The cruel perception of Robeson
Intelligence cannot be defined based on brain-game usage despite claims from companies like Luminosity that cash in on sales from them. Nevertheless, Luminosity recently published what it calls the smartest and dumbest cities in America based on data from its users. Lumberton finished last out of 478 cities nationwide. We can’t seem to catch a break.
The Robesonian passed on a hard-news story concerning the pseudo-study and for good reason. There are enough negative portrayals of the county’s image — some our fault, some due to distortion.
Next year marks 20 years since an infamously distorted GQ Magazine article portrayed the Sheriff’s Department as corrupt and recalled The Robesonian hostage of 1988. The magazine insinuated the Jordan murder was a conspiracy with a complicit sheriff. Neither accusation was proven.
The Tarnished Badge investigations broke a decade later. This time it was tangibly real. The District Attorney’s Office was forced to dismiss hundreds of criminal cases and the probe ended with 22 deputies under indictment.
Two months ago a Fayetteville newspaper resurrected Tarnished Badge, describing it as the largest police corruption operation in state history with a story titled “Operation Tarnished Badge: Years Later, Tarnish Remains.” It became a story that kept giving.
Around 60 deputies patrol nearly 1,000 square miles of Robeson. Cumberland is smaller by comparison but patrolled by 200. It’s no excuse, but easy to see how things like this happen in the poorest county. But solutions seem limited.
Last week the Raleigh News & Observer ran a story about promising educational programs designed to curb future violence in Robeson. Though a good look at alternative solutions, again the back-story is filled with words about a historically poor, violent, crime-ridden county.
Only four men have been elected sheriff since Malcolm McLeod, the longest serving sheriff in recent history. Elected in 1950, McLeod served 28 years, eclipsing Sheriff King, previously the longest sheriff in office until shot by the Lowrie gang in 1869. Practically every sheriff has been accused of corruption. It’s the nature of the job and probably worse when the sheriff collected taxes prior to 1927.
Every sheriff has been a Democrat. Every incumbent historically wins. It’s a redundancy providing more footnotes for Luminosity studies and GQ writers. So by default, Democrats get credit or blame for any perceptions. But the redundancy is not new.
In 1912, R.E. Lewis was elected to replace retiring Sheriff McNeil. Lewis served from 1912 to 1924. Two months before Lewis’ first election, The Robesonian even ran articles that R.E. Lewis would “of course be (elected)” because he was the Democratic nominee. Though true, media bias was evident long ago.
The elected Orrum constable Rowland Stephens was one of the few elected Republicans then. He challenged Lewis in 1922 as the sheriff’s popularity was waning. Sheriff Lewis still won but garnered the fewest votes of any Democrat on the ticket. It marked Sheriff Lewis’ last election. He became the county’s tax collector in 1927. And the re-election trend continued to present day.
So we’ll never know if the county image would have been different had Republican James Sanderson won in 1994. He lost by 4,000 votes and was the most recent credible Republican challenge.
The point is there is evidence of change. We should ignore Luminosity and GQ.
Real change began as conservative Democrats helped elect local Republicans in 2008. It prevents the appearance that the “fix” is always in for one party and helps the vision of both.
There are many ways to mitigate our history and improve our image. But ultimately, Democrats and Republicans must continue to seek political solutions. Future studies and GQ writers will hopefully record that our past did not dictate our future. We are not entirely corrupt nor politically fixated — even though since 1912, it is perceived that way.
Phillip Stephens is chairman of the Robeson County Republican Party.
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