"When Carolina Indians Went on the Warpath": The Media, the Klan, and the Lumbees of North Carolina

Article excerpt

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On a frigid Saturday night in January 1958, Grand Dragon James "Catfish" Cole and fifty other members of the Ku Klux Klan gathered for a rally in a cornfield near Hayes Pond just outside of Maxton, a small town located in Robeson County in southeastern North Carolina. The armed Klansmen strung up a small light on a pole and wired a public address system. A large white banner emblazoned with the letters "KKK" in red hung menacingly nearby. Cole had organized the rally to protest the "mongrelization" of whites and Lumbee Indians in Robeson. But before the rally even began, several hundred Lumbees chased the Klansmen from the frozen cornfield. Stationed nearby, having feared the possibility of violence, local authorities and the State Highway patrol quickly moved in and restored peace. Despite numerous gunshots, there was only one minor injury, and the Lumbees took their spoils, including the KKK banner, to the nearby town of Pembroke to celebrate.

The "Maxton Riot," as it came to be called, generated massive local and national media attention. People across the country read dramatic accounts in the Raleigh News and Observer, New York Times, Washington Post, Newsweek, Time, and other newspapers and periodicals describing how the Lumbee Indians, who were relatively unknown outside of southeastern North Carolina, had humiliated the Ku Klux Klan. In general, reporters, columnists, and editorialists praised the Lumbees for standing up to white racism and Klan terrorism, albeit by extralegal means. And yet, despite an overall positive tone, the news coverage of the Indian-Klan clash, especially outside of North Carolina, illustrated the media's ignorance of Indian history and culture in the South. Reporters and pundits relied on racist stereotypes and simplistic Native American caricatures when commenting on the riot. In general, they employed Plains Indian imagery and iconography to characterize the event in terms of the vanishing noble savage bravely standing up to the invading white oppressor. Reporters wrote that angry "Redskins" yelling "war-whoops" "scalped" the "pale-face" in North Carolina. Eyewitness accounts contradicted these stories of "war-whoops," but that did not matter, as journalists and columnists, making reference to Geronimo, Custer, and other nineteenth-century historical figures, wrote stories that read like pulp western novels or Hollywood screenplays. But of course the Lumbees of North Carolina, like other contemporary Indians in the South, did not conform to these stereotypes and generalizations of Native American culture. Although journalists and other commentators of the time most likely assumed that they were celebrating the Lumbee victory, their use of racist language and imagery reveals the struggle of many contemporary Indian peoples in the South to break free of mainstream misconceptions, stereotypes, and prejudices. (1)

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THE LUMBEES OF ROBESON COUNTY

From the mid-1700s until the late 1800s, the Indians of Robeson County, ancestors of today's Lumbees, lived in isolated settlements along the Lumber River. After the Civil War, however, North Carolina sought to divide all of its citizens into two racial categories, white and colored, spurred in part by the expansion of the state's public school system during the emergence of the Jim Crow South. Although some of these Lumbee ancestors had English names and European physical features, such as blond hair and blue eyes, the Indians of Robeson County challenged this bi-racial system, insisting that they did not fit into either category. Consequently, in the late 1880s, the North Carolina General Assembly recognized the Robeson Indians as the Croatans, a reference to a Colonial-era Indian community, and helped finance Indian-only public schools. As a result, tri-racial segregation was legally codified in Robeson County by the turn of the twentieth century.

As it did for many other minority groups in the United States, World War II marked the beginning of a very important transitional era for the Robeson Native Americans. …