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Have there been any incidents in this area directly linked to the Ku Klux Klan?

Ben Steelman

Ku Klux Klan activity has been sporadic in Southeastern North Carolina since the late 1860s.

Klan groups seem to have grown dormant in recent years, however. The Southern Poverty Law Center, a liberal-leaning nonprofit that monitors the activities of hate groups, lists three active Klan units in North Carolina: the Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, headquartered in Benson; the Original Knight Riders/Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, centered in Moyock, and the United Northern and Southern Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. None of these three appear to be active in this area.

(The Center lists just two hate groups in Wilmington: The Israelite Church of God in Jesus Christ, identified as a black  separatist organization, and the neo-Confederate League of the South.)

The original Ku Klux Klan was founded in late 1865 in Pulaski, Tenn., by Confederate veterans. (The name comes from the Greek “kuklos,” meaning circle.) Orginally intended as a fraternal group, it soon became involved in intimidating newly enfranchised black voters.

On March 24, 1868, the Wilmington Morning Star reported:

“Quite an excitement was created on our streets Sunday morning by the discovery of a number of mysterious notices that had been, during the previous night, posted up at several prominent points of the city. They are supposed to have emanated from the headquarters of the somewhat notorious ‘Ku Klux Klan, what ever that may be … That a ‘Ku Klux Klan’ may be in operation here, we are not prepared to deny.

As historian W. McKee Evans noted, the Star’s pretended ignorance of the KKK was a conceit. The paper has already run an exchange story on Klan activity in Memphis, Tenn. and an account of Klan night riders in Montgomery, Ala., appeared in the same issue as the comments above.

In fact, the Klan was apparently already rooted in the Port City. Col. Roger Moore, a former Confederate colonel and commander of the local state militia, has gone to Raleigh to be installed as “Chief of the Division of the Ku Klux Klan in Wilmington.” William L. Saunders, editor of the Wilmington Daily Journal, was later identified as the Klan’s grand dragon for North Carolina (although historians agree that his authority over local Klan units was very limited at best).

On March 27, 1865, the Morning Star reported that a masked night rider, “clad in the habitude of the grave” and riding a horse “of unusual size,” had been circling the Dry Pond neighborhood of Wilmington at 1:30 in the morning. The rider stopped at one point, the paper went on, where he drank four buckets of water and “said he was a little thirsty, not having had any water to drink since he had been killed at Fort Fisher.”

(Klansmen often posed as ghosts of Confederate soldiers in an effort to frighten ignorant blacks. The bucket-drinking was a widespread trick; the water was actually poured into bladders hidden under the rider’s robes, to make it seem as if he were taking in more water than any live human could consume. For the throwaway line, the Klansmen would often add the name of some nearby battle, such as “since I was killed at Shiloh,” or Bentonville, or whatever.)

On April 18, 1868, Saunders’ paper, the Daily Journal, reported that “a skeleton” on a white horse breathing flame, had ridden up to the Wilmington Post Office on the previous Thursday night. The rider detached his skull from his head, rapped on the post office windows, and asked about the mail for Fort Fisher. The specter departed with the words “The Ku Klux Klan are abroad! The Avenger cometh with the Night when men sleepeth! Beware!”

These incidents were linked to state elections coming up April 24, in hopes of scaring black voters away from the polls. As Evans recounted in his history, “Ballots and Fence Rails,” bands of black men, some armed with guns and others with wood boards pulled from fences, were out on the streets every night from April 18 to April 21, looking for any sign of Klan activity. The election went ahead, with Republicans winning New Hanover County by a 2-1 margin.

Klan violence would recur across Piedmont North Carolina throughout Reconstruction, with Klan-related kidappings, whippings and burnings as close as Sampson and Robeson counties. After April 1868, however, no Klan activity was noted in the Wilmington area. On April 30, 1868, the Star editorialized, “What has become of the Ku Klux? Nothing has been heard of them lately!” (Evans speculates that local ex-Confederates, such as Moore, re-routed their activism through local militias.)

The first Ku Klux Klan was largely inactive after 1874, as white Democrats gradually regained control of statehouses across the South. A new Klan, however, was founded by William J. Simmons in 1915 at Stone Mountain, Ga., drawing on the publicity from the silent film “Birth of a Nation,” which depicted the first Klan in a heroic light.

The new Klan found plenty of adherents in Southeastern North Carolina in the 1920s. On May 3, 1922, a Morning Star reporter covered a rally and cross-burning attended by more than 1,000 Klansmen “somewhere” outside Wilmington. More than 100 new members were inducted as part of the ceremony.

Local newspapers carried scattered reports of Klan whippings and threats against individuals (often white) who violated local norms in one way or another.  Eleven blacks were lynched in North Caroline between 1919 and 1923 (not always by Klan groups), although lynchings declined markedly in the later 1920s. The so-called “Second Klan” largely faded away during the Great Depression.’

Klan activity saw a resurgence after World War II, particulary in Columbus County and neighboring Horry County, S.C. In these two counties, according to some reports, Klan membership exceeded 2,000. Again, Klan groups struck against individuals who drew their ire, whipping, shaving hair and occasionally cutting off ears. The Klan violence began to decline after a heroic series of exposes by Horace Carter, the young editor of the Tabor City Tribune

Ultimately, state officials indicted 254 individuals in Southeastern North Carolina for Klan-related violence — among them the police chief of Fair Bluff and a Tabor City police officer. In 1953, Carter’s Tabor City Tribune and the Whiteville News Reporter shared a Pulitzer Prize for public service — the first North Carolina newspapers to be so honored — for their coverage of the Klan.

On Jan. 18, 1958, the Klan suffered a major humiliation in “the Battle of Hayes Pond” when a band of some 500 young Lumbee Indian men surrounded a Klan rally on a private field near Maxton. The Lumbees clashed with the 50 to 100 Klansmen present and drove them from the scene — effectively ending Klan activity in Robeson County.

Elsewhere, however, the Klan gained traction in the late 1950s and early 1960s among whites who felt threatened by the civil rights movement. In 1965, it was revealed that New Hanover County Sheriff Marion Mullis and at least six of his deputies had joined the Ku Klux Klan in 1963. Mullis told the House Un-American Activities Committee that he had taken the move to infiltrate and observe the organization from the inside. A number of citizens were dissatisfied with this explanation, and the Morning Star called for Mullis; resignation, but the sheriff survived a re-election bid and remained in office into  the 1970s.


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