In just a few weeks, the 2012 Pulitzer Prizes will be announced. In 1953, the prize for public service highlighted North Carolina and the heroism of two small-town journalists.
It was awarded to W. Horace Carter of the Tabor City Tribune and Willard Cole of The (Whiteville) News Reporter "for their successful campaign against the Ku Klux Klan, waged on their own doorstep at the risk of economic loss and personal danger, culminating in the conviction of over one hundred Klansmen and an end to terrorism in their communities."
Carter became well known throughout the state and the journalism field, but Cole, who died in 1965, faded somewhat from memory. On Christmas Day 1961, he suffered a stroke that paralyzed his legs and left arm and affected his memory.
"First they thought they would just let me go ahead and kick the bucket," Cole recalled. But after an operation and three months rest he was back at his typewriter.
He still moves and talks slowly and deliberately. His left arm hangs by his side with only a twitch in the fingers. But his sense of drama and self confidence are still vigorous and his memory is again sharp.
Recently, he sat in the old store which serves as his office and recalled his war with the KKK as graphically as an old soldier reliving his combat service.
"Some people thought I was an SOB and some thought I was a pretty smart guy.
"Things started to get pretty hot so I carried a gun every inch of the way. It got so I backed away from anybody who got too close.
"The only thing I was really afraid of was that three or four of them would get liquored up some night and say, 'Let's go get Cole.' But nothing ever happened."
During the Klan's reign of terror in Columbus County, 13 persons, most of whom were white, were taken from their homes and flogged with wide leather belts.
The beating, Cole said, were inspired by a contorted sense of moralism the Klansmen wished to impose on the community.
"Integration wasn't an issue at the time," Cole recalled. "They were after the type of person who spent his money on liquor instead of on his family.
"If you were that kind around here you were scared to death."
Informants from within the ranks of the KKK finally provided police with enough information to make mass arrests. About 80 men, charged variously with kidnapping, assault and conspiracy, were convicted. Prison terms ranged up to six years.
They included former policemen, businessmen, farmers and two National Guard officers all led by Thomas L. Hamilton, a portly ex-grocer from Leesville, S. C. He got four years.
In the next North Carolina General Assembly a law was passed, making it illegal to wear a mask or a hood in public.
Cole left Whiteville in 1954 and went into public relations. In 1958 he returned to newspaper work as editor of the Lumberton Post.
With his left hand ... useless, he [has] rigged a typewriter for one-hand use.
With his left hand limp in his lap, Cole uses a relaxed hunt-and -peck style with his right hand. He can raise and lower the typeface with a foot pedal and returns the carriage by grasping the release with his good hand.
To hold the paper running from a long roll up and out of the way, he clips on a weighted string that runs through an eye hook on the ceiling.
Cole has grappled with adversity all his life. As a child in the North Carolina mountains he almost died of pneumonia. To earn pocket money, he gathered herbs and strung tobacco sacks for 25 cents per 1,000.
"I grew up in a place so poor a rabbit had to carry his lunch to get across," he said. -- The News & Observer 5/10/1964
Horace Carter was inducted into the N.C. Journalism Hall of Fame in 1983, Cole in 1992. They were jointly honored by The News & Observer as Tar Heel of the Week in 1952. In their profile of Carter and Cole, The N&O reprinted an "anonymous" letter Cole received from nearby Nakina:
Every desent person is in favor of the KKK & their purpus. If the News-Reporter staff will stop acting the fool you wont have anything to worry about. But when you go & tip off everybody what can be done, then you can expect anything under the sun. So stop your yapping about the KKK. Their only out for the right things in life. We know lots of things can be done and cause the KKK to be blamed, but they aren't any use of tipping of every fool of this thing. So watch your step hereafter.
Sined, A frind.
P.S. No publistie.
You can read more about Horace Carter and the Klan here