Indiana Town: From Racist Past to Primary Present

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Graphic: Racial Breakdown for Upcoming Primary States i
Alice Kreit, NPR
Graphic: Racial Breakdown for Upcoming Primary States
Alice Kreit, NPR

The Democratic presidential primary is in full swing in Indiana, and both candidates are crisscrossing the Hoosier state.

With such a tight election, every vote counts. The Democratic candidates — Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama — and their surrogates are even targeting rural Republican strongholds for Tuesday's open primary.

Bill Clinton recently visited Martinsville, a town halfway between Indianapolis and Bloomington with a long record of electing Republicans.

It's also a town with a troubled racial history.

Throughout Indiana, Martinsville acquired a certain spooky infamy as a town with little tolerance for outsiders, particularly those with dark skin.

It was an alleged Ku Klux Klan stronghold in the 1920s and labeled a "sundown town." Blacks were expected to clear out before dark.

And in 1968, the racist image was practically set in stone by a brutal attack.

A young black woman named Carol Jenkins was selling encyclopedias door to door when she was stabbed in the chest with a screwdriver.

The Jenkins murder went unsolved for years until a woman stepped forward in 2002, saying she had long kept a terrible secret. She said when she was 7, she saw her father and a still-unidentified man — both white — commit the crime.

Her father, Kenneth Richmond, 70, was arrested, but he died before trial.

And the questions about the racial climate in Martinsville have lived on.

John Winenger is working on a documentary about the town's effort to shed its racist reputation.

"There's this stigma or shroud or dark cloud ... about the Martinsville community being very racist," he says.

Through activities such as workshops and fishing trips with inner-city kids, a group called PRIDE — People Respecting Individuality and Diversity in Everyone — is working hard to signal that Martinsville is a welcoming place.

Jeff Main, a financial consultant, and his family helped found the group.

"The reputation that we're wrestling with is that Martinsville is a racially intolerant community. While it would be crazy to say there is no basis in fact for that — certainly, this is a small town with its share of close-minded people over the last several decades — there's no question that the vast, vast majority of people here are normal people who are open-minded," he says.

In the 2000 census, only 11 of the town's more than 11,000 residents identified themselves as black. The town's complexion has not changed much, but residents say attitudes have started to shift.

Even so, Martinsville residents are weary of publicity, worried that any kind of media attention will inevitably dredge up the past.

And Bill Clinton's recent visit to this overwhelmingly conservative Republican town has put it in the spotlight.

The candidates are both courting Republican strongholds, hoping for crossover support. Obama also sent some of his surrogates to Martinsville for a question-and-answer session at a local diner.

And that raises an interesting question: Does race still matter in Martinsville?

Those kinds of attitudes can be hard to gauge. Exit polls from the Pennsylvania primary found that 12 percent of white voters said race was a factor in their decision.

During a recent visit to Martinsville's Swifty gas station, residents shared their views on race and the presidential contest.

Tammy Riesenmey says race and gender shouldn't count. Nonetheless, she says some people are racist or have issues with women.

Another local, Ryan Wilson, says it would be "weird for a woman or a black to run the United States."

"I think a lot of things would change. Probably the male chauvinist in me is going to vote for the man just because. I'm going to be honest, it probably won't be [Republican candidate John] McCain, since he stands for everything George Bush stands for. I think [Obama] says he doesn't take money from the lobbyists, which I think can be real positive," he says.

Wilson is leaning toward Obama, and he acknowledges there is more than a bit of irony in that.

"KKK used to rally right down there. I mean it's widely known," he says.

"When you come to Martinsville, you notice it's mostly white folks. But that doesn't mean we're all prejudiced against everybody. ... 'Love thy neighbor as thyself' — that's a big part of Martinsville, too. Churches on every corner."

These days, political signs are on many corners, too, though most are for local races. Yet the presidential primary on May 6 could be just one sign of how much Martinsville has changed.

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