Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

North Carolina Justice on Display: Governor Bob Scott and the 1968 Benson Affair

Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

North Carolina Justice on Display: Governor Bob Scott and the 1968 Benson Affair

Article excerpt

ON APRIL 8, 1968, FIVE YOUNG BLACK MEN BETWEEN THE AGES OF sixteen and twenty set fire to a Ku Klux Klan meeting hall in Benson, North Carolina. The youths, who had never before engaged in any criminal activity, were angered both by the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. four days earlier and by local Klansmen who had ridden through the town's black neighborhoods brandishing weapons in the wake of the civil rights leader's death. The young men did not succeed in burning down this symbol of white supremacy, as a policeman on patrol quickly extinguished the fire. Damage, estimated at less than thirty dollars, was confined to the meeting hall's doorway. Despite their adolescence and clean records, all five young men were sentenced to twelve years in prison "at hard labor." White defendants found guilty of similar crimes in the county received much shorter sentences. The Benson case set off an international outcry against justice in the Tar Heel State and called into question North Carolina's progressive image. (1)

In his 1949 study of southern politics, political scientist V. O. Key Jr. asserted that North Carolina was "at odds with much of the rest of the South.... It enjoys a reputation for progressive outlook and action in many phases of life, especially industrial development, education, and race relations." (2) To be sure, North Carolina led the region in championing universal public education and even earned the moniker "Wisconsin of the South" because of its many broad and progressive reforms at the turn of the twentieth century. (3) However, North Carolina was also the state that showed the rest of the country how to successfully overthrow an interracial, democratically elected municipal government. The 1898 Wilmington coup d'etat remains the only incident of its kind in United States history. (4) The state also had the lowest rate of unionization in the country in the 1940s and ranked almost last in average manufacturing wages. (5)

In the civil rights movement era, even though North Carolina leaders did not stand in schoolhouse doors to prevent desegregation and did not turn water hoses on peaceful demonstrators, many state officials attempted to circumvent federal court orders. For example, in 1956 the state legislature enacted the Pearsall Plan, which turned control of public schools over to local school boards, which could then institute, among other tactics, limited freedom-of-choice initiatives that put the burden of school desegregation on black families. (6) As late as 1968, 85 percent of black schoolchildren in North Carolina remained in all-black schools because school boards arbitrarily refused transfer requests. (7) Thus, North Carolina appeared to be complying with the Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education (1954) decision, even though the state's concessions were minimal. And yet, despite these realities, politicians and news reporters continued to praise North Carolina as progressive. (8)

The Benson affair allowed blacks and liberal whites to challenge this progressive image on an international stage. Historian William H. Chafe has asserted that a set of ground rules propped up the idea of a racially tolerant and regionally enlightened North Carolina. Rather than confronting discrimination and racism directly, Chafe argues, the state's white political leaders embraced "civility" and "made good manners more important than substantial action." In such an arrangement, blacks had to assume "deferential poses" to keep their jobs, obtain credit, and avoid other economic and physical reprisals from white supremacists. With no outward appearance of conflict, state leaders could maintain that all citizens--black and white--were satisfied with the status quo of race relations. In 1969, however, citizens at home and abroad broke all the roles governing the state's "progressive mystique" and demanded that North Carolina governor Robert "Bob" Walter Scott (1969-1973) correct the miscarriage of justice that sent five young men to prison for such unusually long sentences. …

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