The Klan Last Time- Part 7: None of Their Cars Came Back Out

According to the KKK papers, things began to change in 1967. Attendance at Klan rallies plummeted. Many white people walked away from the fiery cross never to return. SHP agents began to report that state Klan leaders were finding it difficult to convince local people to lease them land for rallies.

Wreckers and oil companies grew reluctant to erect the crosses. Well-founded rumors of corruption, disunion and violence soured the Klan’s quest for respectability.

This is an updated version of a story that I first published in the winter 1996 issue of Southern Exposure. It’s the 7th in an 8-post series on the Ku Klux Klan in eastern N.C. that I have been putting up all week and will finish tomorrow.

At the same time, many whites learned that the world did not end with school desegregation. They decided to move forward, and to make the best of the new day.

Other whites channeled their racial anxieties into party politics, usually the Republican Party or George Wallace’s American Independent Party.

Yet other whites allayed their worst fears about race mixing by pulling their children out of pubic schools and sending them to a new generation of private schools. The schools’ founders often called them “Christian academies.” As black and white children began to attend classes together in the public schools, these private schools began to spring up across North Carolina.

At least as importantly, black Carolinians no longer allowed the Klan’s sins to remain in the shadows. By 1967 the civil rights movement had spread across eastern North Carolina and emboldened black residents to defend themselves more forthrightly with or without the support of local, state or federal authorities.

For some, that meant wielding economic power. Black leaders in Rose Hill, in Duplin County, for instance, understood that Main Street businessmen exerted a great deal of influence over the local Klavern, whether or not they were KKK members. With the power of those merchants in mind, the black citizens of Rose Hill boycotted their stores until the Klan halted open air meetings.

Crystal Sanders has written a fascinating account of 5 black teenagers who tried to burn down the Klan’s meeting hall in Benson, N.C. in 1968. You can find her article in the August 2013 issue of the Journal of Southern History. A native of Johnston Co., N.C., Sanders is now a professor of history at Penn State. She makes her former professor at Duke (me) very proud.

The days when Klan nightriders could terrorize a black community without a fight had also largely drawn to a close. African Americans understood only too well that they could not count on white sheriffs and judges to protect them, so they increasingly took matters into their own hands.

Now Klan nightriders encountered riflemen guarding civil rights leaders and the roads out of black neighborhoods. Those sentinels often included young black men fresh from the war in Vietnam.

I never get tired of re-reading my friend Tim Tyson’s Radio Free Dixie. It’s a riveting and provocative biography of Robert Williams, and it won 2 of the historical profession’s highest awards when it was first published in 1999.

On the other side of the state, in Monroe, a civil rights activist named Robert Williams had founded an unusually militant local branch of the NAACP in the late 1950s. The group’s members, including World War II and Korean War vets, protected the town’s black neighborhoods against the Klan with M-1 rifles and machine guns.

Many African Americans in eastern North Carolina followed Robert Williams’ example. When a Klansman shot at a carload of black teenagers in Middleton, in Hyde County, a large crowd of black men gathered their hunting rifles and shot guns and attacked the local Klan’s meeting place.

Weary of KKK harassment, black men on the other side of the Pamlico River, in Mesic, also decided one night to put an end to it. I’ve talked to several of them about that night, but they had taken an oath of secrecy: they’ve never been willing to tell me what they did.  All  they’ll say is that the Ku Klux Klan was never a problem in Mesic again after that night.

Likewise, when a Klan motorcade ventured into Hayti, a black neighborhood on the edge of Trenton, in Jones County, black men again rose up. In Hayti, all of the Klansmen, but none of their cars, came back out.

To be continued– I’ll post the last part of the story tomorrow.


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