One of the lessons of 2020 is how quickly things can change on a fundamental level. Remember life as it was just one year ago? It seems like a different era entirely. In the face of a global pandemic, our way of being shifted, and nothing seems the same.
Another lesson of the last year is that some things never change.
After having failed in their attempt to undermine voting itself through intimidation and voter suppression tactics, a group of white men rioted to undo an election that didn’t go in their favor. Did the petulant fit happen on January 6, 2021? No. It was in Yanceyville, North Carolina in 1870.
For the past year or so I’ve been spending a lot of time in Reconstruction era North Carolina for a novel in progress. It’s a fascinating period of history, and the similarities to today are striking and scary.
After the Civil War, Congress attempted to hold secessionists (who had committed treason after all) to account. The Civil Rights Bill of 1866 actually withheld the vote and the ability to hold office from those who had supported the Confederacy. Andrew Johnson would undo this with a slew of pardons culminating with mass amnesty for nearly all former secessionists in 1868. His pardons and commutations undid many of the efforts toward a just Reconstruction. This allowed former Confederates to hold office in the South and impose “Black Codes” that in many ways recreated the inequities of slavery. Nonetheless, for a time at least, Blacks eagerly participated in the civic process. They voted in mass. Many aspired to and held public office at various levels, all the way up to Congress. But it wasn’t to last.
In 1870 in Yanceyville, a mob of former secessionists, enraged that Blacks had won seats in government despite their efforts to keep them from the polls, breached the county courthouse where they hung and stabbed to death Republican state senator John W. Stephens. Stephens had championed the rights of African-Americans. This came on the heels of the lynching of Wyatt Outlaw, a Black town commissioner in Alamance County.
The Governor of North Carolina at the time, William Holden, attempted to put an end to this thuggery. He called up George W. Kirk, a former Union officer who’d waged a brutal guerrilla war in Western North Carolina during the Civil War. Kirk led 300 men to round up the insurrectionists, many of whom were members of the Ku Klux Klan. Many were also prominent White citizens.
Holden declared martial law and suspended habeus corpus to quell the insurrection. After skirmishes throughout Alamance and Chatham counties, Kirk rounded up one hundred of the insurrectionists including some of those prominent citizens. None of the charges stuck. President Grant, concerned about the white southern vote for his own 1872 reelection bid, did not provide federal support to Holden. Many former Confederates, their right to hold public office restored by Andrew Johnson, served throughout state and local governments and the judiciary. They freed those arrested and organized against Holden. They imprisoned Colonel Kirk, and in 1871, they impeached Holden. He was the first governor in the US to be impeached and removed from office. He had dared to stand up to thugs, but was left holding the bag by a system that had failed to hold insurrectionists to account.
The tone was set for 1898 in Wilmington when anti-democratic White Supremacists successfully carried out a violent coup against a Fusionist government comprised of African-Americans and their White Republican allies. Black Americans, who had enjoyed a brief period of unprecedented inclusion and advancement in the city, would be subjected to 60 years of Jim Crow segregation, violence, and a willful suppression of their rights.
This brings us to where we are now. In the process of rounding up anti-democratic thugs who would rather impose their will on the country than accept the outcome of a free and fair election, who even carried into our nation’s Capitol the flag of the Confederacy, it would serve us well to heed the lessons of history. When there are no consequences for thuggery, we get more thuggery.
Violence and sedition has been a tool of whites who didn’t get their way throughout our history. And for the most part, it has worked. Insurrectionists weren’t held accountable in 1865 or in 1870 or in1898. Democracy suffered as a result. Advances made by the African-American community during the short period of true Reconstruction were undone. People died.
The question remains: will these thugs, including their leader, our former president, be held accountable in 2021? We have a chance now to make another fundamental change to our country. Wouldn’t it be great to look back on today a year from now and wonder how we every lived in such an unjust world?