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Protest and Punishment in Rural North Carolina

Longtime inhabitants of Benson and those passing through could not miss the prominent billboard at the edge of town that boldly announced, “You Are in the Heart of Klan Country.” Benson, a sleepy agricultural town perhaps best known for its annual Mule Days festival, is forty minutes south of North Carolina’s capital city. During the civil rights era, the town was a major thoroughfare for vacationers heading east to the beach and for coastal residents traveling west to the piedmont region of the state. According to the 1960 U.S. Census, Benson had 2,355 residents and 319 of them were African American.

The sign was a reminder that the white supremacist organization no longer operated in the shadows. The Ku Klux Klan experienced a 1960s revival because of white anxiety over the civil rights movement. By 1966, the Klan had more than a hundred klaverns or local chapters in North Carolina. Moreover, the Tar Heel State had 7,000 dues-paying members of the Klan, more than any other southern state.

In eastern North Carolina, reactions to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s murder became the perfect storm for a confrontation between African Americans and Klansmen. On April 8, 1968—four days after King’s death—five young black men set fire to a Ku Klux Klan meeting hall in Benson. Such a meeting hall was not an anomaly. While some Klansmen still met in private homes in the 1960s, many klaverns had purchased abandoned buildings to serve as their headquarters and site of weekly meetings. The Benson klavern’s meeting hall was a small cinder block building, but more cosmopolitan areas had fancier digs. For example, the klavern in Durham—also home to Duke University—had a meeting space that accommodated more than 500 people along with several offices, a snack bar, and a reception room. Official headquarters similar to those of the Masons or the American Legion gave the Klan legitimacy as a bona fide organization. 

The Benson affair compels us to problematize regional dichotomies that are often deployed to differentiate the North from the South and urban areas from rural ones. In 1968, black anger was not confined to urban areas. African Americans in the rural South also initiated disturbances to protest unjust circumstances. Examining activism and protest in the post-1965 South urges us to rethink studies that focus on uprisings and massive protests in the North without considering the ways in which black southerners continued their earlier assault on white supremacy.

The five young black men, whose ages ranged from sixteen to twenty, decided to set fire to the town’s most visible symbol of hate and white supremacy. In burning the Benson klavern’s meeting hall, the youth expressed anger at both King’s assassination and the actions of local Klansmen who rode through black neighborhoods celebrating the civil rights leader’s death. Because of the young men’s criminal inexperience, the damage to the hall was only minimal and did not exceed $30. Yet all five men were arrested, charged, and convicted of “felonious burning.” A judge sentenced each of the youth to twelve years of hard labor.

The severity of these sentences became international news for two reasons. First, none of the accused had prior criminal records. Second, no Klansmen in North Carolina had ever been prosecuted for an act of racial violence. Historian David Cecelski has documented KKK atrocities in 1960s North Carolina, including black church bombings; the stoning of a school bus; the firing of shots at a state trooper; and nighttime harassment of individuals of any race who supported desegregation. Despite the long list of Klan crimes, black youth rather than domestic terrorists faced a judge and jury. The youth and their families secured legal representation from the first integrated law firm in the state, the Charlotte-based Law Offices of Chambers, Stein, Ferguson, and Lanning. Widespread outcry about the excessive punishment meted out to the five black Benson youth led North Carolina Governor Bob Scott to exercise executive clemency and commute their active sentences to suspended ones in 1969. 

The Benson episode forces us to grapple with the limits of civil rights achievements. While legislative victories forced segregation signs to come down in public accommodations and opened the ballot box up to black southerners, no meaningful changes were made to racial disparities in sentencing laws at the local, state, and federal levels. In March 2018, nearly fifty years after the five young men received harsh sentences in North Carolina, a Sentencing Project report submitted to the United Nations on “Racial Disparities in the U.S.Criminal Justice System” found that discretionary decision and sentencing policies disadvantage African Americans. For example, “federal prosecutors are twice as likely to charge African Americans with offenses that carry a mandatory minimum sentence than similarly situated whites.” Notably, these disparities are not limited to the adult justice system but are also found with respect to juvenile sentencing. “Among youth, African Americans are 4.1 times as likely to be committed to secure placements as whites.” Disproportionate rates of imprisonment should not simply be the concern of those committed to racial justice. It must also be a priority among those interested in public safety and those concerned about the “legitimacy” of the criminal justice system.

Just as the five Benson youth took a drastic action in 1968 to make their discontent known, activists today are engaging in civil disobedience and causing disruptions on highways and other public places to sound the alarm about the ongoing crises in the United States. Whether it’s unchecked anti-black violence by both law enforcement and private citizens or voter suppression enacted by state legislators and upheld by judges at all levels, ordinary citizens and community leaders are saying enough is enough. Fifty years after the turmoil caused by King’s assassination, Americans of all colors, classes, and creeds are still attempting to make their voices heard and their presence acknowledged.

For more information on the burning of the KKK meeting hall referenced in the post, see Crystal R. Sanders, “North Carolina Justice on Display: Governor Bob Scott and the 1968 Benson Affair,” Journal of Southern History, 79 (no. 3, 2013), 659-680. Also see David Cunningham, Klansville, U.S.A.: The Rise and Fall of the Civil Rights-Era Ku Klux Klan (New York, 2012).

Crystal R. Sanders is an Associate Professor of History and African American Studies and the Director of the Africana Research Center at Pennsylvania State University. She is the award-winning author of A Chance for Change: Head Start and Mississippi’s Black Freedom Struggle and publishes regularly on Black women’s history; civil rights movement history; and the history of Black Education.

For more about protest and resistance in African American history, see this piece on 1968 campus protests or this piece on commemorating the 1968 Olympic Games.

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