Wilmington's Lie: Book summary and reviews of Wilmington's Lie by David Zucchino

Wilmington's Lie

The Murderous Coup of 1898 and the Rise of White Supremacy

by David Zucchino

Wilmington's Lie by David Zucchino X
Wilmington's Lie by David Zucchino
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Book Summary

Winner of the 2021 Pulitzer Prize for Nonfiction, a searing account of the Wilmington riot and coup of 1898, an extraordinary event unknown to most Americans.

By the 1890s, Wilmington was North Carolina's largest city and a shining example of a mixed-race community. It was a bustling port city with a burgeoning African American middle class and a Fusionist government of Republicans and Populists that included black aldermen, police officers and magistrates. There were successful black-owned businesses and an African American newspaper, The Record. But across the state—and the South—white supremacist Democrats were working to reverse the advances made by former slaves and their progeny.

In 1898, in response to a speech calling for white men to rise to the defense of Southern womanhood against the supposed threat of black predators, Alexander Manly, the outspoken young Record editor, wrote that some relationships between black men and white women were consensual. His editorial ignited outrage across the South, with calls to lynch Manly.

But North Carolina's white supremacist Democrats had a different strategy. They were plotting to take back the state legislature in November "by the ballot or bullet or both," and then use the Manly editorial to trigger a "race riot" to overthrow Wilmington's multi-racial government. Led by prominent citizens including Josephus Daniels, publisher of the state's largest newspaper, and former Confederate Colonel Alfred Moore Waddell, white supremacists rolled out a carefully orchestrated campaign that included raucous rallies, race-baiting editorials and newspaper cartoons, and sensational, fabricated news stories.

With intimidation and violence, the Democrats suppressed the black vote and stuffed ballot boxes (or threw them out), to win control of the state legislature on November eighth. Two days later, more than 2,000 heavily armed Red Shirts swarmed through Wilmington, torching the Record office, terrorizing women and children, and shooting at least sixty black men dead in the streets. The rioters forced city officials to resign at gunpoint and replaced them with mob leaders. Prominent blacks—and sympathetic whites—were banished. Hundreds of terrified black families took refuge in surrounding swamps and forests.

This brutal insurrection is a rare instance of a violent overthrow of an elected government in the U.S. It halted gains made by blacks and restored racism as official government policy, cementing white rule for another half century. It was not a "race riot," as the events of November 1898 came to be known, but rather a racially motivated rebellion launched by white supremacists.

In Wilmington's Lie, Pulitzer Prize-winner David Zucchino uses contemporary newspaper accounts, diaries, letters and official communications to create a gripping and compelling narrative that weaves together individual stories of hate and fear and brutality. This is a dramatic and definitive account of a remarkable but forgotten chapter of American history.

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Book Awards

  • award image Pulitzer Prize Winners, 2021


Media Reviews

"A gripping account of the overthrow of the elected government of a Black-majority North Carolina city after Reconstruction that untangles a complicated set of power dynamics cutting across race, class and gender." —2021 Pulitzer Prize Committee for General Nonfiction

"A judicious and riveting new history…The publication of a book like Zucchino's, [is] a sign that, however late and reluctantly, America is becoming conscious of the racial violence that insured white supremacy after Reconstruction."—New Yorker

"Brilliant…Zucchino, a contributing writer for the New York Times, does not overwrite the scenes. His moral judgement stands at a distance. He simply describes what happened and the lies told to justify it all…The details contained in the last part of the book are heart-wrenching. With economy and a cinematic touch, Zucchino recounts the brutal assault on black Wilmington."—New York Times

"In Wilmington's Lie, David Zucchino, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who has covered conflicts around the world, punctures the myths surrounding the insurrection and provides a dynamic and detailed account of the lives of perpetrators and victims…Deeply researched and profoundly relevant, Wilmington's Lie explains how [the coup] happened and suggests how much work remains to be done to come to terms with what took place."—Washington Post

"This is an amazing story."—Dave Davies, NPR's Fresh Air

"David Zucchino offers a gripping account of one of the most disturbing, though virtually unknown, political events in American history…Thanks to Mr. Zucchino's unflinching account, we now have the full, appalling story. As befits a serious journalist, he avoids polemics and lets events speak for themselves. Wilmington's Lie joins a growing shelf of works that unpeel the brutal realities of the post-Civil War South…it is books such as these, not least Wilmington's Lie, that have redeemed the truth of post-Civil War history from the tenacious mythology of racism."—Wall Street Journal

"In his new book, the Pulitzer prize-winning journalist David Zucchino illuminates a harrowing historical incident, the Wilmington coup of 1898, that is long forgotten by most. In doing so, he does a lot to explain our own interesting times… In his riveting book, Zucchino retells one horrifying attempt to re-establish the "rightful place" of former slaves: starkly isolated, with scant hope of parity."—Guardian

"Wilmington's Lie shows how effectively people in power can distort history. And yet it also proves that the past isn't easily erased. We still don't know how many black people died in Wilmington, and we also don't know many of their names. But the truth—much of it—has finally come out."—Charlotte Observer

"Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Zucchino cuts through a century of propaganda, myth, and big white lies to unmask the stunning history of the Wilmington coup, its origins in the political climate of the era, and its far-reaching implications for North Carolina and the rest of the resurgent Confederacy in the decades that followed."—New York Journal of Books

"The dumbfounding, true story in David Zucchino's Wilmington's Lie [is] so lacerating, so appalling you often can't believe what you're reading. I hope this powerful book helps preserve this bad memory for a long time… Zucchino is your ideal guide. The Pulitzer Prize-winner and former Inquirer staffer is a tireless, resourceful reporter, an incisive social analyst, and a direct, often elegant writer."—Philadelphia Inquirer

"Brilliant…Zucchino reports his way through the action and the personal stories with great care, culminating in the central story that has been covered up over the last century: the stunning overthrow of the legitimately elected Wilmington city government…David Zucchino dedicates Wilmington's Lie "to the dead and banished, known and unknown." Through this act of documenting, he brings truth to the lie."—Southern Review of Books

"Wilmington's Lie is a riveting and mesmerizing page turner, with lessons about racial violence that echo loudly today."—BookPage

"Usually, when we read history, we at least have a cursory knowledge of the subject at hand. Sometimes, however, a book comes along that just surprises. How did we not know about this before? we ask ourselves. Wilmington's Lie is such a book…We did not have to wait long for the first great history book of the new decade." —Chris Schluep, Amazon "Best of January" Selection

"Pierces layers of myth and invented history ... Wilmington's Lie reconstructs the only violent overthrow of an elected government in U.S. history, tying the white supremacist bloodshed to political goals that are still relevant today."—Shelf Awareness

"Extremely compelling and convincing...Even astute readers of history and civil rights will be alarmed by this story, which is why it should be read. For fans of American history, politics, and civil rights."—Library Journal

"Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Zucchino delivers a searing chronicle of the November 1898 white supremacist uprising in Wilmington, N.C., that overthrew the municipal government…Drawing on a wealth of primary sources, Zucchino paints a disturbing portrait of the massacre and how it was covered up by being described as a "race riot" sparked by African-Americans. This masterful account reveals a shameful chapter in American history."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

"Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Zucchino shines his reporter's spotlight on what he aptly calls a murderous coup as well as exploring its background and longterm consequences…The result is both a page-turner and a sobering reminder of democracy's fragility."—Booklist

"A searing and still-relevant tale of racial injustice at the turn of the 20th century… A book that does history a service by uncovering a shameful episode, one that resonates strongly today."—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

"One of the great journalists of our time has placed his discerning eye on the steaming cauldron of our shared racial history. The result is this extraordinary book written with the superb quality and journalistic excellence that is Zucchino's trademark." —James McBride, National Book Award–winning author of The Good Lord Bird

"David Zucchino is one of the finest foreign correspondents I have ever worked with in 40 years of journalism. Now imagine you take someone with David's reporting skills and transport him back in history to 1898 and Wilmington, North Carolina. And you tell him to tell us the story of the only violent overthrow of an elected government in American history. It was perpetrated by white supremacists seeking to reverse the remarkable advances in racial pluralism in Wilmington of that day—a positive example that was primed to spread throughout the state, and beyond. What you end up with is a gripping, cannot-put-down book that is both history and a distant mirror on just how much can go wrong in this great country of ours when populist politicians play the race card without restraint."—Thomas L. Friedman, New York Times columnist

"A staggeringly great book, both thrilling and tragic, shining light on a dark passage of American history." —Tim Weiner, National Book Award–winning author of Legacy of Ashes

"Wilmington's Lie is riveting and meticulously reported and powerfully written. It is also scalding and revelatory. As David Zucchino shows with relentless drama, the end of the Civil War was not the end of slavery but the beginning of a period more terrifying, the unchecked rise of white supremacy that culminated in a day of unparalleled blood in a North Carolina coastal town. It is a forgotten chapter in American history. Zucchino has now made it an unforgettable one." —Buzz Bissinger, author of Friday Night Lights

This information about Wilmington's Lie shown above was first featured in "The BookBrowse Review" - BookBrowse's membership magazine, and in our weekly "Publishing This Week" newsletter. In most cases, the reviews are necessarily limited to those that were available to us ahead of publication. If you are the publisher or author and feel that the reviews shown do not properly reflect the range of media opinion now available, please send us a message with the mainstream media reviews that you would like to see added.

Any "Author Information" displayed below reflects the author's biography at the time this particular book was published.

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Author Information

David Zucchino

David Zucchino is a contributing writer for The New York Times. He has covered wars and civil conflicts in more than three dozen countries. Zucchino was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for his dispatches from apartheid South Africa and is a four-time Pulitzer Prize finalist for his reporting from Iraq, Lebanon, Africa, and inner-city Philadelphia. He is the author of Thunder Run and Myth of the Welfare Queen.

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