America’s forgotten white supremacist coup d’état

The questions we get at the library are a barometer of what is on our collective minds, so it comes as no surprise that this week people have been asking us just what is a ‘coup’? The word ‘coup’ is a French word meaning ‘strike’ or ‘blow,’ and when combined with ‘état,’ or ‘state,’ we get ‘coup d’état,’ which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as ‘a sudden and great change in the government carried out violently or illegally by the ruling power.’

Although we borrowed the term from the Bastille-storming French, America has been involved in many coups d’état, foreign and domestic, from the 1953 coup in Iran, to the botched Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba. Coups have been a popular scenario for films, from Seven Days in May and The Manchurian Candidate, to White House Down and Captain America: The Winter Soldier. To peruse factual and fictional coups d’état stretching from the ancient world to the future, check out this list of coup d’état related books and films in our catalog.

Among the most disturbing coups in American history occurred in 1898 in the port city of Wilmington, North Carolina, when an armed coalition of 2,000 white supremacists perpetrated the violent overthrow of the city government, unseating its racially integrated elected officials and replacing them with an all-white administration. At least 60 Black citizens were killed in the horrific coup d’état, just one of many vile and egregious acts of mob violence, lynching, Jim Crow laws and voter suppression efforts that swept the South and much of the North in the wake of Reconstruction, in an effort to disenfranchise Black voters, negate the outcome of the American Civil War and nullify the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

Learn more about this shameful and telling chapter in our history in Wilmington’s Lie: The Murderous Coup of 1898 and the Rise of White Supremacy, by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Zucchino. For younger readers, I suggest Barbara Wright’s masterful and moving historical novel Crow, in which we witness the dimming prospect of a better day through the eyes of eleven-year-old Moses Thomas, who watches Wilmington’s descent into racist backlash over the course of one harrowing and unforgettable summer.

      ~ Posted by David W.

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