Democracy is Under Siege in Small Town USA

Wilmington, N.C. race riot, 1898: Armed rioters in front of the burned-down “Record” press building – Public Domain

Can a racist coup happen in America? I was in Wilmington, North Carolina on the day the congressional hearings into the events of January 6th began, and to this question I heard a resounding, “Yes.”

“It would be easier for people to understand what could have happened on January 6th in D.C. if they knew what actually happened on November 10th in 1898 in Wilmington,” Cedric Harrison told me.

Harrison leads Black heritage tours around Wilmington. It was on a different scale from January 6th. In 1898, bleeding bodies filled the rivers and the streets. Men drove through residential neighborhoods with guns—including a machine gun—firing bullets. Families ran away and hid in the cemetery and the swamps.

“But a lot of folks will go about their days denying that things like this ever happened,” said Harrision. “It happened, and January 6th is clear proof that the same mindset exists today.”

Driving west, we headed to Whiteville, the county seat of Columbus County, one of the largest counties in the state with one of the smallest populations, around 57,000 total. There, a sheriff who once described himself as an Oath Keeper was recently elected by just 37 votes in a contested election in 2018 and went on to acquire $3.8 million in decommissioned military hardware from Donald Trump’s Department of Defense under a federal program. Now, he has two helicopters, two “mine-resistant vehicles,” and riot shields.

Why? Local residents have no idea, but they do recall that when they held a Gospel Protest after the police killing of George Floyd, they found themselves observed by what several described to us as “snipers” on top of the largest building looking down on their sleepy courthouse square. What’s going on?

Sheriff Greene wouldn’t talk to us, but others did. They’re worried. If the Congressional hearings have taught us anything, it is that democracy lives or dies at the local level in out-of-the-way places like Whiteville, where the media rarely come.

“It’s a hostile takeover kind of thing that we’re seeing,” one young man in Whiteville told me. But are we as a nation really seeing?

What if, for every minute national media spent watching Washington, we spent thirty seconds studying power in a small rural town? We’d all be smarter, and some might be safer. How about it?

You can watch the second in our series of reports from North Carolina on the local roots of the January 6th Insurrection on over 300 PBS stations all week, as well as on YouTube or subscribe to the free podcast. Or read my article in the Nation Magazine.  All the information is at

Laura Flanders interviews forward-thinking people about the key questions of our time on The Laura Flanders Show, a nationally syndicated radio and television program also available as a podcast. A contributing writer to The Nation, Flanders is also the author of six books, including The New York Times best-seller, BUSHWOMEN: Tales of a Cynical Species.  She is the recipient of a 2019 Izzy Award for excellence in independent journalism, the Pat Mitchell Lifetime Achievement Award for advancing women’s and girls’ visibility in media and a 2020 Lannan Cultural Freedom Fellowship for her reporting and advocacy for public media.