Rise to infamy
Cole attended Grainger High School in Kinston, North Carolina, and served in the military during World War II. In 1953 he and his wife, Carolyn, began Southern Bible College in Marion, South Carolina. Cole was ordained into the ministry by the Wayside Baptist Church in Summerfield, North Carolina in 1958. While in Marion, he toured North Carolina and South Carolina as a tent evangelist and broadcast a Sunday morning radio program, "The Free Will Hour". During this period he became an active member of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, eventually becoming Grand Dragon in both North Carolina and South Carolina. Cole's rallies drew as many as 15,000. Cole incited violence against blacks, and after his rallies Klan motorcades often drove through black neighborhoods in order to terrorize the inhabitants (accompanied by the police, who maintained that they accompanied the Klan to keep order).
Klan defeated by the Black Armed Guard
Dr. Perry, a black doctor in Monroe, North Carolina, was presumed to be financing the local chapter of the NAACP, and consequently he received numerous death threats from the Klan. In 1957, Robert F. Williams, the president of the local chapter of the NAACP, organized a Black Armed Guard, made up mostly of World War II veterans, which began organizing for self-defense, and guarded Dr. Perry's house in shifts. Not making a mention of their race, the group sent a letter to the National Rifle Association asking for a charter, stating that they were a group of veterans who wanted to continue training in case they be called on to serve once again. The charter was granted.
Their preparations paid off on 5 October 1957, when Cole held a rally near Monroe. After the rally, a Klan motorcade headed to Dr. Perry's house, accompanied by shouting and the firing of weapons at houses along the way. When they reached Dr. Perry's house, the defenders returned fire from their fortified positions, and the Klan turned and ran. The city government in Monroe banned Klan motorcades the next day. After this unexpected resistance in Monroe, Cole directed his attention to the Lumbee in Robeson County.
The Lumbee rout the Klan
Cole is best known for his harassment of the Lumbee Indians of Robeson County, North Carolina and received brief national attention in 1958 for his role in the Battle of Hayes Pond when armed Lumbees attacked a Klan rally and routed the Klansmen. Cole considered the Lumbee to be a "mongrel" race, and in 1957 began a campaign of harassment against them, announcing "There's about 30,000 half-breeds in Robeson County and we are going to have a cross burning and scare them up." Cole gave several speeches inciting whites against the Lumbee and staged a cross burning in St. Pauls, North Carolina at the home of a Lumbee woman he claimed was having an affair with a white man.
In the midst of Cole's campaign of terror against the Lumbee, Cole was warned by local law enforcement officials that his public speeches and demonstrations would provoke a reaction from the Lumbee. Undeterred, he called a Klan rally to be held on January 18, 1958, near the small town of Maxton where Cole predicted 5,000 Klansmen would remind the Lumbee of "their place". Realizing that the Lumbee would use this rally to muster together their own show of force, only 50 Klan members arrived to attend the rally. Cole and his fellow Klansmen were attacked by a heavily armed force of over 500 Lumbee Indians. The battle turned to a rout as Cole and the Klansmen fled into the nearby swamps.
Whereas Cole's defeat in Monroe was met with indifference by the press, the Klan's failed confrontation with the Lumbees was highly publicized and led to Cole's arrest and conviction. Cole served a prison sentence (1959-1960) for inciting a riot after which he moved to Portsmouth, Virginia. There, Cole worked as a private detective before returning to Kinston, North Carolina, in 1962, to operate a print shop. Cole began the Helping Hands C.B. Club and was also involved in the Committee for Better Government, a political action group with Ku Klux Klan overtones. In 1966, Cole attempted a takeover of the Klan organization but died less than one year later from injuries sustained in a car accident.
- "James William Cole Papers," Joyner Library, East Carolina University.
- Tyson, Timothy B. Radio Free Dixie: Robert F. Williams and the Roots of Black Power. 416 pages. University of North Carolina Press (February 1, 2001). ISBN 0-8078-4923-5.
- "Raid by 500 Indians balks North Carolina Klan rally." New York Times, January 19, 1958: 1.
- "Cole Says His Rights Violated." Greensboro Daily News, 20 Jan. 1958: A1.
- "The Lumbees Ride Again.” Greensboro Daily News, 20 Jan. 1958: 4A.
- Morrison, Julian. "Sheriff Seeks Klan Leader's Indictment: Cole Accused of Inciting Riot Involving Indians and Ku Klux." Greensboro Daily News, 20 Jan. 1958: A1-3.
- "Cole faces indictment; disgusted . . . quits." Robesonian, 21 Jan. 1958: 1.
- Ryan, Ethel. "Indians who crushed rally were mature tribesmen." Greensboro Record 21 Jan. 1958: A1.
- "Judge deplores Klan entry into peaceful Indian land." Robesonian 22 Jan. 1958: 1.
- "Redskins whoop Lumbee victory." Robesonian 23 Jan. 1958: 1.
- Brown, Dick. "The Indians who routed the ‘Catfish’." News and Observer 26 Jan. 1958: Sec. 3, p.1.
- "North Carolina: Indian raid." Newsweek 51 (27 Jan. 1958): 27.
- "Bad medicine for the Klan: North Carolina Indians break up Kluxers’ anti-Indian meeting.” Life 44 (27 Jan. 1958): 26-28.
- "When Carolina Indians went on the warpath–." U. S. News and World Report 44 (31 Jan. 1958): 14.
- "Indians back at peace and the Klan at bay." Life 44 (3 Feb. 1958): 36-36A.
- "Klan Wizard Cole gets 2-year sentence; Titan Martin draws 12 months. Both free on bond; both file appeal." Robesonian 14 March 1958: 1.
- "Heap bad Kluxers armed with gun, Indian angry paleface run." Ebony, 13 (April 1958): 25-26, 28.
- "Lumbee Indians form own news service." News and Observer 10 April 1958: 23.
- Craven, Charles. "The Robeson County Indian uprising against the Ku Klux Klan." South Atlantic Quarterly 57 (Autumn 1958): 433-42.