A book published by Grove Atlantic Press a year ago is receiving renewed attention due to the insurrection that took place in the U.S. Capitol building a year almost to the day after the book’s release. Wilmington’s Lie: The Murderous Coup of 1898 and the Rise of White Supremacy by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Zucchino, was released on January. 7, 2020, and tells the story of a coup that took place in 1898 in Wilmington, N.C., an integrated city with a prosperous Black middle class run by a mixed race coalition of leaders.
As Wilmington's Lie relates, as the 1898 midterm elections loomed, powerful white supremacists from around North Carolina plotted to take over the state legislature by turning poor white farmers against Black people. Their strategies included raucous rallies, race-baiting editorials and editorial cartoons, as well as blatant voter suppression. After winning the legislature on November 8, the white supremacists turned their attention to Wilmington -- burning down buildings and murdering some of the city's Black residents while others fled. City officials were forced to resign at gunpoint, replaced by mob leaders who made racism official policy for years to come.
Last Thursday evening, January 14, the Southern Independent Booksellers Association hosted Zucchino as part of its twice-weekly Reader Meet Writer webinar series. Entitled “Looking to the Past to Understand the Present,” almost 200 viewers listened in as novelist Wiley Cash engaged in a lively conversation with Zucchino.
“The goal of the white supremacists was to split off the white populace from the Black and white [political allies] and they did that by playing on racial fears,” Zucchino said, “They were going to take their country back. And that’s the same language Donald Trump has been using.”
“This was the only successful coup in American history,” Cash noted, “To outsiders, it was characterized as a race riot, when it was in reality a coup, a race massacre. I’m thinking of the events of last Wednesday; right afterwards, Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida said right from the floor of the House that Antifa had broken into the building, which we all knew wasn’t true. We’re still trying to mischaracterize what our eyes see.”
“The 1898 coup was domestic terrorism, a political coup based on white supremacy,” Zucchino said, pointing out that the Wilmington massacre was not a spontaneous outburst, but, rather, was premeditated. “I see a whole lot of parallels to what happened in the Capitol the other day, the chief of which is misinformation. That is Trump’s specialty. His message is that Black and brown people and immigrants are stealing their country from [Trump’s base of white people]. That’s the same message that the 1898 whites got from their leaders. The coup at the Capitol was not successful, but I think there’s no other way to characterize it except as a political coup to overthrow a legitimately-elected government.”
“The Wilmington coup was a harsh lesson,” Zucchino added, “Know your history.”
Nonfiction, Fiction About the 1898 Coup
Deb Seager, Grove publicity director, noted that Wilmington’s Lie was received with much media attention and good reviews when it was released a year ago, and has sold close to 30,000 copies across hardcover and digital formats. “The book came out, and had a lot of attention," Seager said. "Events this past year kept people coming back to this book.” Besides speaking with Cash in the SIBA webinar, Zucchino wrote an essay for LitHub about the insurrection at the Capitol and CBS Saturday Morning aired a segment this past weekend comparing the Wilmington massacre to the Capitol insurrection; it included an interview with Zucchino.
The paperback edition of Wilmington's Lie is being released today and Grove has gone back to press for 5,000 copies to augment the first run of 7,000. “People are really interested in the similarities to what happened at the U.S. Capitol,” Seager said, speculating that as an investigation delves into the recent insurrection, interest about the Wilmington massacre will remain.
While a few nonfiction accounts of the Wilmington massacre have been published in the past century, in 2019 Blair Publishing, a small nonprofit press in Durham, N.C., released an updated edition of a novel about the event, Cape Fear Rising by Philip Gerard, a creative writing professor at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. Cape Fear Rising was originally published in 1994 by the now-defunct John F. Blair Publisher. Blair Publishing's 25th year anniversary edition, published in 2019, features an introduction written by the late Randall Kenan and an essay by Gerard recalling the negative local reaction, including by Wilmington’s leaders, to his novel.
“We reissued this novel because we thought it was so important,” publisher Lynn York told PW, “This was a book that was relevant 25 years ago and remains relevant today.” While not able to provide sales figures, York said that sales of the updated edition of Cape Fear Rising remain steady, although there was an uptick in June and July, at the height of the Black Lives Matter protests. “It’s still too early [since the events of January 6] to know about sales, but we may see more,” she said.
A film adaptation of Cape Fear Rising has been optioned by Jason and Jamie Neese, co-producers of the "Umbrella Academy," who are partnering with NBA basketball star Chris Paul's movie company to produce a 10-episode series for Netflix.
“They fully see the resonance with the current circumstances: white supremacist thugs who don't recognize the validity of an election resorting to violence,” Gerard told PW, disclosing that, after watching the insurrection unfold on live television, he started revising a nonfiction book he has been working on that has the working title of Toward a Perfect Union: Why America Lost the Civil War and How to Win it Now.
While Malaprop’s Bookstore in Asheville, N.C., does not currently have Cape Fear Rising in stock, sales of Wilmington’s Lie have been strong, with 70 copies sold to date of the hardcover edition and 10 preorders of the paperback. “We just got the paperback in,” said senior buyer/bookstore manager Justin Souther, “Ten’s a really healthy number, especially during this pandemic.”