The Night of the KKK
from Songs of Gentle Sadness
By Buie Seawell
Lumberton was just another small southern town in 1952, a part of the colorful, so called, “black belt” of eastern North Carolina. Dark green tobacco grew in gray, rich soil. Deep brown, cypress-stained rivers muddled their ways through swamps and farms. Persons of color – Blacks, Red Indians, “Pinkies” (persons of mixed race accepted neither by Black nor Indian schools) and Whites were the palette for the colors of our daily life. Some of the Whites were also distinguished by another color, red — as in Rednecks.
Nationally the early Fifties was a time of “un-American activities.” Senator Joe McCarthy was finding Communists everywhere. We didn’t have any Communists in Lumberton, as far as I knew. There weren’t even many Republicans.
My father, the Solicitor (a quaint name for prosecuting attorney, i.e. DA) for our county and three other adjacent counties, was asked to go to Washington, D.C., to testify not about Communists, but about Klan activities in our area. In the early spring of ’52 Dad drove to Pembroke and took the train to D. C. Before he left he had put thirty of the good ol’boys of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan in the county jail for intimidating various folks in the county, including a local newspaper reporter, Penn Gray. Penn was somehow kin to us, like a third cousin, or something.
Out of pitch dark, I woke suddenly and confused. Mom was calling, “Son, come here. Come here!” I stumbled down the stairs from my bedroom to the living room. My first impression was of my mother in orange silhouette standing in her bathrobe looking out the windows into our front yard, which was glowing in the light of some monstrous fire. Her face was blank, her eyes wide, and her body unmoving. I thought the house across the street, the McLean’s home, was burning down. And then turning to follow my Mom’s startled gaze, I saw the strange, crude crucifix of tobacco sticks, rags and flame lying on our old split rail fence and engulfing it and two of our pine trees.
“Why is this happening?”
Mom’s words were without definite subject or specific object. Her pathetic phrase caused me to feel like you do when nausea overtakes you in sleep, a sense of overwhelming malaise without any source of causation — like when you feel worse all over more than anywhere else.
“We should call the Sheriff.”
Shoulds and Sheriffs are powerful antidotes for fear. Mom dialed the phone while I just kept starring out the windows. The cross had broken and fallen sideways down onto the rail fence. One of the longleaf pine trees was now only smoking where the cross had fallen against it. Then I saw our neighbor, John McLean with his hose trying to put the whole mess out. It didn’t take long. Kerosene drenched cheese cloth over tobacco sticks joined with bailing wire doesn’t take long to go from roaring flame to smoldering cinders.
My little sister in her footed jammies was there beside me watching. At first she didn’t say anything, just looked. And then Terrell said, “Mom’s crying.”
When Malcolm McLeod, we called him the Big Sheriff because he was six foot eight and weighed three hundred pounds, came with his deputy, everything got better. My dog Judge, who had not barked at the cross-burners, now began howling at the Sheriff and his deputy. A search was made of our bushes and yard. Mr. McLean from across the street was questioned. He’d seen an old pickup truck drive up, stop and two men stake out the cross and light it. Then the truck spun its tires and was gone down 20th Street towards Pine Street. And that’s all John said he could see. No, he didn’t recognize the truck or the men in it.
Sheriff McLeod left his deputy to guard our house. Judge continued to bark at the strange uniformed man poking around in our yard, so we took the dog inside. And there the four of us sat on the rug in the living room, Mom, Terrell, Judge and me. The place that was so home to me, now felt alien and lonely . . . I felt homesick, yet I was at home. Somehow I felt my life beginning to move elsewhere but without why or when or where. Looking back I know my eventual leaving Lumberton began that night.
The next morning, Saturday, I went to Mr. Sellers’ store and bought some 22 longs for my single shot rifle. The men who hung out at Mr. Sellers’ place laughed and taunted, “Hear you had some visitors last night . . . and your Dad’s away . . . What you doin’ with them bullets, Son? Not rabbit season yet, is it?”
For maybe the first time in my life, as their laughter died behind me, I knew where I was going walking home down Chestnut Street.