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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Lyman Johnson, July 12, 1990. Interview A-0351. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Black neighbors organize armed resistance against the Ku Klux Klan, state police, and National Guard

When the Ku Klux Klan threatened to lynch local blacks, the black neighborhoods organized armed resistance. Local police deferred to state police and National Guard in the impending violence, but fear of the black community prevented a large-scale attack.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Lyman Johnson, July 12, 1990. Interview A-0351. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

LYMAN JOHNSON:
I don't know whether anybody ever heard of that guy any more. I think maybe he got to Nashville, Louisville, Cincinnati, and I don't think he stopped before he got to Detroit. Now, in order to show Negroes, you don't do that kind of stuff, then they-I won't say Ku Kluxers, but the Ku Klux element, began to organize. "Let's go get us one or two, and lynch them and that'll put them in their places. That'll bring fear to all in the place." So the Negroes armed themselves for two or three days. They publicly said they were going to lynch one or two.
JOHN EGERTON:
Now at that point, the state ended up troopers in there, National Guards?
LYMAN JOHNSON:
No, the city police couldn't handle it, because the whites. . . . You know, I said you come down from the courthouse, come down one block. Now, I know all about this. I was raised in that town, and here's the courthouse right here. Come down Main Street one block, and there are four buildings there that my people own, on Main Street, one block from the courthouse. And they were such imposing places that there wasn't any Negro in town who ran a business big enough to rent the thing. We rented those places to white people, see. Now, you come down here, and we were facing Main Street, but if you come down this street, there is the one block of Negro businesses.
JOHN EGERTON:
One block off of Main?
LYMAN JOHNSON:
Yeah. That's all it was to it. But those Negroes armed themselves.
JOHN EGERTON:
What's the name of this street? Is that Franklin?
LYMAN JOHNSON:
No, no, Eighth Street. The courthouse is at Seventh Street. There's one Negro block on Eighth Street. My uncle's and father's places were here on Main Street just beyond Eighth Street, one block from the courthouse. Negroes from all over the county and adjoining counties, some Negroes who had come in, like this young soldier, had brought back souvenirs and guns that they'd taken from the Japanese. They had all kinds of weapons. I'm going through all of this to show you the difference between a riot. A riot is where you are making an attack on somebody else, but these people bottled themselves up in their little businesses. . . .
JOHN EGERTON:
And just waited.
LYMAN JOHNSON:
And the white people were afraid to go down in there. So they marched down Main Street, and the next street over is, I think, called Woodland. The next street over here is called Woodland, Main and Woodland, and here is Eighth Street going across here. And that one block, whites would parade up and down here and up and down here, but nobody would go down in there. When the police started down in there, the Negroes said, "Look, we have shot out the street lights, so we can't see you. We can't see you. Now, don't any of you white folk come in here, because if you do, we going to shoot the hell out of you." And when the police started, Negroes did shoot on them. And when they shot on them, that was the attack on constituted authority.
JOHN EGERTON:
Did that hurt anybody?
LYMAN JOHNSON:
I think so.
JOHN EGERTON:
Your feeling was that several people got killed?
LYMAN JOHNSON:
Yeah, I think so. The white people wouldn't want to admit it. They wouldn't want to admit that the Negroes killed a single one.
JOHN EGERTON:
But you felt pretty strongly that they did?
LYMAN JOHNSON:
I've got a feeling that some white folk got bumped off down there. They kept it quiet because they couldn't admit even that much of a defeat. But now, when you attack the police, the police may be wrong, the police may be using poor judgment, but they represent constituted authority. So then the police, the mayor, and so forth called in the governor, and the governor sent in the state troopers and so forth, and they're the ones that took over.
JOHN EGERTON:
Is it your feeling, when you look back on what happened subsequently, that the governor and his representatives, all the way down to the National Guard and all, conducted themselves in a proper manner or not?
LYMAN JOHNSON:
Oh, I think the state authority used quite a bit of discretion. I don't know whether we can give them credit for using proper conduct.
JOHN EGERTON:
Did they kill anybody?
LYMAN JOHNSON:
I don't think so.
JOHN EGERTON:
Did they beat up on people?
LYMAN JOHNSON:
I don't think so. You see, those Negroes were so well armed, and they put it out. I know what they told me.