By Michael Praats | March 24, 2021 at 4:00 PM EDT – Updated March 24 at 8:00 PM
WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) – Despite a landmark Supreme Court ruling in 1954 declaring the segregation of schools unconstitutional in the United States, it would take Wilmington years to desegregate. The integration of schools sparked civil unrest across the American South, and in Wilmington, one group made a relatively short-lived, but violent appearance.
It was a group that a Grand Dragon of the United Klans of American (a group of the Ku Klux Klan) refused to admit membership to due to the fact that they “seemed to him to be a part of the American Nazi Party and the Minutemen.”
The Federal Bureau of Investigation recently released documents to WECT as part of a Freedom of Information Act request. Hundreds of pages show the FBI was conducting a lengthy investigation into the white supremist group known as the Rights of White People – also known as ROWP.
Records show that the FBI began looking into the group in the late 1960′s following information provided to them by confidential informants. According to those records, the group was founded in Jacksonville by a man named Leroy Gibson, a Marine.
Gibson, a native of Missouri, was 39 years old when the FBI began investigating the group which Gibson claimed to be president of.
White supremacy groups were not uncommon in the South at the time and members of ROWP appeared to have connections to the KKK.
“According to the information received by T-1 (the label given to an informant), the organization appears to be composed of mainly ex-Klansmen and other white individuals who are conservative in nature,” FBI records read.
However, other documents show that Klan groups in the state did not want anything to do with ROWP likening them to Nazis.
Information provided to the FBI showed that Gibson organized ROWP with around 20 members, most of whom were military.
“…The original membership encompassing 15 Marines, 2 Army personnel, one Navy Corpsman, and 2 civilians…” according to the FBI records.
Those records also identified William Bies as the vice president of ROWP, he too was a Marine.
Like most groups, the ROWP was formed as a reaction to events occurring in the world and, in this case, those events were the integration of schools.
“ROWP (rope) which is the way that they called themselves, which I think is a very deliberate intimidation technique to hark back to lynching was a group that really does seem to have come out of the struggles the county had with desegregating schools,” Dr. Jan Davidson, historian for the Cape Fear Museum said.
The group’s stated purpose was to stop integration, and to have more ‘law and order’ in the United States.
In November of 1969, the organization began handing out cards in the Wilmington area to build support giving the following 10 reasons for people to join:
- ROWP will see that we WHITE people stay white — and your children’s children.
- ROWP will do everything in its power to keep your housing area a WHITE one.
- ROWP will help vote GOOD WHITE people into offices (low and top), that will look out for our future.
- ROWP will vote the top people out of office that want integration. And let them live with the integration.
- ROWP will not use violence at any time. YOU the WHITE PEOPLE and your VOTE is all we need. So, join now before it’s too late.
- ROWP with your votes, will see that WE have a good Supreme Court and leadership.
- ROWP will do everything in its power to make this a better world for us WHITE PEOPLE to live in.
- ROWP will see that the law is for the protection of the people and mob rule is overshadowed.
- ROWP does not believe in mixing the races.
- ROWP needs your support so join now. All money donated will go for the benefit of white people.
By December of 1969 the FBI had more information on members of ROWP and their intentions.
Gibson claimed ROWP had members in 16 states ranging from California to New York and told the informant that there were plans in place to have members in 35 states in just six more months.
However, multiple informants said it appeared these claims were an exaggeration.
“Both T-7 and T-8 stated that it appears that both Gibson and Bies do not have any substantial following at the present time and are making exaggerated claims in order to obtain publicity and through this, obtain additional members for their organization,” according to FBI documents.
As noted above, ROWP claimed it was against violence and a previous member actually told the FBI that the organization desired to ‘lend its full support’ to law enforcement, however, by 1974, Gibson, along with other members would be charged with and convicted of violent crimes including the bombings of several Wilmington locations.
Since the integration of schools was a catalyst for the complaints of ROWP, the fact that there were student members of ROWP is not surprising.
Bertha Todd was a young employee at Williston High School when the decision to close the school in order to integrate New Hanover High School and Hoggard High School was made. She was given a job at Hoggard where she worked as a librarian and encountered the ROWP first-hand.
“The students were simply representing the young students of ROWP there were adults formed in the community and this wasn’t the Klan, these individuals were people who were against school desegregation – the Klan was here too.”
Throughout her tenure at Hoggard, Todd went from librarian to a new role as an administrative assistant in human relations (the title would be changed to assistant principal of human relations and eventually to assistant principal). Despite not wanting a new position, Todd had been recommended for the new role which she accepted, after some hesitation.
From non violence, to bombings
Despite claiming to be against violence, the group would become more radicalized as the years went on, eventually resorting to violence against minority communities and properties in Wilmington.
The group was responsible for a series of bombings in the Port City in 1973 and several members would be handed convictions and prison sentences for their roles.
“In 1973 there are a series of bombings around the city that include the Wilmington journal which is our historically black-owned newspaper and is still in existence, a business that was owned by a Jewish person, one of the synagogues, and an apartment building,” Davidson said.
One member, an 18-year-old former Marine, would be sentenced to life in prison for his actions.
“Lawrence Little who was an 18-year-old who joined the marines and got kicked out for being a racist and trying to recruit for the Klu Klux Klan is charged with most of those bombings. He only gets convicted I believe for the Wilmington Journal and that gets him a life sentence because there’s an apartment above the Wilmington Journal and it was occupied when it was bombed,” Davidson said.
Following the violence and the bombings, the group pretty much died off after their convictions.
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