Slain Lumbee leader honored in Raleigh

akenney@newsobserver.comMarch 20, 2014 

— Julian Pierce could have been the first Native American elected judge of a superior court in North Carolina, but three shotgun blasts ended his life in 1988, 26 years ago next week.

His killer’s motive is debated to this day, but on Thursday, his legacy found a measure of permanence. The sprawling Martin Street offices of Legal Aid of North Carolina in downtown Raleigh are now named in honor of the civil rights leader and lawyer.

“It’s an honor for us,” said Phil Pierce, standing in his older brother’s new namesake. Still, he added, “I’d just like to know what would have taken place had he not been assassinated.”

Julian Pierce was a chemist and a government lawyer before he was an advocate for the poor. In 1987, he was the leader of a legal service for the poor, and he was ready to challenge Robeson County’s dominant prosecutor. They both wanted to be judge in an area split between three races but dominated then by a white minority.

“We need someone in that position who has temperament and compassion, and I think those are my strong traits,” he told The News & Observer in 1987. Decades later, his daughter is more blunt.

“He understood the racial tensions that enveloped Robeson County and knew that much of it stemmed from the public’s belief in government corruption and drug trafficking involving law enforcement and court officials,” Julia Pierce wrote in 2004.

Joe Freeman Britt, Pierce’s opponent in the primary, says nothing came of those allegations. “It sounded to me like political talk,” he said on Thursday.

Tensions mounted as the campaign wore on. Pierce’s team planned in March 1988 to bring in security to live with the candidate. He had already pushed successfully to consolidate and effectively integrate the county’s schools, according to his friends.

“The machine was losing its grip, and Julian Pierce was winning,” recalled Dick Taylor, a friend and ally.

“We expected something to happen, but we didn’t expect anything like this,” said Dexter Locklear, a member of Pierce’s finance committee, just after the killing.

Pierce’s death came only two months before the primary, when he was 42 years old. He met his assailant that Saturday morning at the door of his brick house outside Wakulla.

W. Hubert Stone, then Robeson sheriff, blamed the slaying on a Lumbee man, John Anderson Goins, 24, who killed himself in a closet while investigators closed in. Pierce had shut down Goins’ relationship with Pierce’s 16-year-old daughter, Stone said.

“There was never any closure in the investigation,” Phil Pierce said.

The Julian T. Pierce Memorial Building and Annex, as it’s now called, is an office for about 100 people who work with everyone from battered immigrants to children and the elderly. In Robeson County, the justice system is now more racially diverse, according to Dale Deese, Pierce’s student and successor.

And the family, Phil Pierce said, knows this: “He wasn’t forgotten.”

Kenney: 919-829-4870; Twitter: @KenneyNC

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