Fear Runs Rampant in Henderson, 1958-1959

National Guardsmen face off with townspeople in Henderson after being mobilized by Governor Luther Hodges during the Harriet-Henderson Mills strike.On November 15, 1958, the Textile Workers Union of America called a strike at the Harriet-Henderson Mills in Henderson. The union had targeted cotton mills across the state since 1946 as part of “Operation Dixie.” By 1958, more than a thousand local workers had enrolled in the union, accounting for one in seven of all union members in the state.

A wave of violence swept across Henderson in 1959 after negotiations between the mill owner and the union broke down. Windows were shot out at mill headquarters. Strikers pulled a truck driver from his cab. Organizer Boyd Payton was injured when rocks were thrown at his car. Dynamite blasts damaged a strikebreaker’s house and a boiler room. Gov. Luther Hodges assigned 150 Highway Patrolmen and several National Guard units to the scene.

Payton and seven others were indicted, convicted, and sentenced to six to 10 years in pirson. The judge declared, “Fear has run rampant in Henderson and Vance County. It must end right here.” The company returned to a full work force but organizers did not formally call off the strike until June 1961. In that year Gov. Terry Sanford the shortened sentences for and later granted clemency to Payton and others.  

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