On July 5 a historical marker was erected in Maxton, North Carolina, to commemorate an event that occurred sixty years ago, when the Ku Klux Klan tried to rally in the heart of Lumbee Indian territory. The Klansmen were run out of town, and the 1958 event made the national news, including in The New York Times and Life magazine. The conflict became known as “The Battle of Hayes Pond.”
The Lumbee tribe of North Carolina has fought long and hard for tribal recognition and respect. With 55,000 members, it’s the largest tribe east of the Mississippi and the ninth largest in the nation. But while the tribe was recognized by the state of North Carolina in 1885, the federal government dragged its feet on official recognition until 1956, and even then stopping short of full recognition.
In 1956, Ku Klux Klan activities in the area had already been ratcheting up in the wake of the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education mandating the desegregation of schools. After the recognition of the Lumbee in North Carolina, Ku Klux Klan wizard James W. “Catfish” Cole launched a campaign of terror against the tribe, questioning its indigenous status and telling the Greensboro Daily News, “There’s about 30,000 half-breeds up in Robeson County and we are going to have some cross burnings and scare them up.”
Klan activities in the area had already been ratcheting up in the wake of the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision.
Cole and other members of the KKK accused the Lumbee of being “mixed race” people, who were intermingling with African Americans and whites, and called for a rally “in the heart of that mongrelized Indian country.”
In January of 1958, Klansmen started distributing a flier to organize a gathering at Hayes Pond, located near Maxton, North Carolina. “Hear the Klan Kludd [chaplain] speak on “Why I Believe In Segregation,” the flier announced.
In the days leading up to the rally, crosses were burned in front of at least two homes—one belonging to a Native American family that had recently moved into a “white neighborhood” and the other to a Lumbee woman who had been rumored to be dating a white man. A caravan with loudspeakers drove through town to drum up support, hurling racial slurs.
As evening settled on Saturday, January 18, the Klansmen had prepared for the rally in a large field, with loudspeakers, a cross to be burned, and a large banner. But in the end, only fifty to 100 supporters showed up. Cole, who was from South Carolina, misunderstood the racial dynamics in Lumbee territory and the extent to which the tribe, which had been struggling for sovereignty for decades, was prepared to defend itself and other indigenous people.
Before Cole could even begin his prepared speech, more than 500 well-armed men—Lumbee people, as well as members of the Tuscarora and Coharie tribes—began to emerge from the surrounding dark. He was accosted on the makeshift stage by one of the members of the tribe, a shoving match ensued, and one tribal member shot out the solitary floodlight. Others began shooting rifles into the air to disperse the crowd. “You didn’t know exactly what you were going to do when you got there, but you were excited about going,” remembered one Lumbee, Ray Little Turtle.
Klansmen fled in all directions, Cole even leaving his wife behind. Four Klansmen were wounded in the first volley fired by the Lumbee, none seriously. The Lumbees even reportedly helped Mrs. Cole push her car out of the ditch where she had gotten it stuck during the panic.
“We had to do what we had to do,” Lumbee member Lee Ancil Maynor, who was thirty-three at the time of the rally, said at a reunion event in 2016. “If we hadn’t done it, they would have soon been in our front yard.”
Local law enforcement showed up after the altercation had taken place, but by then, the field was clear.
“If we hadn’t done it, they would have soon been in our front yard.”
The Lumbee gathered up discarded robes and the rally banner and marched back into Maxton to celebrate, which included burning Catfish Cole in effigy. Press coverage showcased two Lumbee men, one a celebrated World War II bomber engineer, wrapped in the KKK banner they had torn off a Klansmen’s car at the rally.
The historical marker erected July 5 was proposed by students at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke. The students obtained the tribe’s approval before proceeding.
Today, the Lumbee continue to struggle today for recognition and respect, most recently resisting the construction of an oil and gas pipeline running across the tribe’s territory, threatening to separate communities and pollute precious water resources. But the tribe’s identity will be forever tied to the 1958 resistance.
“This is a part of who we are,” said tribal Chairman Harvey Godwin Jr. at a the 2016 gathering. “We drove the KKK out of Robeson County and they haven’t came back since. We need to use that energy to fight our battles today, but without the weapons.”