HANDLING THE KLAN ON EASTER SUNDAY, 1965 [HUNTER GRAY / HUNTER BEAR 1/01/02] UPDATED
You are an extremely courageous person, and I honor you deeply. I would
not disagree with anything you said. It is and was a balanced approach that
recognized the relationship of forces you faced, the reality and necessity
to prepare for self defense (and tell them you would use it if necessary),
while at the same time recognizing with visionary intelligence the need for
courageous and spirited action based on tactical genius. Thank you for
this thoughtful and detailed post.
Jim Griffin 10/17/05
PS -- Without reservation I agree with your decision to not call for an
injunction against the Klan rally.
Absolutely delightful accounts. The "Sixties" list may enjoy your account
I'd add one thing, which is why I repost to Socialists Unmoderated. "Way
back in the old days" there was a really decent Socialist
Party leader in Denver, Colorado. He has been dead a very long time - I met
his widow shortly after I came into the Party, which was
already over fifty years ago, and she had been a young bride. Wish I could
think of his name!! Maggie Phair might remember it.
This fellow was an attorney, one of the men who helped set up the ACLU, as
well as being a staunch socialist.
And, he always carried a loaded six shooter in a holster at his side, in
plain sight. He believed absolutely in
civil liberties. He wasn't a pacifist. In those distant days Denver was a
rough place. Your story, which helps set these things
in perspective, reminded me of this "frontier civil libertarian". (I
believe he died a natural death).
David [McReynolds] 10/20/05
NOTE BY HUNTER BEAR: 10/16/05
Very recent events have led to a fair amount of current List talk about the
Klan, Nazis, First Amendment, self-defense issues. This account of mine,
first published a few years ago, discusses how we dealt, non-violently and
effectively, with the United Klans of America during a major Klan public
event aimed directly against us -- back when that outfit and its kin were
substantial and deadly forces in much of the American South [and in a few
other parts of the country.] Some key North Carolina officials estimated
that, in that state alone, the United Klans numbered around 20,000 members
by 1964. As we had in various parts of the Deep South, we did sometimes
practice -- very, very judiciously -- individual armed self-defense at
night. [Personally, I traveled with a .38 Special S&W revolver, carried
inconspicuously.] When, during developing Klan episodes, we could not get
state [and certainly not Federal] protection in an atmosphere where a great
many local lawmen were UKA members and others intimidated by the Klan, I
traveled to Raleigh with the approval of our local project leaders, met with
then Governor Terry Sanford's key aide, and said that we were prepared to
exercise our Second Amendment rights if the state did not act appropriately.
And the state did then act. And for our part of the bargain, we encouraged
nonviolence. This arrangement was continued by the subsequent
administration of Governor Dan K. Moore.
There's been a good deal of talk on various lists
about First Amendment and
related matters. Here's my silver dollar:
I've never had a relativistic view of First Amendment rights -- and I have
little tolerance for that kind of slippery slope stuff. So far I think I've
done consistently OK on those issues, if I do say so myself. But, every so
often, I'm much tested by events. One of those came on Easter Sunday, 1965
in Halifax County, North Carolina -- vis-a-vis a huge Klan rally.
At that point, I was Field Organizer for the radical Southern Conference
Educational Fund. For well over a year, we had been pushing a militant,
grassroots civil rights and anti-Klan organizing project in the extremely
tough, hard-core multi-county Northeastern North Carolina Black Belt:
rigidly segregated, poverty-stricken, Klan-infested, cruelly repressive with
much White supremacist night-riding violence. Our campaign, starting in
Halifax County and moving into the other Black Belt counties, was going very
well: extremely successful grassroots organization and
mobilization,economic boycotts, non-violent direct action, successful
Federal court cases [our lawyers included, among others, Sam Mitchell of
Raleigh, and from NYC and environs -- Bill Kunstler, Morty Stavis, Phil
Hirschkop, Arthur Kinoy. And we were increasingly effective -- as, via
hard work, we built up our numbers -- in voter registration and education
and political action thrusts. [But, early on, we had had to go into Federal
court en masse to win the very right to register and vote.]
The Alabama-based, Southwide United Klans of America [Knights of the Ku Klux Klan] was a major foe. [At that point, North Carolina had, by far and away, the largest Klan membership in the South.] In addition to that, there was also the John Birch Society, the North Carolina Defenders of States Rights
[affiliated with the White Citizens Councils], and a variety of other
poisonous outfits. But the Klan was the most dangerous on a day-to-day [or
often night-to-night basis.] Yet, as our momentum gathered and rolled
along, the Klan began to fade in the Black Belt. We had the initiative.
Then, in late March, 1965, not long after our major Black Belt Civil Rights
and Anti-Poverty Conference [with a strong labor unionization focus] held
at Bertie [Burr-tee] County drew over 1,000 people from the far-flung
northeastern quarter of North Carolina, Klan posters were up all over the
Black Belt and in other parts of North Carolina as well. They advertised a
huge Southwide United Klans rally that would be held at the Halifax County
mill town of Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina -- and close to the adjoining
town of Weldon -- in a very large public open area surrounded by Black
homes. It was to be held a very few weeks hence -- on Easter Sunday.
This -- right in our base county -- was a direct challenge to us and a
deliberate effort to incite violence. It also smelled of maneuvering by the
viciously anti-union managers of J.P. Stevens Textile -- which, at Roanoke
Rapids, dominated the northern end of the county.
I immediately did what I had now done on a number of previous occasions --
starting with the Governor Terry Sanford [no friend of ours] administration.
I called the Governor's office -- it was now Governor Dan K. Moore -- and
spoke with his key administrative assistant, Ed Rankin. We had been through
this before. I said that -- especially given the fact that the county
sheriff and his deputies were Klansmen, the county attorney was a
conspicuous Klan sympathizer, and that Klan dues were openly collected in
some of the Halifax County police departments [though not at the Roanoke
Rapids P.D.] -- it was incumbent on the State to send in a very large
contingent of state troopers for at least a day before the huge rally, keep
them there on hand all during the affair, and for at least a day thereafter.
Ed Rankin and I could do ethical business with each other. He agreed
immediately to send many, many state police. And then he added something
new, something intriguing: "You know, John" he said, " the state is in the
process of change. The Governor doesn't like these Klan things. It's
hurting all of us." He paused and went on, "Have you ever considered using
those fine Yankee lawyers of yours to go into court and get an injunction
against the rally? Say, right at the last minute?" Ed Rankin then named
several jurisdictional possibilities. "You just might get that," he
The implication was obvious. From the shadows, he could help us get the
My response was quick. "I hear you, Ed," I told him. "And I'm not
unappreciative." I thought hard and fast. "But," I went on, "if we could
block their rally, you all could start blocking ours. Right?"
I could feel him smiling over the phone. We ended on our usual note of
Forthwith, I carried the conversation to our local leaders in Halifax
County. They agreed with my response. But, now, we had to work out a
genuinely creative strategy. And that we did.
Easter Sunday, 1965, was predictably bright and clear. Klansmen and
families, with license plates from as far away as Mississippi and Louisiana,
began arriving at the very large open area early in the morning. Three huge
crosses had been erected for night-time burning. The rally was scheduled
for 1 p.m. but, like everything else in the South -- regardless of race,
ethnicity, and purpose -- was late in getting started. True to his word, Ed
Rankin had a huge contingent of state police on hand -- more than half, we
later learned, of the entire state force. The sheriff and his deputies
were there -- not in robes. They lounged laconically by their vehicles.
The nervous chief of police of Roanoke Rapids -- not a Klansman and, from
what we'd heard, a fundamentally decent guy -- sat with his men and their
vehicles at a far corner.
And, as all of this gathered --thousands of garbed Klansmen [with garbed
women and children] and many dozens of state troopers et al. -- so,
according to our strategy, did we. Hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of
Black families -- and many Indian -- gathered around the borders of the
rally. We were all dressed in our Sunday church best [even me] and every
family brought a picnic lunch and sat down on the grass to watch. Children
of all ages were very plentiful.
The rally began about 2 p.m. with an estimated six to eight thousand
sheeted figures present. The Klan speakers featured the Imperial Wizard
himself, Robert Shelton of Tuscaloosa, Alabama. He was to be the final
night-time orator -- preceded by every top official in the Southwide United
Klans. One by one, standing with a mike on the back of a very large
generator-carrying flat-bed truck, they spoke their litanies of pure hatred
to the thousands of white-garbed figures whose mass of parked, generally
older vehicles bespoke poverty. [The Klan officialdom all drove new white
Heavily armed Klan guards in brown Nazi-type uniforms stood stiffly around
the borders of the rally. As the hate speeches [one by N.C. State Grand
Dragon J.R. Jones] -- featuring constant use of the N_____r word and
consistent multi-epithet attacks on myself and others -- got underway, three
of us now began to patrol the borders between our people and the huge hate
rally: myself, the Rev. A.I. Dunlap, and the Rev. Clyde Johnson. As we
patrolled, we visited cordially with the Black and Indian families closest
to the border. At times, we were only inches from the Klan guards.
When the extraordinarily vicious national Klan chaplain, himself from
Greensboro NC, began to speak, Black children right on schedule began to
play ring-around-the-rosy -- right on the borders of the rally, only feet
from the armed Nazi-type guards.
Rev. Dunlap, Rev. Johnson, and myself continued our three-person patrol --
slowly but steadily moving around the entire rally, visiting and joking
with the Black and Indian people. Back and forth, on and on.
The Klan chaplain then went completely over the edge, emotionally -- and
began screaming racist epithets about Black children. Pointing at the
cheerful, playing kids, he began using the P____ ies word over and over
again. And then, even worse than that.
The kids continued to play, the families continued to observe, and we
continued to patrol.
And then, suddenly, after speaker after speaker had delivered his poisonous
froth -- all of this frequently punctuated with "The Old Rugged Cross" and
"Dixie" played over a loudspeaker from the back of a flat-bed truck and
after many fund appeals -- Imperial Wizard Robert Shelton appeared at the
fore. But this was 5:30 p.m. -- not at night when he was supposed to be
doing his thing.
It was clear to everyone that something very unusual was happening!
Shelton spoke his usual, venomous diatribe: against Blacks, against Indians,
against Jews, against the Civil Rights Movement, against "Communism,"
against the Federal government, against the United Nations, and against most
of the world -- and more. Like others, he honored a number of us with
personal attacks of the greatest intensity. And he attacked unions. Several
And then, after half an hour or so had passed, he signaled. The three huge
crosses, scheduled for night-time burning, were now -- in broad April
daylight -- ignited. The "Old Rugged Cross" was played once again, then
The Klan chaplain gave a long benedictory hate prayer.
And then, hours early, they all began to leave.
And we had won -- and we'd won without an injunction and without firing a
A voice called me. It was the chief of police of Roanoke Rapids. I went
over to him. He pulled me gently behind a police vehicle. Out of sight of
almost everyone, he grabbed my hand and shook it with vigour. "Thank God,"
he said, "thank God!"
And I agreed. And I still do.
It wasn't too many years after that that the large work force at the J.P.
Stevens Textile Mill at Roanoke Rapid, North Carolina -- Blacks, Indians,
Whites -- voted overwhelmingly to unionize. And, some years after that, a
very fine labor film was made about the labor dimension of the Roanoke
Rapids/Stevens struggle: Norma Rae . Most likely some of you have
seen it. If not, do.
There's a good deal about our Northeastern North Carolina Black Belt project
on our website via this link