For a state that has long viewed itself as more tolerant than the Deep South, North Carolina has had a remarkably persistent relationship with America’s most notorious racial terror group. The Ku Klux Klan planted roots in the state early, committed some of its greatest outrages on its soil, and retains a presence that sometimes captures national attention. Especially prevalent in the rural Piedmont, the Klan has shown its face even in the most progressive areas of the state. North Carolinians need to face this history.
The Klan was founded in Tennessee when the ink was barely dry on Robert E. Lee’s surrender documents. It spread quickly throughout the South as what was essentially the terrorist wing of the Democratic Party. In North Carolina, it played this role violently. African American voters were the victims of gruesome crimes at the hands of Klansmen. In 1870, a sitting Black Republican county commissioner was lynched by Alamance County Klan members.
This atrocity, and a related murder of a Republican state Senator in Caswell County, inspired Governor William Holden to impose martial law and call out a state militia to suppress the terror. The militia’s leader, George Kirk, prosecuted what came to be called the Kirk-Holden war across the central Piedmont. After Kirk finally defeated the Klan in Chatham County, Democratic state legislators had seen enough. Klan sympathizers, they impeached Governor Holden for combating the KKK and removed him from office. Not until 2011 was Holden posthumously pardoned.
The Klan reemerged in the 1920’s in the wake of the Hollywood blockbuster Birth of a Nation. Here again, there was a North Carolina connection. Producer D.W. Griffith based his film on a novel, The Clansman: A Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan, by Shelby-born author Thomas Dixon. The Klan became so popular in Shelby that town fathers almost erected a statue of a Klansman in full regalia. As the second Klan grew, North Carolina Governor Cameron Morrison (a former Red Shirt) defended the organization from a Democratic National Committee motion that would have condemned this growing menace to American diversity.
A few decades later, North Carolina again became an epicenter of Klan activity. The third KKK was principally focused on repressing the African American Civil Rights movement, but its members hated all people of color. North Carolina Klansmen targeted Lumbee Indians, whom Grand Dragon James “Catfish” Cole scorned as “half-breeds,” at what came to be called the Battle of Hayes Pond. When 50-100 Klansmen showed up at the Sand Hills town of Maxton, they were met by 500 armed and fearless Native Americans, who routed them. The Lumbees captured the Klan’s banner and two tribal leaders were photographed wrapped in it on the cover of Life magazine.
That was in 1958. While the Klan suffered a humiliating and richly deserved defeat at Hayes Pond, they were just getting started. North Carolina would become the most active Klan state in the nation during the 1960’s. Precisely because the state’s political leadership eschewed Massive Resistance, the segregationist white populace embraced the KKK in larger numbers than anywhere else in the country. The massive upsurge in Klan activity belied any notion that North Carolina was somehow more virtuous than the rest of the South.
And the Klan persisted, amazingly, years after the fall of Jim Crow. In 1979, yet another Klan massacre struck in Greensboro. Four members of the Communist Workers Party and one additional protester were killed by Klansmen and members of the American Nazi Party. In the 1980’s, Klan members would march in Chapel Hill, long considered a beacon of progressivism in the South.
The remaining Klan is small and rather contemptible. We are talking about a group of people one of whom seriously believed he had a “mobile death ray” he could use to annihilate Muslims. But they are still there in North Carolina, and their activities are the extension of a long and dark history of racist terrorism in the state. Greensboro has taken a worthy step of commemoration by placing a plaque in the city marking the 1979 massacre. It is astonishing how recent that event was; all of these horrors have occurred within the span of two human lifetimes. I suspect it will take as long to fully bind and heal these wounds.
Alexander Jones is an original contributor to PoliticsNC.