The Klan Last Time- Part 5: Welcome to Smithfield

A sign of the KKK’s public acceptance was that many Klansmen no longer hid behind their cloaks. Klan membership was often an open secret, sometimes widely known and even boasted. Klan activists posted signs in local businesses and public streets announcing recruitment rallies and advertised them in the local newspapers, such as the Greenville Daily Reflector and the Kinston Daily News.

This is an updated version of a story that I first published in the winter 1996 issue of Southern Exposure. It’s the 5th in an 8-post series on the Ku Klux Klan in eastern N.C. that I am putting up all week and which will finish up on Sunday.

“Hear Outstanding Speakers! See Thrilling Cross Burning Ceremony! Enjoy Food and Refreshments!” they promised.

Roadside billboards such as “Welcome to Smithfield: This is Klan Country” mark an enduring childhood memory for those of us who passed through that town when we were children.

Nor did local Klaverns try to conceal where they held their private meetings. In Belhaven, on the north shore of the Pamlico River, for instance, the local Klavern met directly across the street from city hall and the police station.

The Klan also found important supporters among political leaders. SBI records indicate that least 2 county sheriffs and a mayor joined the KKK. A number of local police, judicial and municipal leaders also belonged to the KKK. At its peak, the Klan’s popularity reached the point that few politicians chose to ignore the hooded order.

The First District Congressman, Walter B. Jones, Sr., for instance, was a racial moderate who often supported civil rights legislation. Later in his career, he was an indispensable ally to some of the region’s most important civil rights leaders. Yet Jones still made at least one campaign appearance at a Klan gathering.

Other political figures had murkier motives for their involvement with the Klan. Sheriff Marion W. Mills of New Hanover County and 6 of his deputies joined a local Klavern, in the sheriff’s words, “to keep an eye on the Klan.” Sheriff Mills later acknowledged “some of his deputies got a bit enthused.”

That was perhaps an understatement. The sheriff’s second-in-command got himself elected as the KKK’s statewide vice-president.

Other local white leaders did stand up to the Klan. Based on SBI and SHP intelligence reports, several county sheriffs made quiet, behind-the-scenes efforts to keep Klansmen within bounds. A few even earned reputations as ardent enemies of the KKK.

Klan leaders held Greenville police chief Henry Lawson in special contempt. Lawson had been known to speak in black churches, and at one point he allegedly lost his temper and challenged a Klansman to a public duel.

Few of the state political leaders showed Henry Lawson’s spine. Solicitous of the Democratic Party’s rightwing, which at that time included Jesse Helms and other ultra-conservatives, state leaders offered little moral leadership and failed to pursue Klan nightriders aggressively.

To learn more, I highly recommend “Klansville U.S.A.” Part of PBS’s American Experience series, Callie Wiser’s documentary is a thoughtful and often haunting look at the Klan’s rise in N.C. in the 1960s. You might find a cantankerous historian from eastern N.C. in it too.

In speeches, those political leaders repeatedly grouped the Klan with the NAACP and other civil rights groups as “extremists.” They continued to allow the Klan its annual booth at the State Fair. And neither Governor Dan K. Moore nor the General Assembly held special hearings into Klan violence or led campaigns to discourage public sympathy for the Klan.

A maverick Democrat named Malcolm Seawell was one of the few exceptions. In the summer of 1966, Seawell accused the SBI of withholding KKK surveillance records. At the time, he chaired a special committee, appointed by Gov. Moore, to investigate “extremist groups,” but he had grown frustrated with the lack of cooperation that he was getting from the governor’s office and the SBI.

Callie Wiser’s PBS documentary was based on David Cunningham’s recent book, “Klansville, U.S.A.,” which I also recommend highly.

Seawell had first made his reputation prosecuting Klansmen in Robeson County, N.C. in the early 1950s. He believed that the SBI documents he was seeking might give the state the necessary evidence at the very least to revoke the Klan’s legal certification or to prosecute the Klan for violating concealed weapons laws.

Gov. Moore and SBI officials repeatedly denied Seawell’s allegations. In response, Seawell and the Committee’s special counsel resigned in protest, and the SBI later acknowledged that it had indeed withheld key documents from Seawell’s committee.

 To be continued– I’ll post part 6 tomorrow.

 

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