AWKWARD…is really the only way to describe my interaction with the Klan. It was the sort of awkwardness I remember having when, as a kid, I paid to see a lady with a beard at a summer carnival. I stared maybe a little too long. I wanted to see if she was really real. She stared back and gave me a look as if to say, “Ok, you’ve had your 50 cent look. Now move on.”
I’m glad bearded ladies have gained enough political incorrectness that we don’t see much of them anymore. Unfortunately, the Ku Klux Klan seems to be trying to re-brand themselves as neighborhood watch patrols.
My first encounter came in the form of a business card placed anonymously
on my desk at the weekly newspaper where I worked as a summer photo intern in 1975. It read, “You Have Been Paid A ‘Friendly’ Visit By The American Knights Of The Ku Klux Klan.”
Most of the office staff, the editor, reporter and I had been at lunch so nobody had seen who left it. The reporter said, “Ohhh…I wondered about that.”
“Wondered about what?”, I said.
She replied, “The front page photo you took for last week’s edition.”
The photo I shot the weekend before at the Memorial Day ceremony on the town square showed two Boy Scouts holding a flag and a scout leader standing at attention. The scout leader was African-American and very respected in the community. Not everyone shared that view.
The reporter explained to me that even though this was 1975, there was a town ordinance from the previous century still on the books, but no longer “officially” enforced, that stated, “…no negro man, woman or child would be permitted to stay within the city limits past sundown”.
These towns were known as “Sundown Towns” and there were many scattered throughout the Ozarks and parts of the rest of the country. They were officially outlawed in 1968 when Congress passed the 1968 Civil Rights Act. Even an act of Congress has a hard time reaching into every dark corner of America.
She went on to explain that not everyone thought that was a bad law and were probably offended seeing someone of color so prominently displayed in the newspaper.
If the card was placed on my desk by a real Klansman or by a poser, I never knew because I never heard anything more.
The next time they reared their head so publicly was in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s.
The KKK apparently saw the Ozarks as fertile ground for recruiting new members. For a period of a couple of years, they came from Atlanta and the Grand Dragon’s hometown in Arkansas and staged marches and gave speeches in a few town squares and parks trying to whip up support.
They were received by most localities as a sort of curiosity. Most had never seen the Klan except in movies and news clips. There were a few protesters at each event who resented their town being viewed as “hosting” the Klan and of course the media was there, but almost no supporters. Their last push was a night-time cross burning complete with Klansmen carrying torches circling three 20-foot high burlap wrapped fuel oil soaked crosses in a freshly mowed field they rented from a farmer west of Springfield, Missouri.
As in all counties where they put on displays, they did so under the laws
protecting free speech and assembly. The county would provide uniformed officers at the entrance of the field to reduce the risk of confrontation. The county would also require the Klan to buy a burn permit usually reserved for those wanting to burn large areas of brush.
The event started long before dark when the crosses would be set ablaze and
each of our news organizations wanted us there beginning to end. That meant an afternoon in the hot sun (hat, extra water…check) in a freshly mowed field with chiggers (ehhh…forgot the bug repellent) listening to hours of vile speeches blaming “The Cath-o-lics” and “The Jeeews” and “The lib-rals” and of course “The nigras” for all of their failures and shortcomings.
As Klan official after Klan official spoke and the initial shock of the language and outlandish claims turned to boredom, the sun beat down on our heads, chiggers feasted on our ankles and polite tolerance among the media turned to subtle displays of disdain. One reporter parked himself in a lawn chair a few feet in front of the speakers’ platform and opened up a newspaper well in front of his face pretending to read it.
To the side of the speakers’ platform was a table display of KKK trinkets and literature. I have a hat in my office filled with political pins from campaigns I’ve covered and other events and thought a KKK pin would fit in somewhere. A couple of other reporters had the same idea and we quietly discussed the ethics of giving money to the KKK even if it was only a couple of dollars for a hat pin.
Don, (I don’t remember his real name) the KKK member who was there to take your money, overheard the discussion and said, “Here, I can just give you one if you like.” As if that was our cue, the three of us responded in unison, “Oh, no. No thanks. No.” We decided a few dollars wouldn’t further their cause much and was better than accepting graft.
I talked with Don a while longer after we paid for our souvenirs. He was shy but friendly and didn’t seem to show the disdain for the media some of the leaders seemed to. He only looked at you briefly when he spoke which might have been to hide some badly needed dental work years overdue. He spoke with a slight lisp and his grammar indicated schooling wasn’t a high priority. I could see how these things would shut out many opportunities and a person might fall into the trap of blaming a group of people when you felt overlooked. So much for my amateur psychological analysis.
As dusk turned to darkness, the Klan members retreated to the trunks of their cars parked in a far corner of the field where they donned their white robes and pointed hoods. With torches lighted, the group walked back up to the crosses and set them ablaze. The Klansmen, now in a circle, turned their backs to the crosses, raised their torches and shouted, “White Power! White Power!”
The hooded figures were pretty much indistinguishable from one another. A few seemed “fancier” than the others and some had their faces covered except two holes for the eyes. From one, I thought I detected a familiar lisp in his speech.
“Don…is that you?” His eyes shot me a glance and the material covering his mouth popped in and out as his adrenaline induced heavy breathing struggled to move air through the fabric of the hood.
“Yeah…WHITE POWER!…Yeah, it’s me.”
I wouldn’t have guessed. He didn’t seem like the shy retiring “Don” I met a couple of hours earlier.
John S. Stewart