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EDITOR’S NOTE: In this excerpt from his book, All This Marvelous Potential: Robert Kennedy’s 1968 Tour of Appalachia, Matthew Algeo documents a deadly gunfight between white supremacists and African Americans in Berea, Kentucky. Berea resident Mary Rice Farris, who testified during Robert F. Kennedy’s tour of Eastern Kentucky in 1968, played a major role in the city’s recovery from the shootout, which resulted in two deaths.
Q&A with Author Matthew Algeo
Late in the summer of 1968, simmering racial tensions exploded into a gun battle in Berea, a central Kentucky town famous for its integrated college founded by abolitionists in the decade before the Civil War. When the smoke cleared, two men—one white and one black—were dead, at least five others were wounded, and the illusion of racial harmony in Berea was shattered.
It was perhaps the civil rights era’s only instance of open armed conflict between white supremacists and black counter-protesters. The gunfight led to fears of widespread racial violence in Berea. But the town was calmed, in part, by the words of Mary Rice Farris, a powerful black woman unafraid to confront racism.
The trouble began on the afternoon of Sunday, September 1. The racist National States’ Rights Party, or NSRP, held a rally at a vacant used-car lot along [U.S. 25] on the north side of Berea. About 300 white people—mostly men—attended the rally. It was a lovely day, with clear blue skies and highs in the upper 70s. It was a holiday weekend, too: the day before Labor Day. The crowd was in high spirits, so to speak.
The featured speaker was Charles Conley Lynch, a minister ordained in a Christian Identity sect called the Church of Jesus Christ, Christian. Lynch—who liked to be called Connie, a diminutive of his middle name—was a handsome man, with a dimpled chin and a penchant for wearing Kentucky Colonel ties.
After the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown decision outlawing segregated schools, Rev. Connie Lynch became an itinerant hate monger, living out of his car as he travelled the country preaching his gospel of white supremacy. Lynch appeared on the sidelines of most of the era’s explosive racial confrontations: Little Rock, Oxford, Birmingham.
The Berea rally was routine, insofar as such a rally can be routine. Wearing a Confederate-flag vest, Lynch fired up the crowd with his usual incendiary rhetoric—“anti-Negro talk,” as the local papers put it the next day. George Wallace’s third-party campaign for president, in full bloom two months before the election, was enthusiastically endorsed. The n-word was employed liberally. The speeches were amplified through loudspeakers and, according to later reports, could be heard a quarter-mile away, the sound reaching the homes of many black residents.
By four o’clock the rally was over. The organizers were packing away their placards, flyers, and Confederate flags when “several carloads of Negro men” pulled up to the site. Words, including racial epithets, were exchanged. Then the shooting began. Nobody knows who fired the first shot, but over the next ten minutes, the two sides exchanged more than forty shots in a running gun battle.
Killed in the shootout were Elza V. Rucker, 30, an NSRP “sergeant-at-arms” and father of three, and Lenoa John Boggs, 36, a presser at Sav-Way Cleaners and father of five.
The next day, Berea mayor Clint Hensley imposed a ten p.m. curfew and a ban on all liquor sales in the town, and the Berea City Council held an emergency session. Tensions in the town were running very high. “I hope we don’t lose this thing,” the mayor said.
Among the residents who addressed the council that day was Mary Rice Farris, the unofficial spokesperson for Berea’s black community. Farris was a formidable woman: tirelessly active in politics, her community, and her church, she and her husband Moss Farris had four children and owned a tobacco farm. “She was a sweet, lovely woman,” her granddaughter Michele Farris recalls, “but she was a natural born fighter.”
At the emergency city council meeting, Mary demanded to know why the town had allowed the rally to occur in the first place. “If we’d had a civil rights meeting,” she told the council, “we would have been surrounded by police.” She said the council had been “complacent as far as we (Negroes) are concerned, and we’ve let you get away with it. We don’t want to make demands but there are things that need to be done.” She pointedly noted that the town’s mayor and eight councilmen were all white.
About 200 of Berea’s 4,300 residents were black, and most lived in neighborhoods scattered on the outskirts of town. It was a long way from Watts, Newark, or Detroit, but Berea’s black residents faced many of the same indignities, large and small, as well as the institutional racism, that the residents of those urban ghettoes faced. Whites in Berea routinely referred to black men as “boys.”
“The Negro boys were goaded into it by the States Rights people,” Mayor Hensley said after the shootout. “I know every one of them (the Negroes) and they are good boys.” (The youngest of the black men arrested after the shootout was thirty.)
At the emergency session, the Berea City Council authorized the formation of a special commission on race relations. Mary Rice Farris was asked to serve on the commission and she accepted. The next month, Farris spoke at a forum sponsored by the commission.
“It is true,” she said,
both white and negro want change—change is inevitable—one way or another. Let’s face the fact that irresponsible, erratic, violent change is illogical, unreasonable and un-spiritual, and will only lead to utter chaos. We as Christians have to remember we operate from unchanging foundations. In God there is no Jew or Greek, male or female. Of one blood God has created all men. Jesus in his stay on Earth broke the racial zones of Gentile and the Samaritan. He said, “If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar: for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen?”
No more racial violence would visit Berea that year.
The two men killed in the shootout, Elza Rucker and Lenoa Boggs, are buried less than 100 yards apart in Berea Cemetery.
Six black men were ultimately charged with Rucker’s murder. The charges were later reduced to unlawful assembly. The six men pleaded guilty and were sentenced to nine months in jail.
Eight white men were charged with Boggs’ murder. Charges against two were dropped. The charges against the other six—including Rev. Connie Lynch—were reduced to disorderly conduct. All but Lynch—who was already serving a sentence in a Maryland prison for inciting a riot in Baltimore—were tried in March 1969. The five were found guilty and were fined $500 each. Three of the five were also sentenced to thirty days in jail. The inequity of the sentences did not go unnoticed in Berea’s black community, but no civil unrest followed the trials.
Connie Lynch was never tried for his role in the Berea shootout. On September 30, 1972, just over four years after the incident, and not long after his release from prison in Maryland, Lynch died of a heart attack while taking a bath at a friend’s house. He was 59.
Mary Rice Farris died of cancer in 1977. She was 63. The Old Testament reading at her funeral came from Isaiah 43: “Let all the nations be gathered together, and let the people be assembled.”
Matthew Algeo is an author and journalist. This essay is excerpted from his new book, All This Marvelous Potential: Robert Kennedy’s 1968 Tour of Appalachia (Chicago Review Press).