War on white supremacy

Eric Kerl

150 years ago, thousands of white people joined a multiracial insurgency against white supremacy.


The recent rebellion against police terror and racism exploding across the United States has profoundly transformed social consciousness and radicalized millions of people. Even poor and working-class whites—especially youth—have gravitated toward the Black-led struggle, marched in the streets, suffered the blows of brutal cops, and spent nights in jail, only to return to the streets again. In rural areas of the South, usually portrayed as the most backward and racist, whites have confronted white supremacy. As Dr. William Turner, the inimitable Black historian of Appalachia, has noted,

The colorfully refreshing scenes of multiracial solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement stretches from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee, to Black Mountain in Eastern Kentucky, to Negro Mountain in West Virginia, and to the far northern endpoint of the Appalachian Trail, the White Mountains in New England. 1

Many on the left have been surprised and understandably suspicious of whites in the movement. Yet, in contrast to the myth of monolithic whiteness, there are historical precedents of whites who threw themselves into ideological and physical combat against racist power. While John Brown is rightfully remembered as a righteous, antiracist revolutionary, history has not recorded the other whites who likewise went to battle against white supremacy.

One hundred and fifty years ago, the Ku Klux Klan and other white terrorist organizations unleashed a torrent of intimidation, violence, and murder in North Carolina. White moderates, like the state’s new Republican governor William Holden, chafed at meaningful action. Less tolerant of the Klan’s terror, other whites joined a multiracial guerrilla war and volunteered in anti-Klan militias to smash white supremacy and defend the gains of Reconstruction.

For these poor and working-class whites, alliance with the organizations of white supremacy was irreconcilable with the reality of their lives. Klan leaders were overwhelmingly wealthy and well-connected land and business owners. Their political and social power relied on the subjugation and immiseration of the majority of whites as well as Blacks. As the historian Walter Boyd has outlined,

Before the Civil War, most white men in Alamance County had been subsistence farmers and were not slave owners. They had voted overwhelmingly against secession, generally despised the Confederate government, and had been drafted into the army against their will. After being pushed to their physical and mental limits during the war, they returned home to find their families starving and everything in ruins. Their livestock had been eaten or stolen or was worn out. They needed to buy seed, livestock, lumber and tools to get their farms going again, but everyone was bankrupt and there was no money to lend. To add to this despair, they found they had lost their voting rights and were no longer in charge of their own destinies. A new political and social order was in place that apparently excluded them, and no one seemed to care. There seemed to be no hope for the future.2

Their actions—if not their ideas—were shaped by the radical Black politics of Reconstruction.

It would have been easy for them to accept their fate as minions of white supremacy. Instead, thousands of whites mobilized to confront their landlords and bosses who were masquerading in hoods. Their actions—if not their ideas—were shaped by the radical Black politics of Reconstruction. While the racialized caste system branded Blacks as inferior, poor whites were situated as white trash, Buckskins, and other disparaging appellations. They had everything to gain by smashing the strict class and caste hierarchy of white supremacy.

North Carolina was the first of the former Confederate states to hold a Republican convention. Black and white delegates attended, bent on addressing the fierce social crisis that engulfed the state. The electoral coalition that propelled Holden into office included nearly all of the state’s Black voters along with whites in the Appalachian region and a significant portion of Piedmont whites.

The white supremacists were terrified. The interracial alliance threatened their political and social power. In reaction, the state’s prominent business leaders banded together for a campaign of racist terror. One historian has estimated that the area had around eight hundred members of the White Brotherhood, Invisible Empire, and Ku Klux Klan.3 Over the following four years, the white supremacists committed hundreds of terrorist attacks against Black and white North Carolinians, mostly in the state’s predominantly white Piedmont region.4 During one month in 1870, the Klan tortured at least twenty-one people in Caswell County alone.

Klan members included prominent bankers, doctors, planters, and business tycoons. Railroad boss Josiah Turner published the voice of North Carolina’s Democratic Party, the white supremacist Raleigh Sentinel. Republicans called him the King of the Klan. Turner accused the Black and white movement of all sorts of brutality and assault, including the rape of white women.5 The Sentinel also declared war on Black power and anyone aligned with it: 

In this State, under the control of W.W. Holden, it means anarchy, and the perpetuation of Radical power even by bloodshed and a war of the races. . . . A short time must elapse before a civil strife will have been inaugurated, which will convert every household into a scene of bloodshed and desolation.6

Wyatt Outlaw, John Stephens, and War on White Supremacy

The Black Civil War veteran Wyatt Outlaw reflected the depth and breadth of Black political organization during Reconstruction. He represented everything the Klan hated. In the summer of 1864, Wyatt Outlaw and several other enslaved Black men escaped a North Carolina work detail and joined the Union Army. After the war, Outlaw returned to North Carolina and organized a chapter of the Union League, which mobilized Black political power. In 1866, Outlaw was elected as an officer at the Freedman’s Convention7 in Raleigh by one hundred and ten other delegates from eighty-two counties.8 Later, he organized the Alamance County Loyal Republican League, a “political organization of black and white workingmen.”9

Wyatt Outlaw

During the winter of 1870, Outlaw served as one of three Black constables charged with defending Black residents in the town of Graham, North Carolina. White supremacists were exasperated and organized a parade to intimidate Outlaw and his comrades. But someone fired a gun at the Klan. The white supremacists pointed the finger at Outlaw and lynched him days later. A note pinned to his body read, “Beware you guilty both white and black.”10

Two months later, the Klan assassinated the white Republican state senator John W. Stephens inside the Yanceyville courthouse. Although Stephens served in the Confederate army during the Civil War, he joined the Republican Party and Union League afterward. His election to the state’s senate, primarily on the strength of Black voters, made him an enemy of the Klan. One article in Wilmington’s daily newspaper called him, “intensely odious to all good men among the white population.”11 

John W. Stephens

Unrest among the state’s Black and white poor forced Governor Holden to address the scourge of white supremacist terror. In June of 1870, Holden issued a proclamation “offering a reward of FIVE HUNDRED DOLLARS for the arrest of each of the murderers.”12 But combatting the armed power of white supremacy required a more radical strategy. Ultimately, an all-volunteer militia of Blacks and Appalachian whites routed the nightriders. Years later, one of the Kluxers complained in his confession that the movement had “declared martial law and had every prominent citizen arrested by a regiment of cut throats, who could neither read nor write, from western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee.”13

In the first week of July, hundreds of troops were mustered into two regiments. The first was commanded by colonel William J. Clarke. It had two segregated companies of Black and white soldiers from Piedmont and eastern counties. Company H was an all-Black militia of one hundred and two volunteer soldiers, mostly farm laborers and artisans. Its captain was George B. Willis, a formerly enslaved cooper and a founding member of the Mechanics and Workers Mutual Aid Society of North Carolina.

In the state’s western Appalachian counties, white mountaineers volunteered for the 2nd North Carolina State Troops.14 George W. Kirk, an east Tennesseean and former Union colonel, moved the militia quickly against the white supremacists. One confederate apologist described an early action of Kirk’s volunteers:

On July 1, two hundred of his men came down . . . and took post in Alamance County. They were described as a disorderly set of men. At once they began to roam the country in squads making arrests. Among those arrested were some of the leading men in the county.

Kirk reportedly carried a list of prominent white supremacists for capture and skillfully used the element of surprise to carry out the actions. In one instance, Kirk and the militia crashed a Democratic Party fundraiser, “surrounded the building with his armed men and began arresting those on his list, among them Judge Kerr, Dr. Roane, Thomas J. Womack and others of high responsibility.”15

Ultimately, the militia apprehended the King of the Klan, Josiah Turner, himself and threw him in a jail cell. The militia’s actions forcefully crushed the organizations of the Klan, Invisible Empire, and White Brotherhood, which disappeared for the next several years. At the same time, a low-level guerrilla war carried out by white, Black, and Indigenous people against the decrepit Confederate powers.

Black, Native, and White Guerrilla War

In July of 1871, the New York Times printed a story called “Robin Hood Come Again,” which described “a motley crew of whites and blacks, runaway slaves of the war time, deserted soldiers of both armies, and miscellaneous outlaws of every stamp.”16

During the war, the Henry Berry Lowry and his group of Indigenous Lumbees carried out attacks and assassinations against Confederate forces. During the reign of white supremacist terror, they also staged a number of incredible raids against wealthy planters and seized arms and ammunition depots.

Lowry gang in the swamps of Robeson County, North Carolina

Conservative newspapers constantly denounced Lowry and his gang. The Lumbee area was disparaged by the white supremacists as “Scuffletown.” And they alleged that it “demoralized the entire slave population and not a few of the ‘white trash.’”17 Indeed, Scuffletown was a hotbed of interracial militancy; Native, Black, and white. As the Black polemicist and author Jack Thorne18 noted, “The hamlet doubtless derived its name from the fact that it was a free negro settlement.”19

One of the white guerrillas, Zachariah McLaughlin, was described as the “meanest specimen” of a “low-bred youth of Scottish descent.”20 Indeed, the poor “white trash” and “Buckskin” whites that gravitated to the Lumbee fight held more than just economic interests in common with poor Blacks and Lumbees. The entire racial caste system of the South had also cast them near the bottom of the social hierarchy.

Nearly ninety years later, in 1957, the militant, anti-racist tradition of the Lumbee was resuscitated to combat a new wave of Klan terror. At the Battle of Hayes Pond, four hundred armed Lumbee fighters routed the Ku Klan Klan and drove them out of Robeson County, North Carolina.

Lumbees confront the Ku Klux Klan in Robeson County, NC, 1957.

Conclusion

North Carolina’s white terror was a conscious and intentional strategy of the state’s wealthy, white elite to roll back the tide of Reconstruction and Black power. In the Appalachian Mountains and maroon settlements of North Carolina’s swamps, other whites joined forces with Native and Black radicals to resist the reaction of white supremacy. For a short time, they were incredibly successful.

No doubt, these whites entered the fray with contradictory ideas. Regardless of their individual ideas about race, their collective role positioned them in defiance of white supremacy. Indeed, the weight of racist ideology was nothing peculiar to whites. During North Carolina’s first Freedmen’s Convention, Dr. Henry Jerome Brown, a prominent member of Baltimore’s Black aristocratic class, addressed the audience. Although, “he did not claim to belong to the white or black race . . .  his sympathies were with the negro race, because of their circumstances and their being held as inferior to the Caucasian.” Nevertheless, Brown claimed, “no two races on the face of the globe were so much alike as the Caucasian and the negro.” Echoing the hegemony of racist ideology, Brown stated that the American Indian “will not accept nor can be made to appreciate arts, science, literature and religion” and further claimed to prove “the negro race superior to the American Indian, and every respect equal to the Caucasian or Anglo Saxon.”21

From antisemitism to the anti-Oakie laws of the 1930s and backward stereotypes of Appalachian people, poor and working-class whites have more than just shared economic interests with workers of color. The entire social caste order of American capitalism necessitates an unceasing, unapologetic war on white supremacy. And, while some whites continue to be driven by the maintenance of white supremacy, other whites have an important tradition of combating it. The myth of monolithic whiteness serves to conceal that tradition.  

1 William H. Turner, “Commentary: Black Lives Matter at the Mountaintops in My Old Kentucky Home,” Daily Yonder, June 25, 2020, https://dailyyonder.com/commentary-black-lives-matter-at-the-mountaintops-in-my-old-kentucky-home/2020/06/25/.

2 Walter Boyd, “The Life and Tragic Death of Wyatt Outlaw,” Times-News, August 16, 2015,https://www.thetimesnews.com/article/20150816/NEWS/150819177.

3 Boyd, “Life and Tragic Death.”

4 Jim D. Brisson, “‘Civil Government Was Crumbling around Me’: The Kirk-Holden War of 1870,” North Carolina Historical Review 88, no. 2 (2011): 123.

5 “Still at Work,” Tarborough Southerner, November 11, 1869.

6 “Arms for the Loyal,” Tarborough Southerner, July 16, 1868.

7 “Minutes of the Freedmen’s Convention, 1866,” Documenting the American South, https://docsouth.unc.edu/nc/freedmen/freedmen.html.

8 Carole Watterson Troxler, “’To Look More Closely at the Man’: Wyatt Outlaw, a Nexus of National, Local, and Personal History,” North Carolina Historical Review 77, no. 4 (2000): 414.

9 Troxler, “To Look More Closely.” 403–33.

10 Cornelia J. B. Gordon, “No Justice Within the Law: The Murder of Wyatt Outlaw and its Absence from the Legal-Historical Record,” November 10, 2014, https://law.duke.edu/sites/default/files/academics/studentscholars/gordon_paper.pdf.

11 A Citizen of Caswell, “Letter from Yanceyville,” Daily Journal, May 29, 1870.

12 W. W. Holden, “A Proclamation,” Daily Standard, June 7, 1870.

13 John G. Lea, “John G. Lea’s confession to the Ku Klux Klan murder of John W. Stephens, July 2, 1919,” Civil War Era NC, https://cwnc.omeka.chass.ncsu.edu/items/show/22.

14 Samuel B. McGuire, “The Making of a Black Militia Company: New Bern Troops in the Kirk-Holden War, 1870,” North Carolina Historical Review 91, no. 3 (2014): 289.

15 S.A.C. Ashe, History of North Carolina: From 1783 to 1925 (Greensboro, NC: C. L. Van Noppen, 1925), 1114–15

16 “Robin Hood Come Again,” New York Times, July 22, 1871.

17 Mary C. Norment, “The Lowrie History, as Acted in Part by Henry Berry Lowrie, the Great North Carolina Bandit,” Daily Journal, 1875.

18 “Jack Thorne,” Documenting the American South, https://docsouth.unc.edu/nc/thorne/bio.html

19 Jack Thorne, Eagle Clippings (Brooklyn, NY: D. B. Fulton, 1907), 65.

20 Norment, Lowrie History.

21 “Minutes of the Freedmen’s Convention, 1866,” Documenting the American South, https://docsouth.unc.edu/nc/freedmen/freedmen.html.

Eric Kerl is a Kentuckian living, working, organizing, and writing in Chicago. He is the author of White Bred: Hillbillies, White Trash, and Rednecks against White Supremacy, forthcoming from Haymarket Books.