An Attempted Coup and Its Connection to North Carolina’s Past, Present, and Future

by Chantal Stevens, Executive Director of the ACLU of North Carolina

2021 began with an historic victory for voting rights in Georgia, in large part because of the Black and Brown people who showed up at the polls. But that joy was quickly wrested away by an assault on our democracy.  I’ve been glued to the news—I imagine that you have, too.  While much remains unclear, there is no doubt that the violent mob that stormed the Capitol engaged in a failed coup attempt. Information keeps coming out about how something like this could have happened. For North Carolinians, though, this failed coup attempt resonates with a history that is way too familiar to us.
In 1898, Wilmington experienced its own insurrection led by a white mob angered by the local election results. Unlike the attempted coup in Washington, D.C. in 2021, the Wilmington coup was successful. It violently removed democratically elected Black leaders from their posts and massacred dozens. The motivation for Wilmington’s coup and the recent failed coup attempt we witnessed is one and the same: white supremacy. 
Wednesday’s events were not protests—we know protests. These were manifestations of white power that refuses to concede the outcome of a legitimate election, endorsed by our current President. President Trump and some members of Congress who wanted to set aside the Electoral College vote incited these violent acts. We must acknowledge our own state’s delegation’s complicity in obstructing the democratic process by protesting the election’s certification. Seven of North Carolina’s congressional members were complicit in undermining the election’s legitimacy despite no evidence provided of election fraud - and they must be held accountable.
Indeed, the attempted coup at the Capitol has led to widespread calls for President Trump’s removal from office, recognizing that he is an imminent threat to our constitutional democracy. Beyond that, however, the Biden administration and Congress must take concrete steps to ensure our democracy is protected from future attempts to unlawfully seize power by unconstitutional means or undermine our electoral system. 

Another truth compounded Wednesday’s insurrection – those involved would have been treated very differently by law enforcement if they were Black. It’s an unsettling contrast to the response we saw during this summer’s peaceful protests around the country (including Washington, D.C.) calling for racial justice and police accountability.  In June, we saw how the State used any means necessary to quell protests in our own state. The ACLU of North Carolina’s Campaign for Smart Justice manager Kristie Puckett-Williams, along with hundreds of peaceful protesters in Charlotte, were subjected to the brutal tactics and violence that the government will swiftly take when Black people are protesting. There is no doubt that there is a double standard that enabled January 6th’s horrific acts, one that is driven by racism. 
We stand in solidarity with all of our ACLU colleagues, supporters, coalition partners, community organizers, advocates, and millions of Americans who are being re-traumatized by these senseless, indefensible acts. We condemn white supremacy, those who perpetrate it, and those who are complicit in it.
Let us be clear - how the government responds will shape the future of our democracy, and we will not waver from relentlessly pursuing truth and accountability. We have to recognize that this insurrection and the white supremacy embedded within it are part of who we are. Our issues go beyond who the President is; instead, they hint at what lies beneath. White supremacy is not the shark, but the water we are swimming in. 

It pains me to acknowledge that, but we must if we ever hope to find a path forward. White supremacy is part of our country’s dark truths. But it doesn’t have to be who we will always be. Together, we must continue to speak truth to power. We must challenge white supremacy at every turn. We must vote and ultimately ensure that the voters choose our country’s path. Most of all, we must hold ourselves and those who incite and engage in such terrible acts accountable. We have witnessed shocking history happening right before our eyes, but there’s still time to redeem our country.