It’s Not Like We Don’t Know: The Klan, Guns, and Violence in North Carolina
Hillsborough, North Carolina
Late this summer, the Loyal White Knights showed up in Hillsborough, apparently to the town’s surprise.
Some were dressed in the recognizable sad sheets of the Klan, including a few in green and purple robes denoting their higher rank. Others were dressed in army fatigues; still others in MAGA hats; some were wearing Disneyland tees and mom jeans.
These same usual suspects — there seem to be only 15 or so active members of the North Carolina-based Loyal White Knights — have been showing up throughout Virginia and the Carolinas since 2011, including at Unite the Right in Charlottesville. Leading his Klavern in Hillsborough was Imperial Wizard Christopher Barker, who has openly praised Dylann Roof as a martyr and has threatened to burn a Latina journalist on air during a Univision interview. He paced the sidewalk while some of his Klavern held a large professionally printed banner encouraging people to join their cause by calling their “Klan hotline.”
Hillsborough residents instinctually rallied. They did a particularly good job of claiming their territory and making their town inhospitable to the demonstration of hate by drowning out Klansmen voices and blocking them from view. When the Loyal White Knights vowed to return the following weekend, over a thousand anti-racists marched through the small town and the Klan became a no-show.
While Hillsborough community members did an exceptional job of de-platforming the Klan, the police seemed incapable of taking the situation seriously, echoing 150 years of police inaction against — or, worse, direct support of — white supremacist movements in North Carolina.
Communities are often more in-tune with the realities on the ground and are more able to call a spade a spade — or a threat a threat — than governments are. Only a few weeks before the Hillsborough Klan demonstration, it was the public that was able to clearly identify the El Paso mass shooting as a hate crime and an act of terror, while the FBI fumbled having to acknowledge that they have no real domestic terrorism law to address white supremacist violence and admitting that the Trump administration had cut available funding to counter white supremacist movements.
While present to monitor the situation — it was after all at the courthouse — the Hillsborough police failed to enforce their own laws about weapons at protests. North Carolina state law allows concealed carry permit holders to take handguns onto county grounds, but it does not allow any guns at demonstrations and protests. Recently, this very law that had been quickly enforced against anti-racists in neighboring Durham, only 14 miles away. At that protest, one man was arrested and four others sought when hundreds of anti-racists flooded downtown Durham in anticipation of a Klan rally that never materialized. Unlike the Klan members present in Hillsborough, none of those open-carrying in Durham had a history of violence or had made a career of espousing threats of violence towards others.
If weapons at protests or in public spaces are an unnerving sight to some, that is largely because white supremacists have executed or plotted 13 public attacks in the last five years alone. White supremacists have killed more people in recent years than any other type of domestic extremism, including 54% of all domestic extremist-related murders in the past ten years. It is interesting, therefore, that the North Carolina police have been quicker to respond to anti-racists with guns than they have avowed racists who have been explicit in their desire for race-war and violence against people of color. After 400 years of white supremacist terror, it’s also historically presbyopic. It’s not like we don’t know.
After photographs surfaced of Klan members open-carrying while speaking with officers on the street that day, both the Orange County sheriff and the Hillsborough mayor made clamoring statements about how they must balance public safety with the freedom of speech, and then, finally, also announced that warrants were being issued for two of the Klansmen for weapons violations.
Nearly three months later, there is no sign that those warrants have been served.
Pittsboro, North Carolina
Since the incident in Hillsborough, neo-Confederates have been repeatedly showing up in other North Carolina towns, including Pittsboro.
Weeks of demonstrations culminated on October 19th, after the Daughters of the Confederacy failed to meet the October 1st deadline set by the county to remove their Confederate statue from the courthouse property. Expressing anger that the Chatham County board was made of “traitors and a negress” and that the county is “browning,” neo-Nazi Billy Roper of Arkansas called on “Aryans” to make their way to Pittsboro on his blog.* Likewise, the hate group League of the South also called on their supporters to travel to the town, claiming that members from as far as Florida would be making the trip.
As in Hillsborough, the racist contingent that turned up in Pittsboro was outnumbered by anti-racist counter-protesters, but by a smaller margin — unfettered and allowed a platform, new white Nationalist faces had been shown up each week. As Proudboys, Hiwaymen, Sons of the Confederacy, and others gestured and shouted, a masked man driving a front-end loader laden with Confederate flags circled the county courthouse before heading half a mile south, attempting to drive directly into the protest. While officers posted at the courthouse and throughout downtown could not have possibly missed the spectacle, they made no attempts to stop Sam White, the former Pittsboro school teacher driving the heavy equipment. Anti-racist demonstrators were left to block the machine from entering the protest area with their bodies in the road. Police arrived and had the front-end loader turn away, but not before a brief scuffle broke out in the street between sides.
Many of the neo-Confederate demonstrators present that day had also been present when a white nationalist drove his car into anti-racist demonstrators in Charlottesville, killing Heather Heyer and injuring dozens. It’s not like we don’t know.
Furthermore, multiple neo-Confederates and white nationalists were again visibly armed in Pittsboro, but police said they could not interfere because they were on private property. It was instead the bags of anti-racist protestors that the police demanded to search as they stood across the street protesting the hate groups.
Notably, lawmakers and law enforcement have had no trouble identifying and perceiving threats when they are not poised by white supremacists. Local police departments are not being rogue when they stand down during white nationalist threats as they have in Charlottesville, Hillsborough, and Pittsboro. In fact, they are supported by a tendency from the country’s highest ranks to stand up for these “very fine people.”
In 2018, North Carolina Congressman Ted Budd co-sponsored Bill HR 6054, which, if passed, would punish with up to 15 years in prison anyone wearing a mask or disguise who “injures, oppresses, threatens, or intimidates” someone else exercising a right guaranteed under the Constitution. The bill’s title, the “Unmasking Antifa Act of 2018,” makes it clear that Antifa activists are the intended target, not the hooded Klansmen who are rallying in Budd’s own district. Budd seems more concerned about those who have shown up in Charlottesville, Portland, Hillsborough, and other places to protect their towns from white supremacists than he does the white supremacist ideology that is historically steeped in bloodshed and destruction.
Similarly, right after the xenophobic mass shooting in El Paso and just as white supremacists rallied in Hillsborough and Pittsboro, the US House of Representatives passed House Resolution 536 this past August, “Strongly condemning the violent actions of Antifa and recognizing that it engages in domestic terrorism.” No such resolution has been introduced condemning the actions of the Proud Boys, Patriot Prayer, or any of the alt-right, who have each engaged in violent attacks at protests, including, literally, killing people.
Resolution 536 was co-sponsored by North Carolina Congressman Mark Walker. Like Budd, Walker appears to be unaware of what is happening in his home state. While his office did denounce a Klan rally and cross burning in Asheboro in 2017, Walker has not expressed concern about the rise in white supremacist violence commensurate to his concern about Antifa, even though his own district includes Pelham (the home of the Loyal White Knights), Yanceyville (where the Klan does their cross-burnings in plain sight), and Pittsboro, where armed neo-Confederates continue to gather on Saturdays, doing Sieg Heils on the corner by their Johnny Rebel, definitely facing North.**
It’s not like we don’t know.
Greensboro, North Carolina
I have long noticed that people with less power have better memories than those with more.
Mark Walker and Tedd Budd’s congressional districts are ones of racial gerrymandering lore. In fact, the line between Walker’s District 6 and Budd’s District 13 runs right down the middle of A&T University in Greensboro, dividing up and neutralizing the vote of the country’s largest HBCU — the same school that helped to ignite the civil rights movement with sit-ins at the nearby Woolworth’s department store.
The meanderingly strategic district line shimmies down the center lane of US 29 and exits onto Gate City Boulevard, also dividing the neighborhoods that feed into the historically black Dudley High School. No doubt Walker knows this as these invisible lines were crafted with surgical precision to benefit him, but I wonder if he remembers that right there in that gerrymandered elbow of District 6 is where the Greensboro Massacre occurred?
If he were to remember, he would know that in 1979 the Klan and American Nazi Party confronted a multi-racial anti-Klan rally and just as the police decided to — for unknown reasons — leave the scene, went to the trunks of their cars to retrieve pistols and shotguns. Four Communist Workers’ Party members and one other individual were killed; eleven other demonstrators, plus a Klansmen, were wounded. Witnesses say the police intentionally left the scene, though they knew the potential for violence thanks to a Klansmen and paid police informant, Eddie Dawson.Six Klan and ANP men were eventually prosecuted, but every single one was acquitted by an all-white jury, despite TV footage of the shootings.
Decades later, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission wrote that “The majority of commissioners find the single most important element that contributed to the violent outcome of the confrontation was the absence of police.” The Commission’s report says that the police repeatedly drew officers away from the location where the violence would occur and also failed to stop the fleeing Klan and Nazi party members after the shootings occurred. Forty years later, Greensboro continues to struggle to acknowledge the full truths, meanings, and implications of the massacre.
This refusal to contend with what happened in Greensboro comes with continued damage. Glenn Miller, a member of the National Socialist Party of America, was present that day in Greensboro but wasn’t amongst those arrested. He was, I imagine, considered part of the background riff-raff. Miller was discharged that same year from the U.S. Army as a sergeant for distributing racist propaganda. Returning back home to Smithfield, NC, the following year, he founded the Carolina Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, which later became the White Patriot Party (WPP).
Miller continued to be a nuisance but not taken seriously — in fact, at some point he became an FBI informant. He harassed a black prison guard and his family. With the Carolina Knights, he pointed guns and yelled racial slogans at a white woman who invited black friends into her home. Reports were filed but no criminal charges ever came of them. In 1982, the Southern Poverty Law Center helped the prison guard sue Miller and managed to obtain an injunction ordering him to stop engaging in Klan activities.
It didn’t do much good, apparently. On April 13, 2014, Miller stormed into the Overland Park Jewish Community Center in Kansas, shooting and killing three people. The youngest of his victims was a 14-year-old boy.
It’s not like we don’t know. Like a cancer, when we don’t intentionally intervene and actively oppose white supremacy, it grows and metastasizes.
Tabor City, North Carolina
It’s a familiar story. White Supremacist organizing and Klan terror in North Carolina has a long history of not being taken seriously and then quickly escalating out of control. It also has a history of local leaders and law enforcement paving the way.
In 1950, the police chief of Tabor City, NC, was asked if he would lead a “parade” through the city and he said he would be happy to: In fact, he had some ideas of good areas of town for the parade to pass through. That parade, of course, was 30 cars of Klansmen with burning crosses affixed to their vehicles and effigies dragging from their bumpers. It was done at night. For all intents and purposes, it was a state-sanctioned night-ride.
Emboldened and unchecked, the newly minted Association of Carolina Klans rapidly grew throughout the region and their activities quickly escalated from demonstrations and rallies to beatings, floggings, and multiple murders under the leadership of Grand Dragon Thomas Hamilton, a well respected and Christian man who ran the local A&P grocery.
Five weeks after being escorted by police through Tabor City for their night ride, the Association of Carolina Klans decided to night-ride past Charlie’s Place, a black-owned nightclub in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Charlie’s owner called the police dispatcher to report what was happening, but no protection was offered. Instead, the motorcade returned firing hundreds of bullets into the night club. Many injuries were reported that night, but only one man died: James Daniel Johnston, who was wearing his Klan robes over his police uniform.
The unrestrained violence increased Klan membership. Shortly after the Myrtle Beach attacks, over 8,000 people showed up to a Klan gathering in a nearby tobacco field. At the same time, new Klaverns formed in Whiteville, NC, and Fair Bluff, NC, the latter formed by Early Brooks, a former police officer. Weekly acts of violence terrorized the communities; local blacks and whites were being attacked, accused of adultery, Communism, race-mixing, and outsiders stealing jobs and simultaneously being too idle… basically, all of the same things the signs held in Hillsborough and Pittsboro rail against today.
Soon, a white woman, Bessie Page, who was rumored to be dating a black man, was flogged in Chadbourn, N.C. Days later, Evergreen Flowers (a black woman who’s black husband was rumored to be having an affair with a white woman) was dragged by the Klan behind a car. That same night two other white men were flogged right across the state line in South Carolina. It was this fact — this movement of the violence across state lines by just a few miles — that allowed the federal government to step in and take conclusive action, something the local police had either been unable or unwilling to do.
But it’s not like we didn’t know.
Monroe, North Carolina
There have been three major surges in Klan activity since the end of the Civil War. The first was during Reconstruction when newly freed blacks were gaining political and economic power; the second was in the 1920s, when the Klan felt threatened by immigrants, Catholics, Jews, blacks and organized labor; and the third was in response to the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. The fourth may well be now.
From Wilmington to Asheville, there are 123 documented lynchings of blacks in North Carolina from 1877 to 1950. It was because of this terrorism — extreme violence that was largely left unrestrained by local officials — that Robert Williams of Monroe, North Carolina decided to arm himself. His first gun was given to him by his grandmother who had been raised enslaved in Union County and knew all too well the dangers that remained for her family. In fact, Klan violence was so rampant in Monroe that Pete Seeger and Malvina Reynolds sang:
Let me take you to a corner/Of this world that we call free
It’s Monroe, North Carolina/Where the Klan rules by decree
In the mid-1950s, the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was close to disbanding due to threats of violence and harassment from the local Klan. Williams took the helm of the NAACP and brought in nearly 200 new members by preaching self-reliance and self-protection. He also chartered a local chapter of the National Rifle Association and formed a Black Armed Guard to protect the black communities of Monroe from the Klan because calls to law enforcement frequently went unanswered. Local progressive white activists and the NAACP became alarmed by Williams’s teachings of armed self-defense and turned their backs on him.
In August 1961, the Freedom Riders had made their way to Monroe and were joined by local black youths in a picket at the courthouse. A white mob arrived and attacked the protesters, shooting at least one black teenager with a pellet gun. Police, however, only arrested Richard Griswold, the photographer for the Freedom Riders, for photographing the mob. Griswold was severely beaten by his cellmate, Howard Stack, who later said that the police had offered to drop his charges if he beat up Griswold. Violence spread through Monroe that night and in the chaos Williams allegedly sheltered a white couple from the mob, only to be accused later of kidnapping them.
Unlike the thousands of armed white supremacists who have never been held accountable for their public violence, Robert Williams and his family were forced to flee not only Monroe, but the United States. Fidel Castro granted Williams political asylum in Cuba and the family spent the next five years in Havana, later moving to China. In 1969, all the charges were dropped against Williams and he returned to the United States. Williams later became an advisor to the State Department on China and a professor at the University of Michigan — a very different official response and growth trajectory than Frazier Glenn Miller’s.
People of color, especially when armed, always seem to frighten the American imagination more than dangerous whites ever will. From Philando Castile to Atatiana Jefferson, law-abiding black people with guns scare even the police and end up dead because of it. Likewise, William’s decision to arm himself and encourage black self-defense made him a target of law enforcement, even though his arguments about bearing arms were nearly identical to that of all Second Amendment advocates.
Organized white supremacist groups argue for their right to “self-protection,” but they don’t extend those “freedoms” to others. From the early Klan to today’s Constitutional Sheriffs (law enforcement officers who, with no sense of irony, encourage law enforcement not to enforce the law), most Second Amendment arguments have been colored by race. While racially discriminatory gun laws date back to the early colonies as whites attempted to prevent slave revolts, the Ku Klux Klan was our nation’s first organized gun control lobby. After the Confederate South lost the war and Freedmen were given rights, the Klan supported Black Codes to keep ex-slaves in submission. These post-war codes disallowed Freedman to keep or carry firearms or ammunition without police permission. In areas where the Klan was active and influential in local politics, “almost universally the first thing done was to disarm the negroes and leave them defenseless,” civil rights attorney Albion Tourgée (of Plessy v. Ferguson) wrote in The Invisible Empire. It is notable that the same year (1871) that the Ku Klux Klan’s power was threatened by the Third Force Act (popularly known as the Ku Klux Act), the National Rifle Association was formed — if not in the Klan’s stead, at least in its climate.
In the 1930s, urban gun violence was seen as a blight of immigration and the NRA’s president, Karl Frederick, helped draft model legislation to restrict concealed carry of firearms. These restrictions left permits to be issued to those who were considered “suitable” by law enforcement. Predictably, this legislation was used to arm whites and keep immigrants and people of color defenseless. Likewise, Jim Crow laws did not only regulate water fountains and swimming pools but often extended into gun registration laws and handgun permits. In fact, after his house was firebombed in 1956, Martin Luther King Jr. was denied a permit to carry in Montgomery, Alabama under these regulations. The pattern of Second Amendment defending conservatives enacting harsh gun restrictions in response to non-white gun ownership continued through the 1980s.
Recent mass shootings have elicited various calls for gun control measures, including assault rifle bans, but they have sparked little real conversation about white supremacy on the Right or on the Left. Whether by gun, rope, torture, drowning, burning, starvation or by dragging a man for a mile and a half behind a truck, white supremacy taken more lives than any other form of violence in our history.
Without a strong racial analysis, gun control is a cause we must be careful with. We know that most restrictions and laws fall more heavily across the backs of people who are marginalized and that’s because we have not managed to untangle white supremacy from the workings of our legal or economic systems. So, while Klansmen and neo-Confederates open carry in plain view and in clear violation of the law in Hillsborough and Pittsboro, I can’t help but think of the day I moved into my house in a multi-racial, working-class neighborhood in Greensboro. As my friends and I carried in boxes, three police cars stopped two young black men walking in front of my house, pinning them down in the middle of the road to search their bodies for weapons. Forty minutes later they determined there were none.
Perhaps backed by 400 years of history, a gun in a white man’s hand looks normal; but in a black man’s hand, it looks like an insurrection. It’s not like we don’t know: Despite all the evidence to the contrary, local law enforcement continues to respond to perceived threats from the black community with over-policing while turning a blind eye to glaring threats from white nationalists.
Law enforcement has a history problem at best; a white supremacy problem at worst.
Our Home, North Carolina
“Why do you do this?” I had a boyfriend once ask me after another weekend spent traveling to counter-protest against white nationalists who had shown up in yet another southern city. I had gotten in late and missed dinner; he was annoyed. “Like, why is it even your business?”
Because North Carolina is my home. And hate isn’t welcome here.
North Carolina has never been one thing. White North Carolina has never been one thing. Poor North Carolina has never been one thing. Small town and rural North Carolina has never been one thing. As the recent counter-protesting of white supremacy in Hillsborough and Pittsboro demonstrates, and as the multiracial organizing that was targeted by the Klan in Greensboro represents; as William’s Black Armed Guard in Monroe and the brave and persistent editorializing against the Klan by a small-town newspaperman in Tabor City shows…. North Carolina has a strong, important, and radical history of both righteousness and resistance. We’ve always been here; we have always known.
One of the reasons this radical legacy is overshadowed is because the Klan enjoys more sanctioning and authorization. The neo-Confederates and the Klansmen showing up across North Carolina imagine themselves to be rebels and righteous outlaws, but they are anything but. White nationalism is designed to uphold and maintain the existing power structure and government, not oppose it. It is the status quo. And because of this, the existing power structure and government only meekly oppose the Klan.
The Klan and their kith and kin have never been entirely divorced from law enforcement. In the short years of the Reconstruction South and for 150 years since the Ku Klux Klan has supported their local sheriffs as the gatekeepers between the overreach of the federal government and the protection of “local values.” The Klan can feel oxymoronic in this way: They simultaneously behave outside the law while throwing support behind law and order candidates; they demand to the death their Second Amendment rights, while also having a history of advocating to disarm others. It all makes more sense if you understand it’s not about synchronistic ideology: It’s about supremacy.
“The cops and Klan go hand in hand.” That is a chant one often hears at protests. It’s easy to dismiss it as reactionary or simplistic: After all, while the police force in the United States remains overwhelmingly white, 14% of officers are black. They can’t be closeted Klansmen, can they? But its not like we don’t know that white nationalism and law enforcement are inextricably tangled. Not only does police culture attract white supremacists into its ranks and glorify violence and dehumanization, but at the end of the day, law enforcement also defends the same system and takes aim at the same opponents as white nationalists.
It is easy to see the lack of law enforcement response to weapons violations in Hillsborough or the front-end loader incident in Pittsboro as simply laissez-faire (or lazy) policing. That would be bad enough: Every time the police let something slide, there is strong historical evidence that it emboldens white nationalists. But it is also important to look at police inaction as part of a larger pattern and strategy, even if individual officers do not realize it or desire it: Policing as an institution has upheld white supremacy for the entirety of our nation’s history. It’s not like we don’t know that for blacks in the Reconstruction South, there was probably little distinction between the former slave patrols, the Klan, and the police — and in the communities in which I live and the towns where white nationalists are defending their “heritage,” there remains a similar lack of distinction today.
Because this is our home, this is our responsibility. We cannot rely on the police for the work that needs to be done to resist white supremacy in North Carolina. White supremacy is not an issue of law and crime and civil order. It is instead an issue of ethics and faith and community. It doesn’t require police to control it; it requires people to dismantle it.
We are not in positions of authority, we are not sanctioned, or authorized. But we are many more than they are. And we are right. And we do know.
- * I do not link to white supremacist materials or propaganda from my work
- ** An earlier version of this story stated that U.S. Rep. Mark Walker had not expressed concern over Klan activity, but I have corrected this and have linked to an article stating that his office denounced a rally and cross burning organized by the Klan in his district in 2017.