldermen. Though the coup was blatantly illegal, neither the state nor the federal government intervened to restore democracy and punish the usurpers. The victors largely succeeded in keeping news of their crime buried. Only in the last decade or so have researchers and activists dug out the facts.
On Jan. 6, 2021, a second coup attempt was launched, this time in Washington, D.C., to prevent Congress from performing its constitutional duty of certifying the result of the presidential election. The insurrectionists who smashed their way into the U.S. Capitol, killed a law enforcement officer, injured scores of others, pillaged congressional offices and threatened elected officials and their staffs appeared to have much in common with the white supremacists, anti-Semites and other democracy haters who destroyed the government in Wilmington. Fortunately, this latest coup attempt only succeeded in disrupting democracy for a few hours.
Will attempted coups become a more common feature of U.S. politics? They well might if the instigators, enablers, white supremacists and other foot soldiers of the Jan. 6 insurrection are not brought to justice, sparing no one, including sore loser-in-chief Donald J. Trump.
* “America’s Only Successful Coup d’Etat Overthrew a Biracial Government in 1898,” Aaron Randle, Oct. 7, 2020, www.history.com/news/wilmington-massacre-1898-coup