Victory over double voting and tensions between Native Americans in Robeson County
In this excerpt, Nakell reveals some of the constitutional issues that guided his advocacy for the Lumbee and Tuscarora Native Americans in Robeson County. Nakell believed that the Supreme Court’s ruling in <cite>Baker v. Carr</cite> (1962), widely seen as establishing the principle of "one person, one vote," rendered double voting unconstitutional. He had trouble convincing people in Robeson County of his belief, but eventually won his case before the Fourth Circuit United States Court of Appeals. Animosity between Tuscarora and Lumbee Native Americans was so strong that not only did Nakell pose in two separate celebratory photos, but, he recalls, one Tuscarora man held a knife to his throat after he referred to the group as Lumbees.
Citing this Excerpt
Oral History Interview with Barry Nakell, October 1, 2003. Interview U-0012. 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
MM: So tell us a little bit then about the constitutional issues involved in your litigation against that system.
BN: Well, by this time the United States Supreme Court had developed some new constitutional doctrines about voting rights, particularly the general right that every qualified citizen is entitled to one vote, one person, one vote. A number of decisions about equality and fairness in voting rights. Under those doctrines it was crystal clear that the double voting system that I’ve described was unconstitutional. I don’t think there was much question about it, but we had a lot of difficulty establishing it. The first thing we did is we went to the legislature to try to get some help. There was only one member of the Robeson County delegation who supported us and that was Joy Johnson. Joy Johnson was a black member of the legislature, and the blacks didn’t, as I say, have a great interest in this double voting issue, but Joy Johnson supported us a thousand percent, which I thought was great. I remember one of the nicest experiences I had in the legislature, I met a senator there named Wade Smith. Wade Smith continues to be a good friend of mine. He’s a fine, excellent lawyer in Raleigh and he was very supportive of us as well. He was very concerned about the situation. Generally speaking on a matter of particular local interest the legislature will defer to the local delegation, though. With Joy Johnson being the only local legislator who would support us, we were unable to get legislative relief. So we turned to the courts. We filed a lawsuit in the United States District Court for the eastern district of North Carolina. The case came before the Honorable Algernon L. Butler as I recall. Judge Butler turned us down. So we had to appeal, and we went to the United States Court of Appeals for the fourth circuit, which sits, holds argument in Richmond, Virginia. I remember the day up there very well. We were suing the Robeson County Board of Elections and the State Board of Elections. The Robeson County Board of Elections was represented by an attorney from the Attorney General’s office. Excuse me the State Board of Elections was represented by the Attorney General’s office. The local Robeson County Board of Elections was represented by Mr. Britt who later became a federal judge in the United States District Court for the eastern district of North Carolina where he served with distinction and is now I think on senior status. But we argued the case, and a great number of Indians, both Tuscarora and Lumbee, came up to Richmond for the argument and filled the courtroom. It was quite an exciting event because the court was very open and fair-minded. It was very clear from the argument that they saw the unconstitutionality of the double voting system, and it was really a very euphoric occasion. I think we were very confident after the argument based on the comments of the judges, and after the argument we went outside and kind of celebrated. Bruce Barton took some pictures, wrote a nice story in the Carolina Indian Voice about the argument. I remember, though, feeling kind of sad about one thing, which is the only person who could talk to the two groups at the time, the Lumbees and the Tuscaroras, was myself. Well, I guess at the time Bruce Barton was still welcome in both groups, but shortly after that the Tuscaroras stopped talking to him. So his front-page story about the argument had two photographs of the group there, one photograph of Lumbees with me in the middle and one photograph of Tuscaroras with me in the middle. They insisted on being photographed separately, which I thought was unfortunate.
But I might tell you a little story I guess. This was a little story about when we filed the lawsuit. You asked about the AIM folks. So maybe I can back up a little bit and tell you when we decided to go forward with the lawsuit, I had been working with the Lumbee group that I described to you. But as I was working on it, I began working with some of the Tuscaroras as well. They became supportive. So I actually had separate meetings with both groups. I met in Pembroke at a restaurant as I recall with a huge number of Lumbees, and I presented the draft of the complaint to them and got their support. While we were meeting, Russell Banks [actually, Dennis Banks] and another Indian from the AIM movement came to the meeting and spoke. I kind of waited until they finished, and they left, and I spoke to the group again, and I said--I don’t remember exactly the words--but I essentially said I don’t think you need to take to the streets. I think we have legal remedies available. I’d like you to support this lawsuit and see if we can begin getting legal remedies. I think this is the way to proceed. Most people I think supported that effort. I know there were some people who supported the AIM movement. I know there were some actions, barn burnings, I remember, and other things attributed to the AIM folks. I think about this time there was a big sit-in at the Department of Education in Washington as I recall or at one of the departments in Washington. I think it was largely the Tuscarora group that was involved in that.
I then had a meeting with the Tuscarora group. This time we met out in a rural part of Robeson County in a large one-room building, and there were a good number of people. I would say there were a good hundred people at that meeting. At the time the chief of the Tuscarora tribe was a guy named Keever Locklear. See, Keever had been one of the people arrested in the sit-in in Washington. At the time Keever and I didn’t know each other very well. Since then we’ve become very good friends. But on that date, in front of this assembled group, I began talking about the proposed lawsuit, and then I read them the complaint. I read paragraph one of the complaint, and I said, “The plaintiffs are a group of Lumbee Indians from—“ And I didn’t finish the sentence when I felt myself grabbed from the behind and wheeled around a knife at my throat. There was Keever Locklear holding the knife and several of the other Tuscaroras were surrounding me. “What have I done wrong? What is this?” Well, things calmed down in a little bit, and I learned that I had used the term Lumbees, and that’s when I learned that the Tuscaroras thought that that name was the source of all their problems.