18 March 2009
The Battle of Hayes Pond
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.