The Red Shirts were armed gangs of white men acting as a terrorist and intimidation wing of the Democratic Party in the state elections of 1898 and 1900. The Red Shirts received their name from loose red tunics worn as uniforms. The costumes, in turn, derived from the South Carolina Red Shirts, another white supremacy group that sought to end Republican Reconstruction in that state in the 1870s.
In 1898 the political strategy of the North Carolina Democratic Party, which had lost power to Populist and Republican Fusionists in 1894, was to regain control of the General Assembly by emphasizing the danger of African American office holding and voting. Early in the campaign, Democratic leaders recognized that success would depend on more than logical persuasion. As a result, they used Red Shirts to threaten and intimidate black and white Populists and Republicans.
The Red Shirts played a substantial role in the 1898 election, which produced the first Democratic General Assembly since 1893. Red Shirts were organized as groups of mounted men, often masked, who carried pistols, rifles, and shotguns. Centered in the eastern part of the state, they made threats of death and physical or economic harm to political opponents. Red Shirts broke up anti-Democratic meetings and prevented Fusionist candidates from speaking. They also engaged in direct forms of violence: beatings and whippings of African Americans, assaults on candidates, and murder. While roaming in rural areas, they shot into opponents' residences. On election day 1898, Red Shirts prevented non-Democrats from getting to polls. One gang mobbed the train of Republican governor Daniel L. Russell Jr. at Hamlet, while others paraded in front of the governor's mansion. The Red Shirts appear to have attracted men from various economic classes; well-known ministers, for example, led their processions. Prominent Red Shirts included future congressman Claude Kitchin and future governor Cameron Morrison.
In 1899 Democratic legislators planned to guarantee the party's continued rule by formally disfranchising its opponents. The device for this grip on state government was a constitutional amendment limiting the right to vote, for which an election was to be held in August 1900.
Once again Red Shirts were called upon for violence and intimidation. In Smithfield, they attacked a Populist speaker's platform. Red Shirts beat and threatened Populists, dragged African Americans from their homes and whipped them, and threatened opposition voters with death if they appeared at polls. In 1900 they collected large stores of arms, harassed opposition orators, and stole Fusionist mail. Populist U.S. senator Marion Butler was assaulted by Red Shirts when he tried to leave a train in eastern North Carolina. In contrast, Red Shirts escorted their Democratic heroes, including future governor Charles B. Aycock. Advertising the muscle of white supremacy, they appeared frequently at Aycock's rallies in the eastern part of the state. Rather than an accidental by-product of white supremacy fervor, Red Shirt violence was planned by Democratic officials. It is likely, for instance, that campaign funds raised by the state party were used to hire Red Shirts and to buy alcohol for them.
The bloody campaigns of intimidation were successful. Voting results indicate fraud and massive declines in black turnout. Democrats, including Josephus Daniels, Furnifold M. Simmons, and Aycock, justified the admittedly criminal acts of 1898 and 1900 as necessary given the "evil" of black political participation. Red Shirts' activities demonstrated the expediency of the politics of white supremacy, the limited appeal of universal democracy among North Carolina's early twentieth-century leaders, and the persistence of violence as a political tactic.
Helen G. Edmonds, The Negro and Fusion Politics in North Carolina, 1894-1901 (1951).
James L. Hunt, "Marion Butler and the Populist Ideal, 1863-1938" (Ph.D. diss., University of Wisconsin, 1990).
J. Morgan Kousser, The Shaping of Southern Politics: Suffrage Restriction and the Establishment of the One-Party South, 1880-1910 (1974).
Robert W. Wooley, "Race and Politics: The Evolution of the White Supremacy Campaign of 1898 in North Carolina" (Ph.D. diss., UNC-Chapel Hill, 1977).
Prather, H.Leon. "The Red Shirt Movement in North Carolina 1898-1900", Journal of Negro History 62.2 (1977): 174-184.
Edmonds, Helen G. The Negro and Fusion politics in North Carolina 1894-1901, Chapel Hill:The University of North Carolina Press, 1951.
"White Men Show Their Determination to Rid themselves of Negro Rule: A thousand Red Shirts", Morning Star, 2 November 1898, Special Star Telegram: p. 1.
"Riots in North Carolina: Red Shirts Drive Off Populist Speakers and Destroy Stand", New York Times, 2 August 1900.
"Shirt, Accession #: H.19XX.330.32." 1898-1900. North Carolina Museum of History.
1 January 2006 | Hunt, James L.