By Sarah Nagem
Jack Lowery huddled with a few other students in the president’s office at what was then Pembroke State College on a Saturday morning in 1958, concocting a plan to keep the Ku Klux Klan out of Robeson County.
The goal was to burn the field in Maxton where the KKK planned a rally for later that night – and to send a message that the Klan was not welcome in the southeastern North Carolina county that is home to the Lumbee tribe.
Lowery didn’t get a chance to follow through, however. Shortly after he arrived at the site, gunshots rang out.
The ensuing fight between hundreds of Native Americans and the KKK on Jan. 18, 1958, would become known as the Battle of Hayes Pond and reshape history in this rural community.
“It brought some respect to our people,” Lowery said Friday during a virtual presentation hosted by the Lumbee tribe to mark the 65th anniversary of the event. “We let people know across the country that the Lumbee people were good, but you couldn’t push us.”
Lowery, an attorney who grew up in Robeson County and now lives in Tennessee, shared his memories of the Natives Americans’ victory that day.
It was his understanding, he said, that the KKK in South Carolina planned the rally after a judge in Lumberton who was hearing a divorce case questioned why a white woman would have an affair with an American Indian man.
“You could tell there was going to be a fight and some trouble,” Lowery said, adding that the hardware stores in Pembroke had sold out of ammunition. “It was all the talk around the time that they were coming.”
Word also spread among Lumbees outside Robeson County. Jim Jones was attending medical school at Wake Forest University in 1958 when his cousin urged him to travel to Maxton.
Jones said he worried what university leaders would think if they found out he was involved. But he went anyway.
“(My cousin) said, ‘The Klan is going to come and beat up on our tribe. We’ve got to show them something,’” Jones recalled Friday during the presentation.
As the KKK rally was set to begin, a Lumbee shot out the light illuminating the field. Then, total darkness. And lots more gunfire.
It sounded like combat, Jones said, and seemed to last an hour although it was probably only two or three minutes. His cousin pulled him to safety between two cars.
Lowery said he was eager for a fight.
The KKK members, outnumbered and ready to flee, struggled to get their vehicles out of the sandy field, he said. Native Americans took the opportunity to open car doors and engage in physical confrontations.
“All those guns up there that night, it’s almost amazing that no one got killed,” Lowery said. “The Lord must have been looking out for all of us.”
Lowery said the Lumbees “ought to be applauded” for not doing more harm to the KKK members.
“Even though we beat on some of them pretty severely,” he said, “we used amazing restraint against them.”
Lowery and Jones said the KKK failed to maintain a large presence in North Carolina after the Battle of Hayes Pond – a win for Native Americans and for Black residents.
Both men say the events that unfolded that night brought respect to the Lumbee tribe, which now has about 55,000 members and is the largest Native American tribe east of the Mississippi River.
The fight brought national attention to the Lumbees, who were widely lauded for driving out the KKK.
“The Indian people came out of this with a greater sense of pride than they had before,” Lowery said. “That’s how I felt, too.”
More than six decades later, Jones and Lowery say they hope future generations of Lumbees will dedicate themselves to working hard and getting an education.
Despite Jones’ concerns in 1958, he went on to become the first Native American to graduate from the Bowman Gray School of Medicine at Wake Forest.
But his efforts to keep his involvement at Hayes Pond a secret fell short. Jones said a dean at the college called him into his office and showed him a photo in Life magazine of a man wearing a trench coat and standing in a crowd of armed men.
The dean, Jones said, told him the man in the far right of the picture looked a lot like him.
Thinking on his feet, Jones said that wasn’t him at all. It was his cousin who was often mistaken for him.
Jones said he left the office convinced the dean knew he was lying.