The News & Observer

September 26, 1993

 

Racial tensions burst, tear apart Lenoir

County town

In LaGrange, the Black Alliance and town officials are at odds

over the balance of power between blacks and whites

 

BY BEN STOCKING, STAFF WRITER

 

LAGRANGE — A police officer with a metal detector greeted visitors at the last town council

meeting in this little Lenoir County community. Members of the Black Alliance were scheduled

to address the board that night. Council members were worried.

 

Their warnings came in the aftermath of a riot that erupted in LaGrange on June 27 when a white

convenience-store clerk shot a black customer, leaving him paralyzed from the waist down.

For nearly three months, alliance members have been breathing fire down the necks of town

council members, attending all the council’s meetings and presenting members with one demand

after another: Hire and promote more blacks. Provide more recreation to keep the town’s restless

youth off the streets. Pave more streets in black neighborhoods.

 

“Little South Africa is what you have here,” says alliance member Bobby MacPhail, pointing out

that the town has a white mayor, a white-dominated council and uses an all-white volunteer fire

department.

 

In LaGrange, an agricultural town of 2,805, the racial tension that simmers below the surface in

many Eastern North Carolina towns has come to a boil. As residents wrestle with the issue, hurt

feelings abound. Understanding is in short supply.

 

Not everyone has been swept up in the conflict; there are plenty of blacks and whites who get

along well in LaGrange. But those at the center of the town’s unhappy drama are learning how

painful and complicated racial conflicts can be — and how quickly they can escalate.

 

The dispute in LaGrange has not only pitted blacks against whites. It has set alliance members

against moderate blacks who regard the group’s confrontational tactics as counterproductive.

“We don’t think like the Black Alliance thinks,” says Allen Mewborn, president of the local

NAACP chapter, which the alliance has attacked as a do-nothing group.

 

But the kinds of complaints voiced by alliance members are raised in many communities, says

Neil Bradley, an Atlanta ACLU attorney who has worked on voting rights cases in several

Southern towns.

 

The best way to ease the sort of tensions that have arisen in LaGrange, Bradley says, is to bring

more blacks into the local government.

 

“They need to make people feel that their needs are truly being listened to, or else they’re going

to have problems forever.”

 

One week before the Black Alliance made its first public appearance, a riot broke out at the

Freshway, then the only 24-hour store in LaGrange’s tiny business district.

 

Late one Saturday night, an argument erupted between the white clerk and a group of black

youths who had entered the store to buy sandwiches and pastries.

 

It still isn’t clear exactly how the episode unfolded. It ended when Norman Potts, the 60-year-old

clerk who recently had suffered a heart attack, fired three shots from his .38-caliber, semiautomatic

handgun.

 

And it ended with Nico Hood, a 20-year-old LaGrange man, lying face-down on the floor in a

pool of blood.

 

When police arrived, they found Potts behind the counter, still clutching his weapon. They found

another gun on the floor a few feet from Hood, whose criminal record includes a conviction for

assaulting a police officer.

 

Potts says he kept a gun in the store because unruly crowds frequently formed in the Freshway

parking lot, where violence was common. “I was safer on the front lines in Korea than I was in

that store,” says Potts, an Army veteran.

 

When Hood tried to buy some pastries for his friends, Potts says, Potts refused to sell them

because at least one of the youths had been banished from the store for unruly conduct and

attempted shoplifting.

 

Then, Potts says, Hood punched him in the mouth, jumped over the counter, and clawed his ear.

Potts reached for a pool stick stashed behind the counter, and swung it at Hood.

 

Potts says he fired at Hood after the youth pulled a gun from his pocket and aimed it at him. “Mr.

Norman, you got me,” Potts remembers Hood saying after he collapsed to the floor.

 

The shooting damaged Hood’s spine and left him unable to walk. He travels in a wheelchair now.

He refuses to discuss the incident until Potts is tried in Lenoir County Superior Court, where he

faces a charge of assault with a deadly weapon with intent to kill, inflicting serious injury.

 

Alliance members accept the version of the shooting offered by Hood’s friends, who blame the

episode on Potts.

 

They say Potts was known in LaGrange for arguing with blacks and for boasting about the time

he shot another black youth when he worked at a Goldsboro convenience store several years

before.

 

Potts, who was acquitted of assault charges in that case, says his gun went off accidentally when

several youths attacked him and one stabbed him with an ice pick. He says he’s never boasted

about the incident.

 

Alliance members say Nico Hood never hit Potts and never pulled a gun on him. As they argued

over the food, they say, Potts pulled out his pool stick and bashed Hood in the head.

 

Hood fell to the floor, they say, and when he started crawling toward the door, Potts shot him in

the back.

 

Shortly after the shots rang out about 2 a.m., two dozen to three dozen youths converged on the

Freshway. Some fired several rounds through the shop window; others set trash cans on fire in

the street. They jeered Potts and hurled bottles and rocks at police.

 

“It’s a white man shooting one of my brothers,” says one 20-year-old. “All I could think was,

‘Where’s my gun? I want to kill him.'”

 

Before the incident was over, LaGrange had called in dozens of officers from neighboring towns,

including the Kinston SWAT team, whose members arrived carrying rifles and dressed in riot

gear.

As officers escorted Potts from the store, bullets whizzed over their heads.

                                                                          *****

“No justice, no peace!” alliance members chanted as they marched through town July 3, less than

a week after the Freshway incident. “No justice, no peace!”

 

About 100 people turned out for “March for Justice,” the alliance’s first public act since its

founding in June. The alliance organized the march to call attention to various demands,

including one that has become central to the debate in LaGrange: that Charles MacPhail be

reinstated as assistant chief of police.

 

MacPhail was the town’s highest-ranking black official — until he was stripped of his rank June

7. At that time, town officials also announced that they planned to hire a new chief for the

department, then comprised of five whites and three blacks. They also demoted two sergeants,

one black and one white.

 

The officials say the changes were necessary because the department was riven with turmoil

because of friction between MacPhail and Chief Robert Pelletier.

 

“The way it was over there, there were two police departments — Charles’ department and

Robert’s department,” says Town Manager Mike Taylor. “We thought it would help for nobody to

have titles until a new chief could come in, review the department and set it up as he saw fit.”

 

Alliance members say MacPhail was demoted for one simple, ugly reason: Some whites in town

aren’t ready to hire a black chief.

 

For 11 years, Charles MacPhail says, he worked his way through the ranks of the department and

was rewarded for his hard work. His troubles began a year ago, he says, after Chief Pelletier

made it known that he planned to retire in a couple years.

 

His difficulties were compounded, MacPhail says, because he attempted to investigate an officer

who allegedly used a racial slur after the Rodney King beating in Los Angeles.

 

The officer, MacPhail says, referred to a black neighborhood as “nigger town” and said he

planned to “violate some civil rights.”

 

MacPhail says town officials wanted to sweep the incident under the rug, but they dispute

MacPhail’s account and say the episode had nothing to do with his demotion.

 

As alliance members marched through town that Saturday, they sang “We Shall Overcome.”

Someone carried a sign that read: “Charles MacPhail for Chief.”

 

When they marched past the all-white volunteer fire department, alliance members say,

firefighters taunted them with racial slurs.

                                                                         *****

One week after Charles MacPhail lost his rank, the Black Alliance was born, formed by friends,

family members and other residents who considered his demotion an outrage that symbolized the

town’s insensitivity toward blacks.

 

The group claims about 100 members, most of them young and assertive blacks who believe

traditional organizations such as the NAACP have failed to hold town officials accountable.

Alliance members say they founded their group to improve the lives of children. Black children

in LaGrange don’t have the same opportunities as white children, says Larry Gladney, the

alliance chairman. “They’re living in apartheid.”

 

The only swimming pool in town is at an all-white private club. And just one of the middle

school’s 14 cheerleaders is black, although several black girls tried out.

 

Young blacks in LaGrange, alliance members say, are the victims of a double standard embraced

by some police, who give white youngsters the benefit of the doubt but assume black youngsters

are up to no good.

 

“When they approach a group of blacks, they have a tendency to assume they’re drug dealers,”

says MacPhail, the demoted assistant chief. “In this town, if you’re black, you’re a second-class

citizen.”

 

Black youths in LaGrange are so frustrated, alliance members say, that the disturbance at the

Freshway was as inevitable as the riots in Los Angeles after the acquittal of four officers accused

in the Rodney King beating. If the shooting at the Freshway hadn’t set the youths off, something

else would have.

 

Hoping to change the balance of power in town, the alliance is backing two black candidates in

the upcoming election: Eula Hood, whose son was shot at the Freshway, and Bobby MacPhail,

brother of Charles MacPhail.

 

The current council has four white members and two blacks, but the alliance says the black

members are more concerned with pleasing their white colleagues than with promoting the

interests of black residents.

 

The alliance is considering a voting-rights suit that would challenge the town’s at-large elections.

They hope to replace them with a system that would enhance blacks’ chances of winning more

seats.

 

Meanwhile, alliance members press their demands at town council meetings, where they have

accused the council of adopting “redneck” policies and have threatened to boycott town

businesses. At one recent session, they demanded that the council members dismiss the

firefighters who allegedly made racial slurs during the March for Justice.

 

“The men from the fire department must be barred permanently unless you want the blood of the

town on your hands,” warned Bobby MacPhail. “The little incident you had at the Freshway will

look like child’s play.”

 

“LaGrange is at a boiling point,” he continued. “LaGrange is at a flash point.”

                                                                       *****

The alliance’s blunt, assertive style has stunned council members, who are more accustomed to

deliberations about sewer service than confrontations over race. But they say they have tried to

listen patiently to the alliance.

 

Bobby Wooten, a black council member, says the town tries its best to provide quality services to

all residents, both black and white. And if the town departments are dominated by whites, it’s

because the town’s work force is very small and people in supervisory positions tend to keep

them for a long time. Change comes gradually.

 

“I can understand their frustration, but their anger, no,” Wooten says of the alliance. “There’s a

bitterness that no one seems to understand.”

 

Charles “Spider” Gray, a white councilman, says the group has raised some legitimate concerns

about recreation. But he says the board had decided to hire a recreation director next year before

the alliance raised the issue.

 

The town’s major problem isn’t racism, Gray says, it’s the scourge that afflicts many small towns:

drugs, and the violence they inspire.

 

“It’s not just a black or white problem,” Gray says. “Everybody’s got to help.”

 

If police make more arrests in the black section of town, Gray says, that’s not because they are

racists. “Most of your criminal action or drug action is in the black communities,” he says.

“They’re going there because they’re called.”

                                                                     *****

Town officials are losing patience with the alliance, which they dismiss as a small group

comprised mainly of Charles MacPhail’s friends and relatives.

 

“I think we’ve all had about all we can take of being accused of this, being accused of that,” says

Town Manager Taylor. “It gets to a point where you have to speak up.”

 

Taylor has had terrible headaches lately. He says people call his house at all hours of the night,

making threats or just breathing into the phone.

 

Over the past several months, he says, his 10-year-old daughter has had five pets — but only one

is still living. “One dog and three cats have mysteriously been found dead in the yard,” Taylor

says.

 

Councilman Gray says he received a chilling phone call recently, where someone told him he

was “going to be hit” if he didn’t accede to their demands.

 

“What does ‘hit’ mean?” Gray asks. “I kind of look at it like in the movies — a hit man.”

 

The council members don’t blame the Black Alliance for the incidents, but they say nothing like

this happened before the town became embroiled in its debate over race relations.

 

So they stationed a police officer with a metal detector outside their chambers before a council

meeting earlier this month — an act that outraged alliance members, who insist they haven’t

threatened anyone.

 

The council members, they say, just feel frightened any time they hear a black man speak in a

loud, firm voice.

 

“To those in this town who think we are just a bunch of wild-eyed militants, we are not,” alliance

member Robert Washington told the board. “Most of us are just ordinary people. … We do not

hate whites. We hate injustice.”