Ayden Racial Unrest

Midway through my first period class, a muffled explosion shook the high school. My mother managed the cafeteria, so my first thought was to check on her. I ran to the door, while the teacher yelled at me to stay in the room. Looking up and down the hall, I saw no immediate danger, so I stayed. Ceiling tiles hung down in drunken disarray, and wisps of dust floated in the air like ghosts. The whole building was eerily silent as if it was holding its breath; then the loud speakers announced a fire drill to get everybody out of the building. That day—September 8, 1971—would be forever etched into my memory.

It all began when a white N.C. Highway Patrolman, named William ‘Billy’ Day, shot and killed a 32-year-old black farm worker, named William ‘Bill’ Murphy, on a rural road near Ayden, NC on the night of August 6, 1971. Only two people knew what happened: one died and the other claimed self-defense.

About eleven o’clock at night, Bill Murphy had walked to his employer’s house to ask for an advance on his pay. When Murphy arrived, the farmer’s truck wasn’t in the yard so he knew that his employer wasn’t home. Bill Murphy briefly spoke with the farmer’s wife, and then walked back down the road towards the home he shared with his parents less than a mile away.

Billy Day suddenly drove up, arrested Bill Murphy for public intoxication, handcuffed him, and put him in front seat of the cruiser. Later, the patrolman would say he had picked up the intoxicated man walking along the road in order to keep him from accidently stepping in front of a car.

Day claimed that Murphy became violent as he drove him to jail, and that he shot Murphy in self-defense during a struggle for his pistol. Then he drove 20 miles to Pitt Memorial Hospital in Greenville, where Bill Murphy was declared dead on arrival about midnight. Nobody else will ever know with certainty what really happened, but the circumstances were suspicious.

The NC Highway Patrol’s primary mission was to enforce traffic laws, so arresting a pedestrian was an unusual event in itself. Besides, several witnesses had seen Murphy shortly before the incident. They said that while he had been drinking, he didn’t appear to be seriously impaired.

The officer had placed the prisoner in the patrol car with his hands cuffed behind his back, so it would have been very difficult for Murphy to have fought with Day. After he drove away with his prisoner, Day turned down a deserted back road rather than continue a short distance to the main highway.

If one doubted Day’s account, what would be his motive for murdering Murphy? Some speculated that the white woman had accused the black man of making a sexual advance. That was unlikely because Bill Murphy needed to work, so he wouldn’t have said anything to jeopardize his job. And friends said it was out of character for Murphy. Besides, the arrest had happened so quickly afterwards, that the farmer’s wife didn’t have enough time to get a message to Billy Day. (This was the era of landline telephones rather than cell phones.) And if the highway patrolman had received a radio call, other people would have heard it because many police officers—and some members of the public—listened to the police radio band.

Many questioned why a trooper would drive down a rural road in the first place, rather than patrol the main highways. They speculated that Day might have dropped off the farmer’s wife at the farmhouse just before Murphy walked up. Gossip linked Day and the woman, and people claimed that she had been seen in the patrol car with Day on previous occasions. Some folks speculated that Day had killed Murphy because he had seen the trooper and the woman in a compromising position.

All this talk of motive was just speculation and gossip with no solid facts, but newspapers reported it at the time as people struggled to make some sense out of the situation.

The fatal shots from the 357 revolver went all the way through the victim’s body, but the Highway Patrol would not permit reporters to look inside the patrol car for evidence of bullets or blood. Investigative journalists did find evidence on the road surface that suggested the shooting occurred outside the car. Two pools of blood and a urine spot on the asphalt indicated the place where Murphy had sustained his wounds. The urine stain was due to the involuntary relaxation of muscles at the time of death, which meant it was also the scene of Murphy’s demise.

Pitt County officials demanded a $200 fee—equivalent to about $1,000 at today’s values—to perform an autopsy, which Murphy’s parents simply did not have. The county coroner was an elected official charged with conducting inquests to determine a cause of death; he was not a trained medical examiner or even a medical doctor. He would have had to hire a doctor to perform the autopsy, but he could have authorized payment from his budget.

Instead of paying Pitt County to conduct a possibly biased autopsy, the black community collected funds, and the family arranged for an autopsy to be performed at the teaching hospital associated with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The examination report disclosed that Murphy had a gash in his forehead and a bruise under his right eye, which Day’s story failed to explain. In addition, Day said he shot Murphy once in the stomach, but the autopsy found two entry wounds in his upper back on the left side, with exit wounds in his lower right abdomen.

However, juries settle legal issues in America. The county sheriff selected people for jury duty based on voter registration rolls, but due to systematic racial discrimination, a much lower percentage of black adults were registered to vote. So even if the legal system didn’t exclude many black citizens from juries, fewer blacks were available in the jury pool in the first place.

At the time, people gave much deference to the testimony of law enforcement officers, so it was not surprising that at the official inquest in late August 1971, the coroner’s petite jury of five white men and one black man found that the shooting was justified. Then in December 1971, the Pitt County grand jury of 17 people (including just four black members) unanimously found no grounds to charge Billy Day in the death of William Murphy.

Many people—black and white—strongly disagreed with the grand jury’s findings, and emotions ran high. Billy Day worked desk duty for the rest of his career because officials feared that someone would kill him if he continued to patrol the highways. Ironically, he became a training officer.

The protests over the death of Bill Murphy began shortly after the shooting. Golden Frinks of Edenton led most of the demonstrations as the state’s regional field secretary for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He thought that protests in a smaller town would have more impact than protests at the larger county seat. Some small demonstrations were held in Greenville, but the focus remained on Ayden (population 3,450 at the time).

Ayden officials objected that the death of Bill Murphy had nothing to do with the town. Billy Day worked for the state of North Carolina; he was stationed in Greenville; and the shooting occurred in a rural area well outside of town. Ayden’s mayor also pointed out that the town couldn't possibly satisfy the protestors’ demands: fire Billy Day and prosecute him for the death of Bill Murphy.

Golden Frinks responded that Ayden was chosen because racial discrimination was deeply embedded in the small town, and it was the closest community to the scene of the shooting. In fact, Billy Day had claimed that he was transporting Bill Murphy to the Ayden jail.

The protestors had limited funding, so local black churches opened their doors for mass meetings, and local families opened their homes to out-of-town speakers. There was no motel in Ayden, and even if there had been one, most motels at the time refused to serve black people.

Surprisingly, nobody was shot or seriously injured during the often heated confrontations between police and protestors. The police realized that another shooting of a civilian could be the spark that ignited a wildfire of violence, because the Oxford Riots, the Wilmington Unrest, and the A&T University Riots had shown the wisdom of a restrained response.

Governor Bob Scott sent the Highway Patrol, rather than call up the National Guard, in an attempt to prevent violence. The hope was that the troopers could keep the lid on the situation because the police were more accustomed to dealing with unruly civilians than were weekend warriors. A convoy of 48 Highway Patrol cruisers arrived in Ayden in a massive show of force.

On the protestors’ side, cooler heads prevailed because violence by demonstrators would unleash the full brutal power of the police, and perhaps bring in the National Guard. Besides, one of their principal objectives was to generate sympathetic news coverage through peaceful, non-violent protests.

Fresh in everybody’s minds was the Wilmington Unrest, which had reached a crescendo earlier in the year. The unrest had been sparked by the blacks’ resentment of the closure of their community schools to make way for the forced integration of public schools. Since the Ayden-Grifton High School (integrated) had replaced the South Ayden High School (black), the parallel was obvious.

Shots and arson had marred the Wilmington Unrest, and two people had died during the clashes. One feature of both the Wilmington and the Ayden unrest was the use of dynamite bombs by protestors; eight dynamite bombs exploded during the Ayden protests. Mostly, nightriders threw dynamite from speeding cars in the middle of the night, usually causing little damage other than scorched asphalt and broken windows.

One commissioner on the all-white Ayden town council, Rex Smith, owned a sports shop in a converted gas station, where he sold boats and fishing gear. His business sat directly across the street from the Lutz and Schramm pickle factory, which was the de facto dividing line between black South Ayden, and the white side of town. Twice, late night explosions damaged his business.

Another dynamite bomb exploded inside the pickle factory over the Labor Day weekend. Workers didn’t discover the damage until they returned from their long holiday weekend on Tuesday, the day before the high school bombing. This explosion stood out from the previous ones because it occurred within a building, as if the bombers were warming up for the main event.

It was only dumb luck that nobody was injured by the high school bombing. Somebody gave the teenagers four sticks of dynamite already primed with a blasting cap and flammable fuse. Then the young men hid the bomb under the hood of their car, fastened in front of the radiator for the drive to school, so it’s remarkable that the bomb didn’t go off while in transit. They planted the bomb in the boy’s restroom off the entrance to the auditorium, because it was adjacent to an outside door leading directly to the student parking lot.

The fuse was marked in intervals, so they cut the fuse 30 units long. They thought that 30 minutes would be plenty of time for them to escape, and then the bomb would have detonated between classes when students would have been in the restroom. Somebody would probably have died if the bomb had detonated when they had intended. However, the marks on the fuse indicated seconds rather than minutes; the bombers barely got back to their car before the dynamite exploded; students were still safely in classrooms so nobody was hurt.

Most people—black and white—assumed that the Ku Klux Klan had placed the bomb because it was the first racially desegregated high school in the area. Nobody could even imagine that black militants would attempt to indiscriminately murder both black and white students. So everybody felt dumbfounded by the arrest of seven young black men for the crime. Five were students enrolled in the high school; one was a 13-year old juvenile; and one was a 20-year old adult.

One of the arrested students, Ricky Dixon, lived on the neighboring farm; our houses were within sight of each other. We were about the same age, and occasionally shot hoops at my house. He even drove a school bus, which was a high honor because only the most responsible high school students were employed as bus drivers. So his arrest came as a huge shock because he had always appeared to be a fine, upstanding young man.

The news that blacks had placed the bomb took the wind out of the protests. Golden Frinks had scheduled a rally at a black church on the night that the news broke, but the deacons met him on the steps to tell him that he was no longer welcome. Sporadic protests continued into the next year, but they were relatively small affairs. For example, only about 100 people turned out for a speech by Ralph Abernathy, President of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and the most prominent national leader of the Civil Rights Movement in the post Martin Luther King era.

The blast blew out the exterior wall, and damaged plumbing fixtures. Officials estimated the cost of repairs at $25,000—equivalent to about $125,000 at today’s values—but no dollar value could measure the emotional damage.

Ayden Grifton High School continued to be very tense; some black students walked out of class in late September; bomb threats interrupted classes almost weekly; fights occurred daily. I worked in the library before school to stay out of trouble, and one day I waited in the lobby for the assistant librarian, who was late. When she showed up, her hands were shaking too badly to put the key in the lock, so she handed it to me. I unlocked the door, and turned around to find her stretched out on the floor; she had fainted. The principal drove her to the hospital, and I never saw her again.

Many teachers retired, resigned or transferred at the end of the school year; one was even briefly committed to a psychiatric ward during the school year. Many students—black and white—simply dropped out. Those whose family could afford it, transferred to a private school; some others earned a GED or completed their senior year at a community college. In contrast, Billy Day quietly completed his career and retired with a full state pension.


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