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Phillip Tutor: Anniston’s scars from the politics of hate

Klanvertisement

This advertisement from 1924 in The Anniston Star promotes a public event by the KKK.

Best I can tell, there hasn’t been a publicized Ku Klux Klan parade on Noble Street since 1965. After a Sunday afternoon rally at the Anniston City Auditorium, about 500 Klansmen and their hangers-on marched down 10th Street, turned north, paraded four blocks to 14th Street and reconvened where they started.

It was Mother's Day. There was no violence.

I’ve been thinking about that march quite a bit since Jan. 6. Not because white supremacists in hooded robes stormed the U.S. Capitol, but because of that day’s sheer vulgarity, thousands of Americans whose rabid devotion to then-President Trump led to five deaths, a second Trump impeachment and eternal national condemnation.

Hate, visceral and loosened, intertwined with politics on Jan. 6. A hangman’s noose outside the Capitol. Cries of “Where’s Nancy?” and “Pence is a traitor!” from insurgents wanting to hurt the House speaker and vice president, or worse. Pipe bombs planted outside political offices. Racial slurs shouted at Black Capitol police officers.

It clearly wasn’t a Klan affair. But Jan. 6 reminded me not only of one of Washington’s iconic images — a photograph of thousands of Klansmen marching down Pennsylvania Avenue in 1925, just as Trump supporters did — but of how prevalent Klan events were in Calhoun County not that long ago.

We like to believe our worst elements bypassed us because no one died in the Freedom Riders attacks or the integration of the city’s library, and because an all-white jury convicted a white man for the murder of an unarmed Black man.

But the Klan’s history in and around Anniston belies that belief. A litany of Klan events litters our past: parades down our main streets; rallies at our theaters; membership drives at our parks; Sunday morning appearances at our churches. Violence and intimidation weren’t that organization’s only pastimes.  

That version of the Klan veiled its racial hate in faux patriotism that decried communists and Marxists. It used Christianity as an ironic hammer against Jews. It detested the federal government. Its most sanitized version claimed a protectionist’s role of all things supposedly good about God-fearing, racially and ethnically segregated America.  

The Klan was always here, always in Alabama. But by 1920, white America’s begrudging acceptance of the Klan as a bitter bulwark against societal change mimicked a similar embracing in Calhoun County. A complete list of the documented Klan events held here — many of which were advertised in The Star — would shock you.

In 1921, Anniston hosted the Alabama Confederate veterans reunion; a Klan parade closed out the festivities. Seven hooded Klansmen interrupted worship at West Anniston Baptist Church a year later and donated $65 for a new building — and then left as quickly as they barged in.

In 1923, thousands of Klansmen marched or rode in cars or on horseback from Anniston’s Zinn Park to Oxford Lake, where an estimated 10,000 to 12,000 Klansmen and their ilk heard a Klan lecturer explain who was eligible for KKK membership: Christians, protectors of “pure” womanhood and white supremacy, and opponents of unpatriotic influences. The Klansmen then lit two 30-foot crosses featuring 500 pounds of cotton lint and doused with 100 gallons of gasoline.

In 1924, 200 robed Klansmen attended services at Anniston First Baptist Church; no announcement, no warning. Another Klan rally at Oxford Lake a year later drew 5,000. In September, “scores” of hooded Klansmen marched through downtown Anniston to Zinn Park, where they burned crosses and initiated new members. But they weren’t through; the following week, 200 Klansmen filed into a crowded tent revival on South Wilmer Avenue and sat in chairs the evangelist had reserved for them. 

Lyric Theater on Noble Street hosted a KKK revival in 1926. Two thousand attendees packed Anniston’s Ritz Theater in 1929 for a Klan speech. A 200-person Klan parade blocked Noble Street traffic in 1931. Another 2,000 spectators gawked at the 100 KKK members at Oxford Lake in 1950. 

Over time, ministers began decrying Klan activities that grew increasingly violent against African-Americans, but the hooded were undeterred. They attended Calhoun County church services in 1951. They met at Zinn Park in 1954 and twice in 1960, when Klansmen burned a 10-foot cross and heard a speaker proclaim that “all white, gentile people must band together.”

There are more. Many more.

As for Jan. 6, let’s be clear: It wasn’t about the Klan. We know what hooded intimidation looks like because this county has seen it too often to fully recount. 

But that day sliced open America’s soul. We witnessed a defeated president’s supporters turn savage. We realized the brutal among them didn’t want political retribution. They sought tangible revenge, a tinpot coup, against those they clearly despised. They acted on their anger, on their hate, in a way that dredges up uncomfortable memories of the animus in our past. 

Email: ptutor@annistonstar.com 

 

 

Phillip Tutor — ptutor@annistonstar.com — is a Star columnist. Follow him at Twitter.com/PTutor_Star.

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