Brad Lilley recalled hiding under a pew as Ku Klux Klan members shot into a church where children were hiding. It was for their safety, as their parents marched for civil rights in rural Gates County in the northeast corner of North Carolina.

As a freshman in 1969, he would later drop out of Fayetteville State University to join the Black Panther Party in Winston-Salem.

Randall Jennings, a football player, dropped out of high school in Camden, SC at the age of 16 after winning a fight with a man he later learned was a member of the Klan. He had to leave town, and wound up in Winston-Salem.

Angry and full of attitude, he discovered the Black Panther Party, and, “It just seemed like that was the right place for me.”

Larry Medley’s gravitation towards the Black Panther Party came about through his budding consciousness as a high school student looking at the contradiction between the rat-infested housing he saw in High Point and the pristine homes of white people he saw on television. He and his friends also wanted the opportunity to study black history at the newly desegregated High Point Central High School.

After he was suspended for demanding a black history course during a meeting in the principal’s office, Medley dropped out and moved to Winston-Salem to join the party.

The three young men would soon start an offshoot of the Winston-Salem Black Panther Party in High Point, where they set up a free breakfast program in a rental house on Hulda Street.

During a panel discussion at Winston-Salem State University on Tuesday, Lilley, Jennings and Medley recalled the day in February 1971 when they engaged in a shootout with the High Point police. Entitled “Armed Self-Defense,” the panel was part of a series of events this week to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Winston-Salem Black Panther Party. The three men, along with George DeWitt, have come to be known as the High Point Four. DeWitt died in 1985 during an encounter with a police officer in Winston-Salem.

The stage was set for the shootout when their landlord refused to continue accepting their rent money — under pressure from the FBI, the Panthers believe — and attempted to evict them. Jennings said the Panthers believed the eviction effort violated their constitutional rights. They anticipated a raid, having witnessed the deaths of Panther leaders at the hands of the police, including Bobby Hutton in April 1968 and Fred Hampton in December 1969. To prepare for an assault, they stacked sandbags against the front wall on the first and second stories of the house.

Black Panthers Larry Little and Polly Graham, resisting an eviction in Winston-Salem in January 1970. (courtesy photo)

“So, we said, ‘We are going to defend our house, and we may die in the process,’” Jennings recalled on Tuesday. “So, we came to an agreement on that.

“The reason why we came into an agreement upon defending the house is because we knew we were doing the right thing — we were fighting for our people,” he said. “We were so revolutionary-loving, proletarian-intoxicated to where we could not be astronomically intimidated.”

Medley echoed Jennings.

“We knew that we were gonna die, but we also felt in our hearts that, Okay, for the cause of the revolution, maybe our lives would make a difference, bring about a change in society, if it took our lives,” Medley said. “If we died, we were at least going to take one with us. That was the mentality. That was the revolutionary process.”

Medley and DeWitt were on the second floor when the knock from the police came at 5:30 a.m.. Lying behind the sandbags, Medley held a .30-30 rifle that he aimed through a porthole.

“I had a bead on one of the officer’s head, just waiting for them to fire on us, so that we could start defending ourselves,” he recalled.

A fateful series of events would conspire to prevent Medley from shooting the officer. The young men had strung wire over the upstairs window, and when the police fired a teargas cannister at it, the device bounced off, and rolled back into the street. That was when a volley of gunfire opened up. Medley and DeWitt had leaned a mattress against the sandbags, and the mattress fell, causing Medley to lean in front of the porthole. A shotgun slug struck his shoulder bone and ricocheted behind his lungs.

Downstairs, Lilley held an M-1 bolt-action carbine.

“When everything broke loose behind those sandbags, I sighted a police officer, and he was hiding behind a tree,” Lilley recalled. “And he had his gun pointed up at that top window. And I knew Larry and George were up there. And I didn’t know if he had an aim on them or not. So, everything broke loose. And in me, that was a pig that I was going to kill.”

Twice, with a bead on the officer’s head, Lilley’s rifle misfired.

“But see, I was determined: I was going to take that man’s life before he killed me,” Lilley said. He waited, but by then the officer was moving around, and the Lilley said he saw the officer shooting.

“And so, I aimed for his heart,” Lilley said. “And I took aim, and I pulled the trigger. And I saw that bullet lift that police officer up in the air and whip his body around.”

The four young men decided to surrender because Medley was injured and bleeding profusely.

Three police officers were shot, according to Lilley. A 1972 New York Times article said a police lieutenant was critically wounded.

Lilley, Jennings and Medley were all charged and convicted with assault with a deadly weapon with intent to kill, and served prison time.

The three men, now in their sixties, have grown since the shootout.

Jennings is now committed to mentoring and counseling people struggling with drug and alcohol abuse.

“Today, I look at things much differently,” he said in an interview after the panel. “I think it’s a different direction that we could achieve what we want to achieve. Armed confrontation is just not necessary today. People are much more educated.”

Medley experienced a religious conversion in the mid-1970s, and is now a pastor.

“My mission now in life is to help continue the struggle of change, but understanding now that the change has to be from the inside out, because unless a person’s heart is changed, what do you have?” he said. “It’s a continuous vicious cycle. No love, no forgiveness — no change.”

Lilley, also a pastor, founded High Point Peacemakers — to try to persuade people to put down guns.

“We move to stop the gun violence and stop the killings in our communities,” he said. “It’s not the police who are killing us, so much as it is, we’re killing ourselves. So, we’re trying to reach young people and trying to reach those who are picking up guns and turning it on themselves, have that expression of self-hate.”

Young people often come up to Lilley and ask him how they can join the Black Panthers, or ask him to restart the organization. It happened as recently as Monday.

“Well, nah bruh, because our time is passing and the circumstances are different,” Lilley told the young man. “But you’re young. And if you got a passion and you want to do something, we have the experience and we’re able to help you.”

Sitting with his comrades in an assembly hall at Winston-Salem State University on Tuesday, Lilley reflected, “Today, we’re living in an age when your cell phone can be the most powerful weapon you have. It’s because of those cell phone recordings that we have captured police brutality, and the rights of people being violated. It’s because of that cell phone that you have that instant contact.”

Join the First Amendment Society, a membership that goes directly to funding TCB‘s newsroom.

We believe that reporting can save the world.

The TCB First Amendment Society recognizes the vital role of a free, unfettered press with a bundling of local experiences designed to build community, and unique engagements with our newsroom that will help you understand, and shape, local journalism’s critical role in uplifting the people in our cities.

All revenue goes directly into the newsroom as reporters’ salaries and freelance commissions.

⚡ Join The Society ⚡