NY Journal of Books Reviews Wilmington's Lie: The Murderous Coup of 1898 and the Rise of White Supremacy

Historians in the News

The curtain of segregation and white supremacy fell so hard on African Americans in the first six decades of the 20th century that, in hindsight, its crushing power takes on a certain air of inevitability. As a result, sometimes we tend to overlook the particulars of its origins.

We know that the Supreme Court’s unanimous decision in Brown v. Board of Education (1954) dismantled the legal underpinnings of Southern segregation and the entrenched doctrine of “separate but equal,” as established 58 years earlier in another landmark court ruling, Plessy v. Ferguson (1896).

But the codification of that “separate but equal” doctrine and the brutal, decidedly unequal conditions of segregation for which it cleared the way was hardly an inevitable consequence of prevailing attitudes on race at the turn of the century. Likewise, its judicial reversal in Brown—or the prolonged, painful, costly, and unfinished struggle to make Brown’s challenge to white supremacy stick—didn’t simply happen because the immutable forces of history had their way.

The negation of the egalitarian impulses of Congressional Reconstruction and the triumph of segregation at the turn of the century didn’t begin with Plessy. The white supremacist revolution that overturned the seemingly self-evident implications of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments and African Americans’ relentless struggle for self-determination came about not, primarily, through the tidy outcomes of court cases, legislation, or electorally articulated popular will. Rather, white supremacy consolidated its power through political calculation, racist defamation, intimidation, terrorism, and premeditated, remorseless violence.

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