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Klansville U.S.A. | Article

A Near Massacre

In August 1965, the small town of Plymouth, North Carolina nearly became the site of what might have been one of the bloodiest events of the civil rights era. A group of North Carolina Klansmen planned to arm themselves with automatic rifles and attack a civil rights march. Independent of one another, the Klan leader and the activist leaders each called it off at the last minute. Author David Cunningham and two Plymouth residents describe the violent encounter that preceded the near miss.

David Cunningham, Author, Klansville, U.S.A.
One of the most important, but least known stories of the civil rights movement, I think, occurs in Plymouth, North Carolina, which is in the eastern part of North Carolina. It's a small town. And there are a series, a whole campaign of voter registration marches, and a broader movement organized by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Martin Luther King's organization. The SCLC's representative and leader in North Carolina at the time was a man by the name of Golden Frinks. […] And in Plymouth, Frinks had been sort of spearheading this month-long voter registration campaign. And there would be these nightly civil rights marches that would occur down the main street of the town.

Sam Garrett, Plymouth Resident
We were marching [to] let them know that we were dissatisfied with what were going on in Plymouth. We were marching trying to get equality, equal rights, everything for that.

Chester Smith, Plymouth Resident
When we marched […] you can hardly say that you're not [afraid] because you're human, and you are because you know your life is at stake, even though it might not be as drastic as in some other places, but you realize that.

Sam Garrett, Plymouth Resident 
If you aren’t scared, you have no sense. […] You had nerve enough to walk, but you had to be a little jittery on what they going to do because you know what the Klan would do to you. Because I stayed up many nights with my window raised waiting for a cross and my shotgun pulled out. Because if they come at me, I was going to kill somebody with me. I wasn't going by myself.

Chester Smith, Plymouth Resident
Okay, so when we marched down […] I almost thought maybe I wished I could go through the ground because […] we didn't own any stores, we didn't have any black people working in there, we didn't have us in there, you know? So I knew that I was going to be looking at the people that I owed for my survival. I had to depend on many of them; food, groceries, water, lights, clothes, you know. So I know now I'm going to be passing by these people and they're going to be looking at me. […] And I felt like, “Oh wow, can I make it?” But when I got by the second furniture store and they were hollering my name out, “Look at Chester Lee out there. Look at her. Look who’s out there,” and stuff like that. […] And you know what? That kind of-- I guess I could say kind of hardened my heart a little bit because, see, I was softening up because I was afraid. But when I heard this, “Oh wow, okay, so you're calling my name out like this? Yeah, I'm walking, I'm not doing anything wrong. Just asking for what is partially mine.”

Sam Garrett, Plymouth Resident
There comes a point-- and our leader at that time, Golden Frinks, would come let you know, “I know that you don’t have the nerve that you want to have, but we got to let them know that we're going to march. We're going to live or die. So let's get together and make up your mind what you're going to do.”

David Cunningham, Author, Klansville, U.S.A. 
And what happens twice during this campaign in Plymouth is that the Klan calls out their members; they make a call, and they have people come out to Plymouth and mobilize on the fringes of the town. And when they would have these calls, you could have 1,000 or 1,500 Klan members showing up in a town that was only a few thousand people in total. So this is a very charged situation.

Chester Smith, Plymouth Resident
The level of tension was high. Because, see, you got people who are in agreement with you and some who aren’t and some you were hoping were. And they're not.

When it meets you head on, it kind of gives you a feeling of fear and doubt. Should I keep on, or should I stop? So the tension was really high at that time among the persons who were out there, and those even who weren't in the marches.

Sam Garrett, Plymouth Resident
During the day, no one had no problem. The law didn't bother you during the day, but at night, that's the time you had your problem, when you had your meeting. And they didn't want you to get together and organize. They didn’t want you to get too strong in the community.

Editor's Note: A few days before the Plymouth march was scheduled to occur, a group of civil rights activists attended a planning meeting at a church. Following the meeting, at night, they marched together towards their homes. The following describes the events of that evening.

David Cunningham, Author, Klansville, U.S.A. 
The first time we have this sort of call [to action from the Klan], the civil rights marchers do actually march that night…

Chester Smith, Plymouth Resident
We had met that week before [the scheduled Plymouth march] down at the little church on Madison Street.

Before we marched that day, we had gotten a permit from the courthouse to march and [the Klan] were there getting a permit also. […] They were there getting the permit that they would be able to march also.

I was told that day by phone and by word of mouth down at the courthouse that I better stay home or else what was going to happen to me, they would kill me, get rid of me. So, we all had whispered that in the ears of all the other citizens. […] So then this is kind of getting around now, and we know now that we think the Klansmen are out there to get us somewhat.

Before we could get home that night, we had to call the office of President [Lyndon] Johnson, and he had to give us protection out of his office. Protection was ordered, that we would be guided home without being hurt by the Klansmen that we thought were in the area.

Chester Smith, Plymouth Resident
So that night when we got in the street, when we left the church that night, and we got down by New Chapel Church […] we saw this group of people, or -- well, an army like of people dressed in gray fatigues. And so we thought that these were the persons who were going to protect us because we had already made contact with the downtown officers that we were going to march, and they gave us the protection that they had, of course. So we thought they were there to protect us.

Sam Garrett, Plymouth Resident
We came out of the church, we thought we had protection. …They marched down with us. That’s why we thought we had protection.

Chester Smith, Plymouth Resident
And then when we got up from Madison Street, turning on 3rd Street, and got up to Washington Street, this is when they had surrounded us. And up ahead-- sort of up ahead of me turning…some persons had already been hit and there were some [Klansmen] up in the trees, like to do whatever they had planned to do with us. […] And right in the middle of Washington and 3rd, we had one person who was driving the car in case -- you know, we always, when we marched, we always had a person who would come with us with the car in case somebody got sick or something and needed a ride. And [the Klansmen] went to her car, lifting it up and were going to turn it over.

Sam Garrett, Plymouth Resident
Well, it was about 40 or 50 of us at the church that night that we marched out. […] And we were leading the crowd at that time. […] We got to the white Methodist church, that's when the fight started, but we kept on going. […] But Mike got on Washington Street and they tried to get Mike, and we jumped on Mike and closed him up so they couldn’t hurt him. But I know two of the fellows that were in that Klan, I looked at them, I saw them. They knowed me because I worked with them every day at the warehouse. And I told them, I said, “I recognize you. And if you don’t kill me, I will let folks know that you’s in it.”

Chester Smith, Plymouth Resident
And we're looking at them, we couldn’t really identify everybody, but we saw them in action. And they were, you know, on us. And many of us then get hit that night. […] One man, I guess one of our own members, I guess, probably about 85, a Mr. Hooker, they hit him and hurt him, an old man. And so there were things like that that happened that night.

Sam Garrett, Plymouth Resident
They tried to make [Bill Hooker] run, but he said he won't want to run. And he didn't run. And they cut him. But they didn't cut to kill him, they let him know that he had been cut. Spread the word that “we going to get you,” but that didn't stop us. And it didn't stop him, neither. He still went on. So we still went out, and we still were on the move to try to change things in the town.

Chester Smith, Plymouth Resident
They had marched right there by me, right along while we were marching. […] We were in a line maybe four or five, together marching. And they would be on either side of us. And when we got to Washington Street and they started picking up this car, had turned it over, we knew then that this is not for us. And, of course, we got frightened to a point and the persons who were in the car, they were really frightened because they thought they might turn the car over and kill-- you know.

And that’s when we found out that [Klansmen] were there. We were looking at them dressed in the gray fatigues, but we thought they were security people for us. But now we know, uh-huh.

Sam Garrett, Plymouth Resident
When we walked out that night, we thought were taken by the Green Beret and we found out they were Klans….

David Cunningham, Author, Klansville, U.S.A.
Five days later, there's another call. And that night [of the Plymouth march], Frinks is convinced by the state police to call off that night's march because the situation is just too tense. And little did he know how tense it actually was, because there was a plot by the Carolina Klans to create roadblocks in the few roads that would come into Plymouth and to support those roadblocks and protect those roadblocks with members with machine guns. These are Korean War veterans who are both well armed and well trained in the use of high-powered machinery and gunfire.

And once these roadblocks were in place, the idea would be that an elite set of Klan fighters, effectively, would go in -- and the word that was, the term that was thrown around at the time – “clean house” in the African American communities in Plymouth.

So this had the potential to be by far the bloodiest scene of the civil rights movement. And this was something that was a serious plan considered by the Carolina Klans.

At the last minute, you know, what happens is that President Johnson, knowing not about that particular plan, but the degree of tension there, puts an Army troop on alert at nearby Fort Bragg. And you see a great mobilization by the state police. And [Grand Dragon Bob] Jones knows that if this actually occurs, this will be the end of the Carolina Klan as a public membership organization; it's all going to go away.

And so, what Jones does in a fairly charged move is that he calls off the plan at the last minute. And this is something that I think both at least temporarily saves his organization, but also simultaneously what this does is he loses a whole set of his most committed militant members, many of which go and break off into an offshoot, a more militant Klan organization afterwards, thinking that Jones is not going to represent their interests.

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