In any discussion of the 1919 act regulating the purchase of certain weapons in North Carolina, you have to go back to the state of politics as they existed in the 1890s. Post-Reconstruction, the Democrats had regained power in the state from the Republicans. However, this dominance was threatened in the 1890s by the rise of what was called Fusion politics. The Republicans and the Populist Party in North Carolina, while they differed on a national agenda, agreed on many items including education, voting rights, and the restoration of the charter of the Farmer’s Alliance which the Democrat-controlled General Assembly had revoked.
The guiding principle behind the fusion of the Republicans and the Populists was that they would agree to support the stronger candidate in each race against the Democrat’s candidate. Sometimes this would be the Populist and sometimes this would be the Republican. The elections of 1894 showed the success of the fusion approach. The Fusionists gained six US House seats from the Democrats; two for the Republicans and four for the Populists. They also elected both US Senators and took a super-majority in both house of the NC General Assembly. They repeated this success in the elections of 1896 where they widened their lead in the General Assembly, picked up another US House seat, and Republican Daniel Russell was elected governor. The General Assembly that convened in 1895 had five African-Americans as members and it loosened voting restrictions on blacks. As a result, voting participation of African-Americans increased significantly.
The Democrats had to come up with a strategy to overcome the successful fusion between the Populists and Republicans. They turned to New Bern attorney Furnifold M. Simmons who was appointed chairman of the NC Democratic Party. Simmons organized local party organizations in each county as well as a speaker’s bureau of orators such as South Carolina’s infamous Pitchfork Ben Tillman. The overriding strategy was based upon one thing: white supremacy.
The “white supremacy campaign” was exactly that. The Democrats repeatedly stated that only white men were fit to hold political office. They often accused the fusionists, especially the Republicans, of supporting “negro domination” in the state. Indeed, there were a large number of African American officeholders, some of whom had been elected and many more who were appointed to office. The Democrats referred to themselves as the “white man’s party” and appealed to white North Carolinians to restore them to power.
One of the most significant events of the campaign was the appearance of an editorial in the Wilmington Daily Record on August 18, 1898. The Daily Record was an African American newspaper published by Alex Manly. The editorial was a response to a speech by a Georgia woman who had called for the widespread lynching of African American men in order to protect white women. The Daily Record suggested that consensual relationships between African American men and white women were common and that often the man was accused of rape only after the relationship was discovered. Once the Democratic papers got hold of the editorial there was an uproar. Under headings such as “Vile and Villainous” and “A Horrid Slander,” the editorial was reprinted throughout the state. Some Democratic papers continued to run it in almost every single issue up to election day.
Not only was the election of 1898 built around white supremacy, it featured the intimidation of black voters by the neo-Fascist Red Shirts at the behest of Simmons as well as an actual coup d’etat after the election in Wilmington. Josephus Daniels, publisher of the News and Observer and an ardent white supremacist, said of Simmons that he was “a genius in putting everybody to
work—men who could write, men who could speak, and men who could ride—the last by no means the least important.” (As an aside, the News and Observer is editorializing in favor of keeping Jim Crow laws from that era.)
The role of newspapers such as the N&O, the Charlotte Observer, the Wilmington Morning Star, and the Wilmington Messenger cannot be understated. While their current staff and readership would be appalled by the overtly racist messages they published, they were the essential propaganda arm of the Democratic Party in North Carolina. In an era before the advent of TV and radio, the newspapers were the media. They conveyed the message to their readers through both editorials and through cartoons aimed at the less literate. Norman Jennett’s cartoons for the N&O ran above the fold and were praised by Democrats as “one of the powers that brought about the revolution.” Many of them can be found here.
On the eve of the 1898 election, Simmons wrote an editorial that laid out the reasons to vote for the Democrats and at its heart was the cause of white supremacy. It appeared on the front page of Daniels’ N&O on November 3rd.
Then came the evidence, disclosing the actual condition of affairs, in that section of the State, which astonished and shocked the consciences and moral sensibilities of the people.
NEGRO CONGRESSMEN, NEGRO SOLICITORS, NEGRO REVENUE OFFICERS, NEGRO COLLECTORS OF CUSTOMS, NEGROES in charge of white institutions, NEGROES in charge of white schools, NEGROES holding inquests over the white dead, NEGROES controlling the finances of great cities, NEGROES in control of the sanitation and police of cities, NEGRO CONSTABLES arresting white women and white men, NEGRO MAGISTRATES trying white women and white men, white convicts chained to NEGRO CONVICTS and forced to social equality with them, until the proofs rose up, and stood forth “like Pelion on Ossa piled.”….
The battle has been fought, the victory is within our reach. North Carolina is a WHITE MAN’S State, and WHITE MEN will rule it, and they will crush the party of negro domination beneath a majority so overwhelming that no other party will ever again dare to attempt to establish negro rule here.
They CANNOT intimidate us; they CANNOT buy us, and they SHALL NOT cheat us out of the fruits of our victory.
And victory was what the Democrats got in 1898. They gained back five seats in Congress from the Populists and Republicans and a super majority in the General Assembly (2 Populists and a smattering of mountain Republicans remained). While the fusionists won in Wilmington, then the state’s largest city, that lasted all of two days until white supremacists rioted and took over the city council from the elected representatives in what became known as the Wilmington Massacre.
They consolidated their gains in 1900 with the election of Democrat Charles B. Aycock as governor, the appointment of Simmons as US Senator, and a constitutional amendment that imposed both a poll tax and a literacy test. The amendment contained a grandfather clause enabling anyone whose ancestors were eligible to vote prior to 1867 to vote. Voter turnout dropped from around 85% in 1896 to less than 50% thereafter. A Republican would not be governor of North Carolina again until 1972 and a Republican majority in either house of the General Assembly until 2010.
Not only had the Democrats cemented their power but so had Furnifold Simmons. He would serve in the US Senate for 30 years and would use the power of patronage to maintain his control. Only once in the succeeding years was his candidate defeated for governor in the Democratic primary and then he worked to destroy the man. His organization wrote journalist W. J. Cash reached to “the headwaters of every Little Buffalo and Sandy Run in North Carolina; into every alley of every factory town.” The Democratic Party controlled a segregationist North Carolina and the Simmons Machine controlled the Democratic Party.
Part III will cover the passage of the act through the General Assembly in 1919 with the primary sponsor being none other than Simmons’ brother-in-law Sen. Earle A. Humphrey (D-Goldsboro).