The News & Observer
September 26, 1993
Racial tensions burst, tear apart Lenoir
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.”