ROBERT SMITH, host:
This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Robert Smith. All this month, we're focusing on how race affects politics. Many of you have contributed your thoughts on the issue, and later we'll hear from two listeners. But first, we revisit an era when discussions about race and politics could turn violent.
Ms. BERTHA TODD (Teacher): Some of the elderly African-American citizens told my stepfather that the Cape Fear River was running red with blood.
SMITH: That's teacher Bertha Todd talking about the 1898 race riot in Wilmington, North Carolina. It was an election year, and Democrats then had a plan to take power in the state. They campaigned on a platform of white supremacy and protecting their women from black men. George Roundtree was a Democrat and a white civic leader at the time. His grandson George Roundtree III reads from his grandfather's memoir.
(Soundbite of George Rountree's Memoir)
Mr. GEORGE ROUNDTREE III: (Reading) It became evident to our committee that if the Negroes were nominated for office, we would have an exceedingly difficult time to beat them. It was not a great while before the businessmen in the city were deeply interested in the campaign and the supremacy of the white race. And of course, a considerable amount of money was necessary to do all the things which we intended to do.
SMITH: Those plans included organized militias to intimidate blacks from voting. Two days after the 1898 election, one of those red-shirt militias formed to march through the streets of Wilmington. They were headed to burn down the offices of the local black newspaper. No one's sure how many African-Americans died in the riots, but some estimate as many as 90 were killed. Now, Wilmington was a port town and at the time had an integrated city government. After the riots in the streets, the white supremacists forced the mayor and members of the city council to resign. It's the only coup d'etat in U.S. history. Their leader, Colonel Alfred Moore Waddell, told a reporter...
Unidentified Actor: (As Colonel Alfred Moore Waddell) The old government had become satisfied of their inefficiency and believed if they did not resign, they would be run out of town.
SMITH: George Roundtree would soon go on to spearhead efforts in North Carolina to make voting more difficult for poor blacks and immigrants. Again, his grandson George Roundtree III...
Mr. ROUNDTREE III: The obvious test for intelligence was reading and writing. It would exclude all those immigrants that were coming into our country at the rate of a million a year until they had qualified themselves, and would exclude a large number of ignorant and stupid Negroes until they had qualified themselves.
SMITH: Southerners were careful to give the voting restrictions a veneer of legality. At least that's what William Everett Henderson wrote. He was a Wilmington lawyer at the time, exiled by the coup. His great granddaughter Lisa Adams reads from his papers.
(Soundbite of William Everett Henderson's Memoir)
Ms. LISA ADAMS: (Reading) So now we have bold and unscrupulous legislative enactments and open defiance of the national Constitution, and that last Earthly tribunal, the U.S. Supreme Court, well knows the intent.
SMITH: Some of those restrictions would remain in effect throughout the South until the civil rights era of the 1950s. This historical footnote is adapted from independent producer Alan Lipke's "Between Civil War and Civil Rights" documentary series.