The contentious sheriff’s race of 1950

First Posted: 10/17/2013

The sheriff’s race of 1950 was unique. Three men were running for sheriff. Former Sheriff Clyde Wade challenged incumbent Sheriff Willis Britt. Both men represented old schools of Robeson County politics when Malcolm McLeod entered the race.

McLeod actually was new to both politics and law enforcement. His father had been police chief of Lumberton and his uncle was a former sheriff. McLeod promised to modernize the department with radio communications, 24-hour service and record keeping.

When his opponents promised the same, vying for his campaign planks, McLeod did something unprecedented. He declared war on the bootleggers.

It was something his opponents historically could not touch. As a dry county, Robeson bootleggers were known to help finance political races. Any “arrests” were dismissed with small fines. The highly political environment amounted to fines being a cost of doing business for bootleggers.

It was a clash of eras. McLeod won, pushing Robeson into the modern age for the next 50 years. The race was so contentious in 1950 that deputies loyal to Sheriff Britt began to quit as Britt’s term drew to a close. One former deputy would later be arrested for bootlegging.

Several days before McLeod was sworn in, Sheriff Britt stripped the remaining deputies of their authority. Robeson was without law enforcement for a few days. And folks think today’s politics are contentious.

True to his word, McLeod busted more than 70 stills his first month or so in office. He routed the bootlegging industry in Robeson and later the Klan with the help of the Lumbee Tribe. A modern department began to emerge.

The forgotten hero in the legend of Sheriff McLeod was solicitor — now called district attorney — Malcolm Seawell. Seawell was mayor of Lumberton for a year, winning by seven votes and establishing the current city manager system. Upon taking office, McLeod actually knew little about the law. The brilliance of McLeod was he sought the guidance of Seawell. In the early years, the two were inseparable. Both had a mission. Both had no power-base allegiances. Both were independent men controlled by no one.

Seawell later became a judge, attorney general and ran for governor. In 1966, demonstrating his independent spirit, Seawell even resigned his chairmanship on the State’s Law & Order Committee after a disagreement with the Democratic administration over its decision not to outlaw the Klan in North Carolina. Seawell was a huge foe of the Klan, having dusted off old laws when in Robeson to convict Klansmen.

Sheriff Hubert Stone was swept into office with the timely support of McLeod upon McLeod’s retirement in 1978. While McLeod battled moonshine, modernization and the Klan, Stone successfully fought drugs, battled image issues and managed a growing department. Like McLeod, he was powerful and the last of the high-sheriff era.

The election of Glenn Maynor promised a new modernization period. The new era was dashed with Tarnished Badge and the image problems painfully linger today.

McLeod demonstrated it takes a partnership with the court system, commissioners and citizens to successfully propel the Sheriff’s Department forward without playing political games.

Johnson Britt serves as the current district attorney, guiding the office with dignity like a modern day Seawell serving above the political fray. And like 1950, there will presumably be three candidates for sheriff, including a former candidate and a fresh candidate. Times never change, just the actors.

McLeod’s 1950 slogan was, “Big Man — Big Job” and the choice was to continue the old era or begin anew. Backed by Seawell, a new era therefore began by two independent men who couldn’t be bought. Though highly contentious, the race was unique and two men changed the landscape of Robeson.

Hopefully, the next sheriff’s race will not be contentious. Already it is unique. What is certain though is that Robeson desperately needs a new era. It also needs more McLeod’s and Seawell’s.

Phillip Stephens in chairman of the Robeson County Republican Party.