Burlington Dynamite Plot

Written By Will Schultz

The so-called Burlington dynamite plot refers to the attempted bombing of two Burlington textile mills and the legal battle that followed. Six Burlington workers were arrested and accused of plotting to dynamite the mills. Their trial became a media circus that attracted the attention of communists, college students, and a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright.

North Carolina’s textile industry had put Burlington on the map. As of 1934, the town was home to 26 hosiery mills, 20 textile mills, and 30 “miscellaneous” mills. These mills allowed Burlington to weather the Great Depression—one manager recalled that “Burlington never had a depression, we never had to close things down.” Yet even Burlington was not spared from the great 1934 textile strike. Thousands of Burlington textile workers walked off the job, leaving the mills to stand silent and empty

On the evening of September 14, several days into the strike, a car sped past Burlington’s Holt Mill. Out flew a dynamite bomb that exploded “like an earthquake,” according to one witness. No one was hurt, but the blast did shatter fifty feet of windows. The next day investigators found an unexploded bomb at the Stevens Manufacturing Company. Sheriff H.J. Stockard blamed “communists” and put a $1000 reward on the bombers’ heads. All across Alamance County, National Guardsmen stopped and searched dozens of cars for dynamite.

Ten men were arrested—John Anderson, Florence Blalock, Tom Canipe, Jerry Furlough, J.F. Harraway, J.P. Hoggard, Avery Kimrey, Charlie McCullom, Howard Overman, and H.F. Pruitt. Furlough, Kimrey, Pruitt, and McCullom chose to testify against the other six men.

The case against these six defendants was weak. Canipe, Harraway, and Hoggard had no connection with the bombing itself—they were suspects simply because they had been seen outside the hardware store from which the dynamite was stolen. All three, however, belonged to the local Union of Textile Workers (UTW). John Anderson also belonged to the UTW. What’s more, he was a political opponent of Sheriff Stockard. Blalock was arrested on the testimony of Charlie McCullom, the town drunk. And Overman—who was not even a textile worker—“confessed” to the bombing after a pair of private detectives got him drunk on moonshine.

The leaders of North Carolina’s Communist Party smelled an opportunity. They hoped to make the case a propaganda victory. The Workers Defense Committee, led by a communist agitator named Don West, tried to turn the six men into martyrs for the communist cause. The “core six” found other, less extreme allies. A group of Chapel Hill liberals formed the League for Southern Labor; its members included English professors J.O. and Loretta Bailey, historian C. Vann Woodward, and Paul Green, Pulitzer prize-winning playwright and author of The Lost Colony.

Communists and non-communists alike raised money for the defense, gave speeches on behalf of the defendants, and wrote letters to newspapers explaining the case. But neither money, nor speeches, nor letters swayed the jury, who found all six men guilty as charged. They received prison sentences ranging from two to ten years.

Ironically, the communists probably hurt the case far more than they helped. Hungry for publicity, the communist-controlled WDC refused to share credit with its allies, alienating non-communist groups like the League for Southern Labor. They were equally incompetent in the courtroom. When the case was appealed, Paul Green warned that the communist lawyers were “going to ruin the whole thing if we let them get up and plead.” He was right. Communist attorney David Levinson repeated party propaganda throughout the trial, angering the judge and dooming the appeal.

Handed a golden opportunity, North Carolina’s Communist Party fumbled it. Through their extremism, their greed, and their incompetence, they lost the chance to make the Burlington dynamite plot a rallying cry for their cause.