The brutal murder of a young African-American woman during the civil rights era has long fueled one small Indiana town’s reputation as a hive of racist hatred.
Carol Marie Jenkins of Rushville, Indiana had been selling encyclopedias door-to-door in Martinsville when she was found stabbed to death on September 16, 1968. Though the crime eventually went into the cold case file, it was generally attributed to local racist sentiment—90 cars and numerous robed marchers had participated in a Klan rally in downtown Martinsville just the previous summer.
In 2002, Kenneth Richmond was arrested for Jenkins’ murder on the basis of allegations made by his daughter, who claimed to have witnessed the crime as a child. Although Richmond was declared incompetent to stand trial, and passed away only months later, his arrest provided the city of Martinsville an opportunity to start restoring its image.
The suspect was a farm worker in Hendricks County on a drunken spree in Martinsville. That the crime occurred there was a matter of chance, it was argued, not an indication of the city’s entrenched racism. The arrest of the out-of-towner also weakened the theory that city officials had been protecting a native son.
Despite the arrest, Martinsville continues to be perceived by many as a racist town, an image some say is warranted. Although the city’s black population rose from one in 1990 to 9 in 2002, and its Hispanic community is growing, multiculturalism has its challenges taking root there.
A politically engaged white supremacist organization has its headquarters nearby, and a church in the area espouses “racial preservation” on its web site. In 1998, a Martinsville high school was barred from hosting games after students verbally assaulted visiting players with racial epithets.
The event did, however, result in the formation of a local diversity club. In 2001, after the September 11 attacks, a racist and homophobic letter to the editor written by the city’s assistant police chief fomented a torrent of controversy in the local and national news.
At a public hearing two weeks later, the letter’s author received a standing ovation from the city council. Outraged, 750 individuals and businesses in the community came together for a full-page newspaper advertisement declaring, “We respect and affirm the dignity of all people”.
To that end, the Chamber of Commerce has, more recently, hired a diversity consultant, distributed educational literature and undertaken an initiative to “mak[e] everyone feel welcome here.”