This was the first song I ever heard by Malvina Reynolds, once again on Pete Seeger’s Gazette LP — I was too young to be aware of “Little Boxes” or “What Have They Done to the Rain” when they were on the radio, so first became aware of her through this upbeat song about an armed group of Lumbee Indians routing a Ku Klux Klan rally in North Carolina.
In some ways that was probably good, since it meant I didn’t think of her as a nice old grandmother, which a lot of people did, and which apparently irritated the hell out of her at times, because she was a fighter and had, in her words, “a sharp edge.” She was an atheist, a socialist, wife to a labor organizer, and she prided herself on the professionalism of her songwriting.
“The Battle of Maxton Field” is not one of her best, but it appealed to me as a kid because it was rowdy and fun and the good guys won. I was so young when I heard this that I didn’t know what the Klan was, and had to ask my mom — but years later, my father was at a political meeting of some sort in North Carolina, and came back with a story about the Lumbee Indians having battled the Klan down there, and I startled him by already knowing the story.
It was national news at the time (January 1958), with the New York Times noting that Robeson County, NC, was triply segregated, with separate school systems for white, black, and Indian children. The Times told roughly the same story Reynolds tells, including a note that the local sheriff was present but didn’t interfere. As they wrote:
Scattered shots and a few weak war whoops were heard as seventy-five of the Indians marched across a field toward an amplifying system set up by the Klan. The Indians kicked it apart. They shot out the tires on a car that had towed an electricity generator and shouted for the announced speaker…to show himself. He did not.
For those who want to learn more, this event is apparently better known as the Battle of Hayes Pond, and there are lots of pages online giving histories and other information about Lumbee culture.