So sign me up …
Maybe. Or not.
As a life-long Southerner, journalist and dyed-in-the-wool believer in the biblical promise of equal rights and racial harmony, you’d think somewhere along the line I’d have happened upon one of these public rallies. My entire life has been spent in three Deep South states in which the Klan has been historically prominent: Alabama, Tennessee and Mississippi. I’ve been a journalist for a quarter-century.
Yet, strangely, I’ve never covered a Klan rally. Never seen a white sheet, a burning cross or anyone yelling “White Power!” from the courthouse steps. If you asked me to name a Klan member, I couldn’t — though the Southern Poverty Law Center says there is an active Klan chapter, the United Klans of America, in Anniston.
Which means, if you trust the SPLC, the fellow next to you in the grocery-store checkout line could be a Klanner.
The genesis of this Klan discussion is occurring up in Memphis, where politicians and residents have gotten crosswise over the renaming of three city parks. One was named (Nathan Bedford) Forrest Park, which contains a massive statue of Forrest riding his horse and is the site of the former KKK member’s grave. Another was named Confederate Park. A third was named Jefferson Davis Park.
Was, that is.
The short version of a long story is that the council hurriedly replaced the Confederate names with generic, non-controversial labels earlier this year to circumvent impending legislation from the Tennessee Statehouse that would prevent it. As you can expect, the council’s decision has kicked up a firestorm of controversy that’s pitted councilmen, the mayor (who’s black), the police chief (who’s black), historians (some sympathetic to Forrest, others not) and staunch defenders of Southern, neoconfederate heritage against each other.
In other words, it’s a darned mess.
As if on cue, the Klan requested, and received, a city permit allowing a public demonstration on March 30. (That’s a Saturday; the following Sunday morning, we celebrate the risen Christ.) The police chief has, naturally, laid down the law: no Klan masks and no guns — not even with a legal permit. The city attorney has admitted that denying the Klan a permit would create an expensive and prolonged legal battle.
Thus, Memphis is preparing for one heck of a pre-Easter Saturday.
Oh, and one other thing:
A Klan rally in 1998 at the county courthouse in Memphis left scars on the Bluff City. A permitted KKK protest of the Martin Luther King Jr. national holiday grew violent; police used tear gas against anti-Klan protestors and vandalism. More than 20 people were taken into custody.
This time, Police Chief Toney Armstrong told the Memphis Commercial Appeal, “I honestly believe that you’re going to see more police officers than participants.”
The safe bet is that the Klan’s Memphis rally will be much ado about nothing; Klansmen will show up, march, state their cause and disperse. Those opposed to the Klan will do the same. And nothing violent or truly newsworthy will happen. You can assume that, given the possibilities and the chief’s promise, the Memphis police will have that city’s downtown turned into an armed camp.
The modern-day Klan, after all, isn’t the Klan of yesteryear.
“Since the 1970s the Klan has been greatly weakened by internal conflicts, court cases, a seemingly endless series of splits and government infiltration,” the SPLC says. “While some factions have preserved an openly racist and militant approach, others have tried to enter the mainstream, cloaking their racism as mere ‘civil rights for whites.’ Today, the Center estimates that there are between 5,000 and 8,000 Klan members (nationwide), split among dozens of different — and often warring — organizations that use the Klan name.”
Nevertheless, for a Southern journalist who enjoys learning — if not experiencing — all sides of our region’s unique DNA, attending a publicized Klan rally in a cornerstone city of the civil rights movement has an odd appeal. Even if destabilized and diluted, the Klan remains a noteworthy component of the nation’s struggle to reach lasting racial harmony. That’s the PC version.
If you prefer something cruder, heed the words of the late, great Southern writer Shelby Foote, who wrote, among other delicacies, that the Klan was “the scum who have degraded the Confederate flag, converting it from a symbol of honor into a banner of shame, covered it with obscenities like a roadhouse men’s room wall.”
Scum. That single word pretty well sums it up, don’t ’ya think?
Phillip Tutor — firstname.lastname@example.org — is The Star’s commentary editor. Follow him at Twitter.com/PTutor_Star.