The night the Klan met its match

By Chick Jacobs and Venita Jenkins
The Fayetteville Observer, Jan. 18, 2008

MAXTON — The caravans rolled, like clockwork, every Saturday just after nightfall.

Seven, sometimes eight cars. Sedans mostly, long and low, forming an unsettling parade that rolled up U.S. 74 from the south into Maxton. Inside, the dome lights burned, casting the faces of passengers in an eerie, harsh glare.

The Ku Klux Klan wasn’t known for subtlety. But it was known in this part of North Carolina.

“You saw those cars coming, and you knew who those men were,” said Lillie McKoy, a former mayor of Maxton who grew up watching the caravan from her uncle’s store just outside town.

“They wanted you to see them. They wanted you to be afraid of them.”

And a lot of people were afraid. Until the Klan picked a fight with people who fought back.

A half-century ago, in a frosty cornfield about a mile south of Maxton, several hundred American Indians turned what was supposed to be a Klan show of strength into a melee that chased the organization of hooded hatred out of Eastern North Carolina.

Few of the witnesses of that night at Hayes Pond are still around. Those who are share a similar story: The Klan picked the wrong bunch of folks to mess with.

Yet, the tale of how the Klan met its match at the hands of a home-grown army remains a fascinating combination of changing times and long-standing customs — and a critical miscalculation by the grand dragon of the South Carolina Ku Klux Klan.

“Other than complete idiocy, I’m not really sure why you’d hold a rally in a place like that,” said Stan Knick, director of the UNC-Pembroke Native American Resource Center. “You wouldn’t hold a Klan rally in Harlem, would you?”

Christopher Oakley, a history professor at East Carolina University who has studied the melee, said the Klansmen erred twice: in assuming the Indian population would be cowed and that the local whites would support the Klan.

“They totally misread the dynamics of the area,” he said. “They stepped into a situation that was different from the rest of the South.”

The call for the Klan to rally at Maxton came from James W. “Catfish” Cole. A thin, wiry evangelist who preached the gospel of the Lord on the radio every Sunday and his own gospel of bigotry in front of a fiery cross, Cole was the Klan’s exalted grand dragon in South Carolina.

A year earlier, Oakley said, Cole had been commissioned by the Klan’s grand wizard, Eldon Edwards, to revive the Klan in North Carolina. When he heard reports of interracial dating in Robeson County, Cole saw his chance. He called his followers to action. If anything would get their blood boiling, he figured, that should do it.

The Klan had long been quietly present in the area. Each weekend, rolling cars of Klansmen, some still in their hoods, were a common sight in small towns.

But night ridings and beatings, once a common terror tactic of the Klan, had fallen from favor. Solicitor (later N.C. Secretary of State) Malcolm Seawell announced that night riders could face the death penalty.

“Instead, they’d gather at one place, a store or business,” said Clyde Chavis, who remembers the Klan meeting at a downtown Maxton store in the 1950s. “You just didn’t go there then. Let them be.”

In early January 1958, Cole urged the Klan to strike. Members burned a cross in a yard in St. Pauls, warning against “intermingling of whites and Indians.’’ They followed that with a cross at the home of an Indian family who moved into a “white” neighborhood in Lumberton.

The next day, fliers appeared advertising a Klan rally and cross burning in the field near Hayes Pond near Maxton.

Cole bragged that 500 Klansmen from across the Carolinas would gather to “remind those Indians of their place.”

He was right about the number — just not about which side they would be on.

For years, the Lumbee population of Robeson County had been fighting against legislative extinction. Segregation laws differentiated only between a black and white world. The Lumbees were neither.

“They had even created their own school district,” said Oakley, the history professor. “They were adamant in saying they were not white, nor were they black. They were who they were.”

“To most of these guys, it was the same old thing,” Knick said. “They didn’t differentiate between the Indian and black population. They figured to have their usual show and go home.”

That underestimation was a critical blunder.

Ray Littleturtle saw the storm brewing from a distance. He was stationed at Fort Bragg, and he saw the Klan actions becoming more focused on the Indian population.

“It was the first time they really came after Indians,” said Littleturtle, now 70. “They had been bothering black people, but not Indians. But we knew what they were about.”

When Cole called for a rally “in the heart of that mongrelized Indian country,” community leaders began to plan a response. Groups met in the VFW Hall and at Lowery’s Barber Shop in Pembroke.

Leaders emerged: Neill Lowery, Sanford Locklear and Simeon Oxendine.

Oxendine, who already had built a reputation on the football field and as a waist gunner on a B-17 in World War II, was especially vocal in his desire to stop the Klan.

“You didn’t want to get on Sim’s bad side,” said his younger brother Jesse Oxendine. “Folks around here knew that. But I guess the Klan didn’t.”

Still, the plans were low-key until Cole sent a truck announcing the rally through the streets of Robeson County. Suddenly people who hadn’t paid attention were in the middle of the clash.

“When they came through town saying those things over a loudspeaker, that was it,” said Chavis, who lived up the road from Hayes Pond. “Before then, we knew the Klan was around, but they didn’t bother us and we didn’t mess with them.

“But they came through saying all that. It’s like this blew the lid off all of it.”

Local law enforcement was well aware of the brewing trouble. Robeson County Sheriff Malcolm McLeod traveled to South Carolina to ask Cole to call off the rally.

Cole’s reply: “It sounds like you don’t know how to handle your people. We’re going to come show you.”

Maxton Police Chief Bob Fisher asked the state patrol and FBI for help.

“There’s a famous picture of Fisher holding a flier for the rally,” Knick said. “He seemed to be forthcoming to all parties about the potential for fights or worse.”

It seems even the local Klan sympathizers knew better. They stayed away, dwindling Cole’s predicted crowd to about 50. Most of them came with him from South Carolina in one last motorcade through Robeson County.

The rally was set for Saturday, Jan. 18. Rumors swirled through the county, and reportedly ammunition at local gun stores was scarce.

“It was tense, very tense all day,” Chavis recalled. “People knew something was going to happen.’’

Littleturtle remembers the day a little differently.

“It was like you were going to the fair,” he said. “You didn’t know exactly what you were going to do when you got there, but you were excited about going.”

The Klan arrived at the empty cornfield early, just as the sun was setting. They rigged up the tall, wooden cross to be burned later, then set up a floodlight and P.A. system for Cole’s speech. A small flatbed truck served as the podium.

The Indians were getting ready as well. Simeon Oxendine and several war veterans had gathered nearby. Littleturtle rode to the event with friends. Members of the Lumbee, Tuscarora, Cohaire and even other tribes stationed at Fort Bragg arrived.

At 7 p.m., an hour before the rally was supposed to begin, Cole tested his P.A. system and played a reel-to-reel tape of the gospel tune “Kneel at the Cross.” About 50 Klansmen and a few scattered family members cheered. Others stayed in their cars to keep warm on the chilly evening.

A little farther up Hayes Pond Road, carloads of Indians parked and watched. It was soon evident the Indians would outnumber the Klan.

“They came from Prospect and Pembroke, hundreds of people,” said Chavis. “And I really believe that they were gonna kill someone.”

Sheriff McLeod warned Cole one more time to leave. Cole continued his tirade.

“They were talking about blacks, using the ‘n’ word a lot, calling us ‘half-n’s’,” Littleturtle said. “I think their intention was to intimidate us.”

A few minutes before the rally was to begin, Sanford Locklear, who came up from Pembroke, began arguing with Cole. Words became shoves as tempers rose. Then the first shot was fired — a shotgun blast that shattered the only light in the field.

That was enough for most of the Klansmen. As dozens of Indians shot into the air, peppering the field with birdshot, dozens of Klansmen scattered into the woods. Cole was among them, leaving his wife, Carolyn, behind. In a panic, she drove their car into a ditch, where several Indians helped push her out.

“The only thing they left behind was their stuff and their families,” Littleturtle said.

The state patrol, who had been waiting about a mile away, moved in when gunfire broke out. Sheriff McLeod, who later said he didn’t want to be accused of defending the Klan by showing up early, helped find lost Klansmen in the bushes and directed them out of Robeson County. He also booked one Klansman for public drunkenness — the only arrest that night.

Within minutes, and thanks to a couple of tear-gas grenades, the field was clear. “It seemed like an hour, though,” Littleturtle said.

Their foe routed, the victors began collecting spoils. Simeon Oxendine and Charlie Warriax snagged the large KKK banner from the flatbed truck. Others playfully donned some of the Klan robes left behind and fired their shotguns into the air.

Then they held one last Klan parade into Maxton. Some rode in cars and pickups; others marched. The parade and celebration ended with a bonfire of Klan material in Pembroke, where Cole was burned in effigy.

Oxendine and Warriax took their captured banner back to the VFW convention in Charlotte, where they posed for photographers from The Charlotte Observer. The pictures were distributed nationwide, triggering a national response.

The national media pounced on “The Maxton Riot,” gleefully denouncing the Klan and at the same time, showing just how little was known about the Indians of Eastern North Carolina.

“Media reaction was positive — strangely inaccurate, but positive,” Oakley said. “They managed to mix in tribes and customs from everywhere. Some even claimed the Cherokees had beaten the Klan.”

Back in Robeson County, the locals didn’t dwell on the skirmish. But it did give them an identity. They were the group who had stood against the Klan and won.

“We didn’t brag about defending our own land,” Littleturtle said. “We defended it from people who weren’t even from here. Cole was from South Carolina, and none of those guys were local.”

Cole was charged with inciting a riot and received jail time. No Indians were charged.

“That reflects the national opinion of the event,” Oakley said. “And the attitude of the people of Robeson County. Apparently nobody at the Klan rally was local. Ask a white citizen in Robeson at that time and they’d say there were no problems between whites and Indians.”

There hasn’t been a Klan rally in the county since that night — a sign of positive relations, says Lumbee Tribal Chairman Jimmy Goins. He said the tribe should strive to continue the legacy left by tribal elders.

“Because all our communities stood up 50 years ago and said ‘not here,’ all three races can live in peace without fear of outsiders trying to stir things up.

“This has had a positive impact and played a role in bringing all three races together,” Goins said. “No one — black, white or Indian — wanted this kind of mess in our backyard.’’

There was one other notable difference after that night.

“After that, I don’t think I ever saw those cars drive by again with their lights on inside,” McKoy said. “Not once.”

Staff writer Chick Jacobs can be reached at jacobsc@fayobserver.com or 486-3515. Staff writer Venita Jenkins can be reached at jenkinsv@fayobserver.com or (910) 738-9158.

1 comment:

  1. Lumbee's on the warpath...I wish I was there to help them.

    ReplyDelete