Richard Turen
Richard Turen

The Black Lives Matter movement is taking me back to an earlier time in my personal history, the time of my first trip away from home.

My parents had put me on a Trailways bus in New York, and I was headed off to my freshman year at Pembroke State College in Pembroke, a small town in rural North Carolina, not far from the South Carolina border. 

It was my first time away from home. My parents were not travelers.

Pembroke had previously been called Pembroke State College for Indians, established as an institute of higher education for members of the Lumbee tribe. (It's currently the University of North Carolina-Pembroke.)

Whites were a small fraction of the student body. It would be the first time I found myself in the cultural minority of my community. This was going to be different from the picket lines I had joined in New York to protest what was going on at Southern lunch counters.

The Lumbees remain the largest tribe east of the Mississippi, yet even by the low standards that reflect the disgraceful treatment of American Indians by our government, they have been treated poorly. They have no homeland in trust, thus are not even eligible to open a casino. The only official recognition in Pembroke is a state historical marker citing the Battle of Hayes Pond, where the tribe routed the Ku Klux Klan.

Was there resentment toward white people? My first morning there, I was awoken by the muzzle of a rifle pressing into my forehead. I was told in no uncertain terms to go home. But this sentiment, I found out, was shared by only a small subset of the community. I stuck it out.

Life in the town was complex. A crew from NBC News came down to do a story on "the only town in the United States to practice four-way segregation." We had four school systems, one each for American Indians, whites, Blacks and a mixed-race group.

Everything in my life there was based on separation. All of my friends were American Indians, who at a movie theater would have to sit upstairs (along with Black patrons) or who were forbidden to enter certain restaurants.

What else I saw, heard and did is too long a story to attempt here, so I'll cut to my senior year. One of my professors, who had been in the Mississippi Legislature, knew I had an interest in the movements to register Black voters and hooked me up with some folks in Mississippi.

But what they had in mind was not knocking on doors; I was asked to go undercover in the Ku Klux Klan, traveling to cross burnings throughout the Deep South. 

I didn't wear a hood. My job was to stand among these misfits and report back about any plans I might hear about targeting businesses or individuals for violence.

I learned a lot about the klan; their "clergy" wear black robes, and I was appalled at the number of young children who were escorted to the stage by their beaming parents. They are known as "Ku Klux Kiddies."

At one meeting, the alleged murderer of a civil rights worker was an honored guest. He approached me in front of a burning cross, and I had to shake his hand, hoping the plug of tobacco lodged in my right cheek would hide my New York accent.

Black lives do matter.

American Indian lives matter.

My personal story has a happy ending. I subsequently entered a profession where, for the past 46 years, I have never heard any individual connected to our industry utter a single derogatory term about any member of any race.

Imagine that. 


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