DES MOINES, Iowa – The first Black chair of Iowa’s Democratic Party says he received a series of racist messages, including a lynching threat, after writing an opinion piece in a local newspaper criticizing former President Donald Trump and the state Republican officials who stood with him at a recent rally in Des Moines.
Ross Wilburn, who is also a state representative from Ames, reported the threatening phone and email messages to local police and state investigators. The messages came after The Des Moines Register's online publication of Wilburn's op-ed on Oct. 8, the day before thousands of Trump supporters gathered at the Iowa State Fairgrounds for the rally. Several in the crowd carried Confederate flags.
Wilburn's experience is part of an uptick in racist and threatening communications aimed at Black leaders in Iowa and across the country, according to targets of the communications and a group that monitors them. The rise in threats against public officials began with the start of the pandemic as COVID-19 restrictions were implemented and continued through the divisive 2020 election, according to the Southern Law Poverty Law Center.
“With only some of our political leaders condemning that violence appropriately, these extremists are getting the message that making threats of violence is an acceptable way of doing business here," said Michael Hayden, a researcher with the nonprofit group that tracks far-right figures and organizations.
Wilburn said he received an anonymous voicemail message at his home with the lynching threat on Oct. 9. A day later, Wilburn received another voicemail that included a racial epithet and a profanity-laden email to his state legislative account that also included the racist term, he said. Police confirmed Tuesday that they are investigating the messages sent to Wilburn.
The Register was the first to report on the messages.
Wilburn, party chair since January and a legislator since 2019, wrote in his op-ed that Trump “openly attacked the foundations of our democracy" by continuing to assert that widespread fraud had cost him the 2020 election, false claims that have been rejected by a succession of judges, by state election officials and by Trump’s own attorney general, William Barr. The claims led supporters of Trump to storm the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 to stop the certification of Joe Biden's victory, Wilburn noted.
But he took sharper aim at the Iowa Republicans who appeared at the Iowa rally, in particular Sen. Chuck Grassley and Gov. Kim Reynolds, saying they had “surrendered themselves" to Trump.
Speaking to reporters Tuesday, Wilburn said Trump hasn't stood up to white nationalists who support him.
“What makes this particular set of incidents more intense is just the past few years, the willingness of certain individuals to be more vocal," Wilburn said, referring to the threats to himself. “Layered innuendo comes forward with comments people make, I think, that has increased over the past few years."
On Twitter, Grassley denounced racism and threats of violence to Wilburn, while Reynolds linked to an article about the threats to Wilburn and added, “This type of hate must never be tolerated.”
With a Black population of just 4% in 2020, Iowa ranks among the 10 whitest states in the country. Five members of the 150-seat Iowa Legislature are Black — just 3%.
Democratic Rep. Ross Smith, who is also Black, said Wilburn's experience has become more familiar.
Smith, who represents Iowa City, says he has seen racist attempts at intimidation since he ran for the Iowa House in 2016. That year, he and other Black candidates received pamphlets from a group calling itself “The New KKK" that stated lynching is “for amateurs.”
“It's not new. But the level of intensity has reached the next level," said Smith, who is seeking his party's nomination for governor.
Smith said he was threatened anonymously after arguing in 2017 against the now-law that allows armed Iowans to use deadly force in self-defense. Smith wore a hooded sweatshirt during a debate to make the point that clothes can prompt stereotypes, and he said he received a message saying that if he dresses that way, “you deserve whatever you get."
Smith said Trump's hesitation to condemn white nationalism allowed such behavior to fester. He noted Trump's comment that there were “very fine people on both sides” after a white supremacist killed a counterprotester during violent clashes in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017.
Deidre DeJear, the first Black person to win a statewide primary in Iowa when she ran for secretary of state in 2018, said anonymous acts of hate come from fear fomented by leaders at a time of uncertainty. The global pandemic and the wave of calls for racial justice have fueled anxiety, she said.
“We’ve got people feeding into those fears, especially given the uncertainty over the last 18 or 19 months," said said DeJear, who is also a Democratic candidate for governor. “That's unconscionable."