Last night I attended a talk by UNC-Chapel Hill professor of history Malinda Maynor Lowry discussing the effects of the War on Drugs on her native tribe, the Lumbee Indians. I was interested to learn that the Lumbee tribe is the largest tribe east of the Mississippi. They have been self-governed under a constitutional system for many years and have continued to thrive throughout all of the racial tensions that have occurred in the south over the past few centuries. Lowry’s talk was centered on the corrupt nature of the War on Drugs and its deliberate targeting of minority populations, in addition to the Lumbee people’s continual struggle for self-determination in the modern age.
Lowry recalled being a highschool senior back in 1988 when Lumbee politician Julian Pierce was mysteriously murdered in the time leading up to the election for Superior Court Judge in rural Robeson County, North Carolina. Pierce was a notable Lumbee activist who promoted decreasing legal penalties for the sale of illegal drugs, due to the fact that this legislation disproportionately affected the minority populations of Lumbee Indians and African Americans. He exposed the blatant inequality that the “War on Drugs” perpetuated and expressed strong disdain for his opponent, District Attorney Joe Freeman Britt, who utilized harsh legislation, voter intimidation, and police brutality tactics to discriminate against minority groups. In Britt’s 14 years in office, he had won 40 death sentences, thee most by any prosecutor in American history. The death of Julian Pierce was tragic to the proud Lumbee people, who were continuing in their ongoing struggle for self determination and recognition from the federal government. Pierce represented a beacon of hope to the people and his death had a lasting impact. At this time, Professor Lowry was attending a private high school in Durham, where she was the only Lumbee student. Many of her white friends had asked her how she felt about the murder of Julian Pierce. She was very frustrated by it and viewed it as a racial attack against the Lumbee people. Later, upon further study, she realized that Pierce’s murder illuminated far deeper issues. Issues such as police brutality and disproportionate incarceration of minorities for drug related crimes are still very prevalent in our society to this day and she provided a thoughtful insight into these complex problems, accentuating how our legal systems are at the root of the problem.