Shoot-out in Middletown—Celebrating the Hyde Co. School Boycott’s 50th Anniversary, part 5

Hyde County school boycotters enter Belhaven, N.C. on the March to Raleigh in February 1969. Courtesy, State Archives of North Carolina and the Raleigh News & Observer

Hyde County school boycotters enter Belhaven, N.C. on the March to Raleigh in February 1969. Courtesy, State Archives of North Carolina and the Raleigh News & Observer

This is the 5th part of a series celebrating the 50thanniversary of the Hyde County school boycott, a remarkable chapter in the history of America’s civil rights movement and the subject of my first book, Along Freedom Road. Today, I re-visit a shoot-out with the Ku Klux Klan that demonstrated how profoundly Hyde County had changed during the school boycott.

After boycotting the local schools for the entire 1968-69 school year, Hyde County’s black activists had transformed their home in many ways.  They would, ultimately, save the O. A. Peay School and the Davis School.

But in addition, by the summer of 1969, black citizens had also made sure that the days of racial segregation, black deference and powerlessness had ended in Hyde County.

This is an excerpt from my book Along Freedom Road that recounts an episode that occurred in the summer of 1969, almost a year into the school boycott. On that day, black citizens showed one of the ways that they had changed Hyde County over the previous year.

This excerpt is used with the permission of my publisher, the University of North Carolina Press.

* * *

On July 4, 1969, a sniper fired two shots into a carload of blacks passing by a Ku Klux Klan meeting in Middletown, a rural crossroads 3 miles south of Engelhard. Though a bullet shattered their windshield, the four young passengers escaped unharmed and drove directly into town to alert Sheriff Cahoon.

The sheriff at first seemed unperturbed by their story. He lingered at the local café while news of the incident flashed through the eastern part of the county.

When Cahoon and state trooper L. J. Vance finally arrived in Middletown 30 minutes later, dozens of well-armed blacks had already surrounded the Klan hall. About 125 black citizens soon confronted 80 Klansmen.

From several counties, more state troopers hurried to Middletown and formed a line between the two groups, but the outraged black men would not disperse and tried to force their way into the rally.

According to a State Highway Patrol internal report, they “were [even] discussing among themselves which [police] officers they were going to get in order to go through them into the Klan meeting.”

The standoff continued for two tense hours, with angry threats exchanged constantly, until the Klan leaders proceeded with the traditional cross burning despite the crowd that still surrounded them.

“Immediately after the cross was set afire,” reported a state trooper at the scene,  a shot was fired and a barrage of gunfire erupted between the two groups.

The Klansmen discharged high-powered rifles, automatic weapons and handguns. The black men relied on hunting rifles and shotguns.

“It was like a war,” one stunned police officer late told a news reporter.

Law officers in riot gear quickly stormed the hall and subdued the Klansmen. A bullet grazed a 12-year-old black girl, Debra Collins of Engelhard, and buckshot wounded several police officers, but nobody had been serious hurt.

The police arrested 17 Klansmen and finally scattered both black and white combatants. Dozens of black gunmen were later charged and fined for their involvement in the showdown.

Though not the death knell for the local Ku Klux Klan, the Middletown confrontation marked its retreat back into the shadows. The era of open-air KKK rallies, public toleration and racist violence with impunity had ended.

* * *

Next time– Discovering the civil rights movement in eastern North Carolina

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