Martinsville, Ind., long ago earned a reputation as one of the heartland's most intolerant towns. Now it's struggling to change that rap.
MARTINSVILLE, Ind. — Diana Griggs, a local African-American internist, would have been the only black person counted by the 1990 census in this little town 30 miles south of Indianapolis — if she had felt safe identifying herself as such on the census form. As it was, she says she was so terrified of harm from racists who might try to track her down that she marked "other."
For decades, this leafy, overwhelmingly white town has been trying to overcome a racist reputation so well established that blacks and others have long avoided the area.
"There are places that are not comfortable for people of color, gays and hippies, and Martinsville has a reputation for drawing that line more sharply than any other town in Indiana," says James H. Madison, a professor of history at Indiana University and author of A Lynching in the Heartland: Race and Memory in America, published last year.
After the long-awaited arrest this spring of a suspect in the racially motivated 1968 stabbing murder of a black woman, many here hoped the town's racist stigma would be laid to rest.
The Martinsville Chamber of Commerce has hired a diversity consultant and its president, Bill Cunningham, recently announced plans to "undertake a county-wide initiative to address what I like to call making everyone feel welcome here."
But correcting Martinsville's image problem may be easier said than done.
It hasn't helped that Assistant Police Chief Dennis E. Nail's outspoken views on gays and religious minorities are more in line with those of a nearby hate group than Martinsville's more fair-minded citizens. Or that, after he expressed these views in blunt terms to a local newspaper, the city council responded not with a reprimand but with a standing ovation.
And it hasn't helped that a few miles south of town an occasional candidate for public office, Robert J. Farrell, runs the state chapter of a national hate group, the white supremacist Council of Conservative Citizens (CCC).
Or that a local church, calling itself a "home for Christian warriors," promotes Farrell, a version of the anti-Semitic theology of Christian Identity, and the CCC — a group whose Web site recently described blacks as a "retrograde species of humanity."
It was also bad news when the local high school lost its right to host any sporting events between January 1998 and the fall of 1999 after an angry white mob verbally assaulted black basketball players from Bloomington. (That incident led to the formation of a local diversity club that had grown to 25 members by this May.)
"We do confess that there are folks in our community who are prejudiced, even racist," school superintendent James Auter wrote in an open letter to the community following the basketball incident.
"However, many individuals and organizations, including the schools, have been working very hard to obliterate the reputation that we have as a community. We felt that considerable progress was being made."
A History of Hatred
Like other Indiana towns, Martinsville traces much of its racist legacy to the 1920s, when the Ku Klux Klan controlled the state Republican Party, held the governor's office, and dominated the state Legislature.
In Martinsville, the Klan held a major rally in the courthouse square in 1923. Today, although the Klan's power evaporated long ago, there are five Klan chapters in the state, including a unit of the Imperial Klans of America in nearby Indianapolis. Other active hate groups in the states include racist Skinheads and neo-Nazis, for a total of 13 organizations.
The last known public hate group activity in Martinsville was a Klan march and rally in the town square in July 1967, when about 90 cars paraded through town along with robed Klan marchers. But the folks who hung up their robes, along with those who sympathized with them, did not disappear — at least not right away. That much became clear the following year, when Carol Jenkins was slain.
Jenkins was stabbed to death with a screwdriver as she went door to door selling encyclopedias. No one was arrested, but a suspicion grew that the killer was local, and that the police might even have known who did it.
Racists were everywhere, recalls Mary Ann Land, a white Martinsville native.
"If you weren't one of them, then you knew someone who was. It might have been a neighbor, or it might have been your grandma, or your uncle Bob."
Then, in July 1975, a white Martinsville man threatened a 21-year-old black man, DeMorris Smith, who worked as a 4-H counselor at a city park.
Holding a sawed-off shotgun, Lowell Clifton spit on the victim and said to him, "If you're not out of here in 10 minutes, you're gonna be dead."
Clifton was later convicted of assault and sentenced to one to three years in prison.
By the late 1980s, when internist Dianna Griggs took an offer she couldn't refuse at the local hospital, she was terrified.
"Every night I worried that I would wake up to see our house on fire or a burning cross in the back yard."
No crosses were burned, and Griggs says she was accepted in the community. She is now one of nine black adult residents, according to the 2000 census count. Morgan County, of which Martinsville is the county seat, is home to 490 Latinos, a number that has jumped 115% since 1990.
While Griggs and other recent minority arrivals say they feel welcomed in Martinsville, they are sometimes in the position of defending the town to friends who live elsewhere. When the 2000 census came around, Griggs was emboldened to identify herself as black, "for Martinsville's sake."
Some hoped that the arrest this year of 70-year-old Kenneth Richmond, an Indianapolis man, for the murder of Carol Jenkins would burnish the city's image by demonstrating that local officials had not protected a murderer. But it did not seem likely that that will be enough to cure Martinsville's reputation for intolerance, especially after the events that started to unfold here last fall.
'Hadji Hindu' and 'Buddy Buddha'
It began with a letter written last October by Dennis Nail, the assistant police chief, to the editor of the Martinsville Reporter-Times.
In the letter, headed "I'm offended," Nail set out to critique news coverage of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and in the process vented his contempt for ethnic and religious minorities as well as gays.
If some of the major networks can only show sympathy for the enemy, I might suggest they move their studios and equipment to the end of oblivion with the rest of the cave-dwelling rats that opened death's door to our countrymen on Sept. 11.
Offended? I, too, am offended. ... It offends me when I have to give up prayer in school. Once again because it might upset Hadji Hindu or Buddy Buddha. I don't believe the founding fathers were either of these. They were Christian and believed in the one true God of the universe... .
Talk about majority. When I look around and I see no Mosque, or fat bald guys with bowls in their laps. I see churches. I'm offended when I turn on a television show and without fail a queer is in the plot just like it's a natural thing. America put God in the closet and let the queers out.
When the planes struck the twin towers I never heard anyone utter, 'Oh Ellen.' I heard a lot of 'Oh my God.' Now we want to pull God off the shelf, rub His head and expect a miracle.
Offended? Well, get over it, because it's time the dog started wagging the tail. Let's not be led around by a minority of weirdoes and feel-gooders. I, for one, am tired of it."
Nail signed the letter as a private citizen, but practically everyone in town knew what his job was. For the next three weeks, a flood of letters to the editor crossed the desk of Reporter-Times Editor Bette Nunn, and she ran them, pro and con.
A number of critics called for Nail's resignation and implored Martinsville Mayor Shannon Buskirk to take action. But city hall was silent.
Meanwhile, the letter triggered news articles in the Indianapolis Star and made national news in Newsweek and Time. Eventually, even The New York Times and National Public Radio would make their way to town.
Then Nail addressed a meeting of the local chapter of the CCC hate group, which is headquartered in St. Louis, Mo. A picture of Nail speaking to the group at the Union Christian Church in nearby Paragon was immediately posted on the front page of the Indiana chapter of the CCC's Web site.
Finally, the Martinsville City Council held a public meeting on the issue, two weeks after the letter was printed. About 80 people attended, and 21 testified in support of Nail. Only one person criticized Nail and the city's handling of the incident. After Nail addressed the council at the conclusion of the meeting, he received a standing ovation.
Lynette Liberge, a French teacher at Martinsville High School, was so upset by the mayor's and city council's inaction that she helped collect 750 sponsors for a full-page newspaper advertisement that ran under the headline, "We respect and affirm the dignity of all people."
Extremism and the Mainstream
The extremist views expressed by Nail are not unfamiliar features in the political landscape of Morgan County. During the 1990s, when antigovernment "Patriot" militias were on the rise nationwide, two county commissioners were elected who had ties to militiamen and their ideology.
Soon after taking office in 1996, they voted to eradicate the county's planning and zoning laws — although that move was later rescinded and the two commissioners were tossed out by voters when they ran for reelection in 2000.
The current thorn in Martinsville's side is Robert Farrell, an auto mechanic and one-time member of the Morgan County militia, who now heads the CCC's Indiana state chapter from his home in Paragon, a few miles south of Martinsville.
He has found an ally in James Brown Jr., pastor of Paragon's Union Christian Church, where the CCC meeting addressed by the assistant police chief was held.
Brown's church, which describes itself as Morgan County's "most conservative organization" but insists that it is "not a racist group," attacks a host of perceived ills on its Web site, including "tyranny, gun control, socialism, atheism [and] multiculturalism."
It promotes a relatively soft version of Christian Identity, saying that whites are the real Hebrews of the Bible and that Jews are "impostors" (other, even harder-line Identity believers describe Jews as the literal descendants of Satan). The church Web page, which touts "racial preservation," is linked to articles that describe supposed Jewish control of social institutions.
The church's Web page also says that the real purpose of hate crime and anti-terrorism laws is to "trample down Bible-believing Christians."
For his part, Farrell has been trying to expand his following not only in Morgan County, but in Indiana as a whole. When he hosted the first state meeting of the CCC for the year, 36 people showed up — hardly a large crowd, but 11 more people than belong to the town's diversity club after several years of operation. So he decided to run for sheriff, his second bid for county office.
In May's Republican primary, Farrell received 3% of the vote, or 244 votes. When he ran for public office the first time, as a candidate for the Morgan County Commission in 1990, he also received just 3% of the vote, which then worked out to 589 votes.
Farrell declined to be interviewed by the Intelligence Report.
During this spring's primary, some citizens, including Chamber President Bill Cunningham, were appalled by material on Farrell's Web site.
"Instead of Farrell's biographical information and what he planned to do with the office, all we got was this link to his white separatist group," Cunningham said.
Cunningham contacted the officers of the South Central Indiana Community Access Network, SCICAN, who provided candidates Web site links on a Morgan County political page, and asked them to remove Farrell's CCC site.
Initially, SCICAN President Greg McKelfresh removed the link. But SCICAN Treasurer David Ross, the director of the Morgan County Public Library, argued that Farrell's First Amendment rights should be upheld if he agreed to place more pertinent information on his Web page about his candidacy for sheriff.
"I said if we take down Robert Farrell's Web page because his views are unpleasant, are we going down a slippery slope?" Ross told the Indianapolis Star.
In the end, Farrell added some details to the site and the link to the Morgan County political page was reinstated.
Few experts believe that Robert Farrell or James Brown are likely to gain much more of a following than they already have. But given Martinsville's history, the city still faces an uphill struggle in convincing the world of its good intentions.
"The Dennis Nail incident was the real key," says Madison, the Indiana University history professor. "Before that happened, I used to tell my students, 'Let's not be so quick to judge the people of Martinsville. Let's give them a chance.' But the problem wasn't just Dennis Nail. It was the people in political leadership who didn't condemn him."
Ultimately, Madison believes the town will have to change.
"Martinsville cannot keep the world at bay," he says. "The world is coming to Martinsville, one way or the other."