18 March 2009
The Lumbee were at the edge of their patience. Though recognized as an Indian tribe by the state of North Carolina (they had been since 1885, in fact), they had struggled for decades in Washington, where lawmakers repeatedly refused them federal recognition. Nevertheless, by the time Congress allowed a half-measure (it acknowledged indigenous lineage for the tribe, but would not officially recognize it), the Lumbee were facing an uglier problem entirely: Catfish Cole.
James W. "Catfish" Cole lived across the border in South Carolina, where he proudly wore the title of Ku Klux Klan "Grand Dragon". Having previously used his oratory talents as a carnival barker, Cole was an outspoken bigot indeed. By the mid-1950s, he had designs on becoming the dominant white supremacist in the Carolinas: he aimed to make the two sister states his kingdom. To this end, he began making inroads into the as-yet unconquered Tar Heel State. It would be a spectacular, Napoleonic failure.
Cole's first mistake was to target a black doctor in Union County named Albert Perry. Perry funded the local chapter of the NAACP, whose president was Robert F Williams, the yin to Martin Luther King's yang in the Civil Rights Movement. Williams believed in armed resistance, in protecting his race and his loved ones using whatever forceful means necessary. Needless to say, when he got wind of Cole's plan against Dr Perry, he was not pleased. When Cole brought his motorcade of Klansmen to Perry's house in Monroe, NC, he couldn't have expected a force of 60 armed black men standing sentry in rotating shifts behind makeshift bunker reinforcements. Williams' homespun militia immediately fired upon Cole's motorcade, which promptly fled.
The citizens of Monroe were disgusted by the Klan's incitement of race violence in their area (the Monroe Journal called it an "uncivilized incident"), and the next day an emergency ordinance was passed banning Klan demonstrations countywide. As a result, Cole retreated to Robeson County.
The Lumbee must have seemed an acceptable consolation target for Cole. He considered them "mongrels" and was outspokenly disgusted by their presence in his region. The Federal Government's 1957 Lumbee Act--which acknowledged the tribe's native ancestry--insensed Cole, inspiring him to target what he saw as a scourge on his utopian vision for the Carolinas. To Cole, the Lumbee represented something threatening to the established order of the Jim Crow South: a bridge between white and black.
One of Cole's favorite talking points was the protection of Southern white womanhood. He saw it as a Southern man's duty to keep inferior races from seducing the delicate flower that was the Southern white woman. Interracial sex was the worst sin imaginable: it was "mongrelization."
In the opening weeks of 1958, Cole began his campaign of terror in Robeson County. He instructed his Klansmen to burn crosses outside Lumbee residences, and made speeches about the inferiority of the Lumbee race and the lack of morality among the women. Finally, he planned to hold a massive rally to show minorities in eastern North Carolina that they were subjects in his territory and should "remember their place" in white America. Fliers were distributed, and Cole blusteringly predicted that upwards of 500 armed Klansmen would be in attendance.
The Lumbee had had enough.
Robeson sheriff Malcolm McLeod certainly sensed it. He drove down to South Carolina to warn Cole that he would be putting himself in danger if he persisted with his plans. Undaunted, Cole set the date of the rally for the night of January 18th by Hayes Pond, near the small town of Maxton, NC.
Cole's attendance prediction was delusional: only about 50 Klansmen, some having brought their families, were present for the beginning of the rally, which was lit by a single lightbulb hanging from a pole. A Klan banner and a cross (for burning) were erected, and Cole began to test the address system he had rigged up on the bed of his truck. Before he could begin speaking, however, an anonymous gunshot rang out, shattering the one light. Plunged into darkness, the Klansmen then heard the shrill whoop of screaming Lumbee from all directions: they had been encircled. They had been ambushed.
Cole and his cohort were unaware that 500 Lumbee men, armed with rifles and shotguns and tired of the unchecked bigotry waged against them, had amassed just over the highway from the rally site. There they gathered, waiting for the signal; the atmosphere among them was described as "tense" and "excited". Upon hearing Cole's voice, they surged across the road and surrounded the Klan, opening fire into the sky.
Chaos ensued. The Klan scattered in all directions, ran for the woods and for their cars, abandoning the paraphernalia and firearms. They feared for their lives, though only four were actually hurt in the melee. Victorious, the Lumbee allowed the whites to escape. Sheriff McLeod and the county police moved in shortly after the gunfire began, but order was already established. They helped the Lumbee find various Klansmen hiding in bushes and in the woods, and promptly directed them out of Robeson County. Only one arrest was made: a Klan member, for public drunkenness.
The best part of the story is the spectacular hypocrisy of the Klan. Many abandoned their families as they escaped. Catfish Cole himself, the self-appointed guardian of white womanhood, abandoned his wife, Carolyn, as he fled into the forest. Panicking and left in danger by her husband, she tried to escape in the car, but promptly drove it into a ditch. Eventually, several Lumbee men helped her push it out.
The Lumbee took the opportunity to celebrate their victory: they marched a parade through the streets to Pembroke, where they lit a bonfire, burned the abandoned Klan materials (and an effigy of Catfish Cole), mockingly draped themselves in the hated white robes, and sang and danced into the night.
Afterward, Cole was caught and sentenced to two years' imprisonment for inciting a riot. The Klan abandoned all activities in Robeson County, and the Lumbee were hailed as victors in the national press. A picture of chief Lumbee organizer Simeon Oxendine holding the seized KKK banner appeared in Life magazine, and (particularly in terms of national public opinion) a major blow was dealt to the crumbling foundation of Jim Crow.
That January night, the Lumbee did more than just break up a rally. They took arms against a seemingly insurmountable social order, and did it without resorting to any actual violence. They showed the Klan what it felt like to be on the receiving end of their despicable terrorism, and they rid their area of a bully who had rashly overstepped his boundaries. Finally, in taking matters into their own hands, in standing up for their rights, and in setting an example for social warriors everywhere, the Lumbee paved one more stone in the road to equality.
07 March 2009
Iceland lays low for the most part. Living in a small community on an island in the frigid North Atlantic, Icelanders quietly enjoy one of the highest standards of living in the world. So why would they make waves on the worldwide scene?
However, the normally unassuming country has made headlines twice in recent months. It became the first nation to elect an openly gay head of state, which was certainly a great step forward for worldwide civil rights. The entire country also went bankrupt.
Those in large countries might find that second tidbit to be a little much to take. The entire country? But let us not forget that the whole population of Iceland is just over 300,000. That's slightly less than the number of residents of Omaha, Nebraska. Considering that 112,000 Americans declared bankruptcy in February alone, the Iceland statistic becomes more believable.
But let's set the economy doom and gloom aside and look at the country itself. What must it be like to live in such a small sovereign nation?
Well for a start, everyone knows everyone else, or is at least a degree of separation away. This does not bode well for those in the service industry. One of the airlines I worked with closely was Icelandair, and almost everybody wanted 'special favors' simply because of some so-called mutual friend. ("Do you know Johanna? I know Johanna. Got any free upgrades?") The aircraft also reeked of fish. Fish is daily bread for Iceland, and accounts for the majority of its export. They have fish for lunch, fish for dinner; they send fish to their relatives in other countries as gifts. One of the main reasons they have yet to join the European Union is because of loss of control over fishing limits. This is a country serious about its fish.
When they're not enjoying fish, they're partying. Reykjavik, the capital city and home to about two-thirds of the country's inhabitants, has a reputation for being a major nightlife center. We're talking about everybody--all 200,000--getting out of work on Friday, going home to start drinking (any money saved by pre-partying will be significant, because food and drink are obscenely expensive in Iceland. As is, for that matter, everything else), then hitting the town. And not finishing until it's time to go back to the office on Monday. It's a nightlife scene to rival any in the world. This is no doubt aided by the northerly latitude: in the summer months, the sun never sets. It merely approaches the horizon and then begins to rise again. In the winter, of course, just the opposite is true: there is very little daylight for six months. Either way, it's a condition condusive to a vibrant party atmosphere.
But that's just the tip of the cultural iceberg. Iceland has a rich history and an active artistic and literary scene. The writing is, of course, in Icelandic. The Icelandic language is a fascinating study in the retention of linguistic purity across generations. It has changed so little that most Icelanders are able to read the country's medieval epics--written a millennium ago--almost as if reading a modern book. (By contrast, most English speakers have some difficulty with Shakespeare, written 400 years ago, and consider Chaucer's Middle English--650 years past--a different language entirely).
There are no family names in Iceland. Instead, your surname is your father's first name, along with whether you are his son or daughter. So Britain's Prince Harry would be called Harry Charlesson and Bob Geldof's first child would be Fifi Trixibelle Bobdottir. Except they wouldn't, because all first names must come from an approved list.
It's interesting to think about living in a land with no history of indigenous predecessors. Iceland, isolated from both Europe and North America for eons, and with few trees and relatively infertile soil, appears to have been completely untouched by humanity until its settlement by Scandinavian colonists in the 8th century AD.
The land itself is a living example of nature's power. It is relatively young by geological standards, and lies on a huge tectonic fault, which means the landmass is a breathtaking melee of tundra, glaciers, active geysers (the English word 'geyser' is actually borrowed from Icelandic), volcanoes, mountain ranges, hot springs, and violent waterways. This explains why most of the vast interior is uninhabited and why the population centers lie mostly along the southwestern coastal fjords.
This geothermal activity, however, makes Iceland one of the most environmentally friendly places on the planet. Most of their electricity and energy is generated by directly harnessing the heat below the surface. The remaining percentage comes hydrologically from waterfalls, rapids and reservoirs. Iceland is truly at the vanguard of successful reliance on renewable resources, and makes active policy of working towards carbon-neutrality. The one drawback: many places smell pungently sulfurous, sulfur being one of the main elements underground that makes it all possible.
The thought of Iceland draws slightly unfair assumptions about its climate from most Westerners, probably because the name translates as...well, "Iceland." Make no mistake, this is certainly not Antigua. But it lies at the end of the North Atlantic Drift, a fast and powerful ocean current which constantly feeds it with moderating, temperate conditions. A gift-wrapped present from neighbors to the south, perhaps. So granted, Iceland is chilly, but it is more of a never-warm place than a too-cold place. And compared to other lands straddling the Arctic Circle, its consistently 30-degree weather makes it seem like an oasis of warmth.
All in all, Iceland figures to be one of the best places on earth. It has among the highest standards in the world for literacy and education. It enjoys first class health care, and its people have the second-highest life expectancy on the planet. Crime is virtually non-existent. It is a liberal, egalitarian community governed by a progressive parliament. It boasts culture, nightlife, and stunning natural beauty. Its overall standard of living rivals any nation in the world.
And yes, Iceland's banks are in trouble. But it's a virtual certainty that the Icelandic people will persevere, recover from the crisis, and have a damn good time while doing it.