Stumping in Wilmington last week, Donald Trump spewed venomous remarks strangely resonant with local history. First he touted the state’s voter suppression bill, which the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals recently struck down because it targeted black voters “with almost surgical precision” to achieve “purposeful racial discrimination.” Trump falsely claimed that without the law, someone could decide to “vote 15 times for Hillary,” even though Gov. Pat McCrory’s lawyers could not offer one example of voter fraud.
Trump lied that “Hillary Clinton wants to abolish, essentially abolish, the Second Amendment. By the way,” he intoned, “if she gets to pick her judges.” The crowd interrupted with angry jeers. “Nothing you can do, folks,” he baited them. “Although the Second Amendment people, maybe there is something they can do.” The virtually all-white crowd roared. “That will be a horrible day,” Trump predicted.
His speech sent me to Proverbs 18:21: “Death and life are in the power of the tongue.”
Many interpreted Trump’s remarks as a call for violence to block the appointment of U.S. Supreme Court justices in a hypothetical Clinton presidency. Trump backers feigned amazement at this view of their candidate’s “joke,” though they could not decide whether he was just kidding or calling for electoral activism. But Trump’s remarks must not be taken out of context.
During Trump’s recent convention, a campaign official declared: “Hillary Clinton should be put in the firing line and shot for treason.” That same week, a Trump backer from West Virginia, Rep. Michael Folk, posted Clinton a message: “You should be tried for treason, murder, and crimes against the U.S. Constitution… then hung on the mall in Washington, D.C.” Like Trump, Folk denied that he had endorsed violence: “Everybody thinks that I made a death threat, which I did not.”
Trump’s appearance in Wilmington must also be considered in historical context. During the election season of 1898, uneasy whites organized the “White Supremacy Campaign” to block the re-election of an interracial Fusion coalition that had swept into power two years earlier. White conservatives felt their rightful dominion slipping away. They viewed black citizenship as illegitimate and regarded white Fusionists as traitors.
A week before the election, heiress Rebecca Cameron wrote to Lt. Col. Alfred Waddell, a leader of the White Supremacy Campaign, and quoted the Bible. “Solomon says ‘there is a time to kill,’” she wrote. She pushed Waddell “to disfranchise forever all the negroes white and black.”
The White Supremacy Campaign organized mounted “Red Shirts” to break up Fusionist rallies, intimidate their candidates and supporters, and steal the election. “Go to the polls tomorrow,” urged Waddell, “and if you find the Negro out voting, kill him, shoot him down in his tracks. We will win tomorrow if we have to do it with guns.”
In Wilmington, business leaders overthrew the interracial city government. White mobs murdered dozens of African-Americans. They forced Fusionist officeholders to resign at gunpoint and banished their leaders from the city – black and white. The campaign restored what The News & Observer called “permanent good government by the party of the White Man.” As Cameron had suggested, the victors passed a constitutional amendment after the election to bar African-Americans from voting.
Did Trump choose Wilmington as a good backdrop to raise the issue of gun rights and measures to suppress black voting? In 1980, Ronald Reagan’s handlers selected Philadelphia, Mississippi, to open his campaign with a speech on “states’ rights,” a traditional Southern term for segregation, because the town was famous for one thing only: the murder of four voting rights workers in the summer of 1964. This signaled Reagan’s intentions with respect to race, and he established a new “Solid South” for the GOP.
Whether he intended to or not, Trump could not have chosen a better place than Wilmington to trumpet his views on guns and voting.
North Carolina, some say, is now the crucial battleground state in Trump’s campaign for the presidency. Yet an electorate of black, white, Native American, Asian and others is building a new Fusion coalition, bent on taking North Carolina forward together, not one step back. So for Trump and McCrory, the time has come to let history off its leash with a wink here, a dog whistle there.
Words matter, especially when America remains in a racial crisis that Trump routinely exploits. It is time to confront Trump’s race-baiting rhetoric, including his exhortation of violence in the name of gun rights. This is dangerous talk.
Regardless of party, those of us who know our history and our Constitution must answer Trump’s madness with morality. We cannot let reckless rhetoric poison the wells of our democracy or diminish our moral values. We must soothe racial tension with policies that promote justice and reconciliation. We must vote like never before and keep the language of death from having the final word.
Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II is president of the North Carolina NAACP and chief architect of “Moral Mondays” in North Carolina.