Robeson County’s ‘Third World Ills’
By Mab Segrest
Vol. 10, No. 4, 1988, pp. 14-16
Julian Pierce, a Lumbee Indian candidate for superior court judge in Robeson County, North Carolina, went to his door in the early morning hours of March 26, apparently responding to noise. A waiting assailant shot Pierce as he approached the door–first in the chest, then in the side as he fell, and finally in the back of the head. Pierce lay dead on his kitchen floor, the latest in the body count of this county which has, in the words of one local organizer, “Third World ills.” These include a potent combination of drugs, government corruption and racism.
Pierce’s death brought his home county into the national spotlight for the second time this winter. In early February Eddie Hatcher and Timothy Jacobs, two Tuscarora men, walked into the offices of the Robesonian, the newspaper in the county seat of Lumberton, and took nineteen people hostage, demanding an investigation of drugs, corruption and the county’s unsolved murders. They surrendered ten hours later–amid much sympathy not only from local residents, but even from some of their hostages–after Governor James Martin agreed to form a special task force to investigate their complaints. “Their requests were very reasonable,” said Martin.
Hatcher and Jacobs are to be tried in August or September on federal hostage-taking and illegal weapons charges. Their lawyers from the Center for Constitutional Rights and the Christic Institute South plan to put the county on trial as well, with a “necessity defense” that the two acted in imminent danger of their lives after having exhausted legal remedies.
Robeson County is distinctly tri-racial, with 40 percent white, 35 percent Native American and 25 percent black citizens. One-fourth live below the poverty level, the unemployment rate is consistently one of the highest in the state, and the per-capita income is one of the lowest. Fifty-five percent of adults over twenty-five have not completed high school. Whites remain in most positions of power because the county’s minority residents have historically remained divided.
Poverty, Drugs and Violence
Not only poverty, but drugs and violence plague the county, which is on Interstate 95 about midway between New York and Miami. According to Assistant U.S. Attorney William Webb, four or five major drug organizations operate in the county. U.S. Attorney Sam Currin said that last year he got weekly calls from Robeson citizens that “drugs are being bought and sold openly on the streets.” Currin said that “cocaine people are just flooding the market” and that drug dealers believe they can operate at will, with local law enforcement incapable of stopping them. “Incapable–or bought off,” say many local residents.
The violence plaguing Robeson County is the South’s familiar violence bred by racism and poverty, and also a fearful new violence spawned by the drug trade. Since 1975 there have been eighteen unsolved murders, including execution-style killings said to be drug related. For example, on Oct. 9, 1985, three Lumbee men died when their vehicle was sprayed with bullets and crashed into an embankment. Other victims have been shot in the head and their bodies dumped on the interstate, in their backyards or in the Lumber River. Since the hostage-taking, according to a report on WRAL-TV in Raleigh, there have been fourteen more killings in the county.
Other deaths have raised the specter of racial violence. On Oct. 31, 1985, Joyce Sinclair, a black woman who had just been promoted to a supervisory position at a textile mill, was kidnaped from her home by a “white man wearing v site,” (said her daughter) and found raped and brutally murdered. Her murder is unsolved. Other black families have lost loved ones–for example, Halbert Patterson, a black resident of Maxton, who was shot down in the street by a white merchant because, according to the merchant,
Patterson had closed a car hood on his head. In January of 1988, Billy McKellar, a young black man, died of bronchial asthma in the Robeson County jail where, his family feels, he was denied his asthma medication. The McKellar case was one of the issues raised by Hatcher and Jacobs during their ten-hour siege. Commented John McKellar, Billy’s father: “When I heard about the hostage taking, it seemed like a weight lifted off me. Maybe this will help some of what’s going on in Robeson County. The people in Robeson County are the ones being held hostage by Robeson County law officials. Eddie and Tim are the only two people who stood up to be free.”
Killing Ignited Citizens
The killing that most ignited local citizens, however, was the November 1986 shooting of Jimmy Earl Cummings, an unarmed Lumbee man, by Kevin Stone, county narcotics agent and son of Robeson County Sheriff Hubert Stone, on what should have been a routine drug search. Two weeks after the shooting, a hastily called inquest cleared Kevin Stone of any wrongdoing in Cummings death. The Cummings family was notified of the inquest only hours before and was not able to obtain legal counsel. District Attorney Joe Freeman Britt, in a highly unusual move, was present to question witnesses. He did not call Stone to testify, although other law enforcement officials presented conflicting accounts of the death. The coroner’s jury came back with a highly unusual verdict: “either an accident or self-defense.”
Kevin Stone was one of two deputies with keys to a locker from which $50,000 in stolen drugs and evidence in fifty drug cases had been illegally removed in August 1986. Members of Cumming’s family told state media that Jimmy Earl said he was buying drugs from the locker cache. In December 1986, Mitchell Stevens, a former sheriff’s deputy, and two other men were indicted for the locker theft. At their trial a State Bureau of Investigation agent testified that he had information suggesting another deputy might have helped in obtaining the cocaine stolen from the locker, and named Kevin Stone as one of two officers he suspected.
Cummings’s death, the possible whitewash from the legal establishment, and growing suggestions of law enforcement complicity ignited county residents. Soon up to 800 people–Native American, black and white–were attending mass meetings, They came together in a coalition, Concerned Citizens for Better Government, and began to rally the three races around a variety of concerns. These ranged from protests against violence and corruption to support for the merger of the county’s five school systems into one system that would more equitably educate the county’s minority children. On Easter Monday 1987, a march sponsored by the coalition brought 1,500 of the county’s residents into the streets in an unprecedented show of unity and opposition to what they perceived as a morally bankrupt power structure.
On Super Tuesday this year, the coalition brought people together in the ballot box as well, and blacks and Native Americans together voted for school merger, signaling a historic shift of power. Julian Pierce’s campaign for the position of Superior Court judge against District Attorney Joe Freeman Britt–by then regarded as a hated symbol of the white establishment–took on added energy, and supporters predicted Pierce’s victory.
Then Pierce was murdered. The law enforcement officer leading the investigation was Sheriff Hubert Stone (accompanied by state and federal agents), and the DA in charge
of the prosecution was Pierce’s rival, Joe Freeman Britt. Within four days, Stone announced that the case was solved–and that the main suspect was dead of “apparent suicide.” Pierce had been killed by two Indians over a “domestic dispute,” he said.
According to Stone, John Anderson Goins, 24, was the boyfriend of Pierce’s fiancee’s daughter, and the young Lumbee had killed Pierce because he and her mother had sworn out a warrant on Goins to keep him away from the girl. Stone charged Sandy Chavis, whom he described as Goin’s companion, with Pierce’s murder, although Chavis denied participating in the killing, saying that he had driven Goins to Pierce’s house without knowing his friend intended to kill Pierce. A deputy and an SBI agent found Goins dead in a closet in his father’s unoccupied home after law enforcement had pursued him, the sheriff said.
Accusations of a Coverup
“My first reaction is that it’s a cover-up–or that they picked a scapegoat,” said Dail Chavis, one of Pierce’s sisters.” [sic] Julian Pierce wanted to clean things up,” a young black man who refused to give his name told a reporter. “So now Pierce is shot dead, and the sheriff right away says these two guys did it, and one of the guys just happens to kill himself. What would you think about that, if you was me?”
Governor Martin, responding to citizen demands, apparently pressured Britt into requesting a special prosecutor from the attorney general’s office. Maneuvering also occurred between Martin and the legislature. Part of Martin’s compromise in the wake of the hostage-taking was that Martin would ask the legislature to add a second judgeship for the county and that he would appoint a Native American to that position (rather than postponing the election to find someone to run against Britt as Pierce’s supporters originally requested). According to press coverage of the dealing between Martin and the legislature, the governor did push the legislature to create the second judgeship, but the legislature then declared that Britt would be senior judge, thus getting power to appoint magistrates and set the court calendar. The legislature also demanded a guarantee that the district attorney appointed to fill Britt’s unexpired term would be white. The legislature agreed, however, to the appointment of a black public defender, for which the coalition of Concerned Citizens and the Rural Advancement Fund had been steadily working in the county for some time. When all was said and done, however, the positions of real authority remained in the hands of Britt and the local white establishment.
The Hatcher-Jacobs trial will show evidence of drug trafficking and “how things happen when a system is controlled by drug cartels,” said Bob Warren, attorney for Christic Institute South. “The murder of Julian Pierce is a major example of what happens in such a system.” Warren says that the lawyers hope by the trial date to have the Pierce murder solved. “Our evidence now points to an assassination, not to a domestic dispute,” Warren commented.
On April 20, five blocks from the courthouse in downtown Lumberton, a bullet shattered the windshield of the car Bob Warren was driving. A later call explained it had been a warning shot. Warren says that he has heard from four different sources that there is a contract on his life.
The media are filled with stories of constant violence, corruption and drug-related problems in such countries as El Salvador, Colombia, and Panama. Yet we in the South do not have to look that far for examples of failed democracy. Robeson County lies halfway between New York and Miami; but what its people are suffering may be going on now or soon in other communities across the South.
Mab Segrest is director of North Carolinians Against Racial and Religious Violence. Her article is adapted from a copyrighted article in Christian Century, and appears here with permission.