Editor’s Note: This article from 1992 tells a remarkable story of one man’s brave visit to a KKK rally. The stories Lee present serve a cautionary tale: human nature abhors a vacuum. When leaders fail to lead, humanity cries out. And, to paraphrase Steven King, who knows what dread thing will answer.
Bear in mind that this rally took place in 1992. George H.W. Bush was president, and the Golden Age of Ronald Reagan was only 3 years in the past. The United States had just won the Cold War and trounced Saddam Hussein in Operation Desert Storm. The World Wide Web was a year from launching. Email was new–on CompuServe or Prodigy or the upstart AOL. The US economy was emerging from short but deep recession.
My Night With the Klan
by Lee A. Presser
Finally, the featured speaker was called to the mike. Novak described Thomas Robb is a minister from the great state of Arkansas. He is a candidate for the Arkansas state legislature. He is a Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.
Soon after his introduction Thomas Robb told the crowd that the press was being invited in to hear his speech. “Act courteously to these people,” he instructed. “We want them to hear my speech. Not that they will write the truth about what we are saying here, but at least they would know what we want.” The meeting came to a complete stop while the press filed into their designated spot.
Once settled the members of the press occupied themselves with one of three activities, copying quotes into their reporter notebooks, shooting 35mm photos, and operating television news cameras.
Inside my head I said to my friends in the press, “Stand by, press corps, for the Klan’s spin on what they want you to know about this meeting. You’ve already missed your chance to learn something for yourself by waiting outside while the real meeting was going on. You could have met the people before the meeting. They might have even given you some usable quotes. Now you’re been paraded in here for the spin.
The press was not prepared for what came next. Thomas Robb, Grand Wizard of the KKK, waited until the press were properly stationed and then announced that, despite what the press told the public, “This is not a Klan meeting, it is a revival.” They were there to ask for God’s help in fixing an ailing America. They were there for guidance on how to stop people from forcing gay rights on Christian America.
They were there to learn how to stop crime in the streets, perpetrated primarily by Blacks, Hispanics, and Asians. How to stop the flood of illegal aliens crossing our open southern border. How to reverse laws which make it difficult for a white man to get a decent job.
To believe this was not a Klan meeting was to suspend reality and ignore the fact that nearly everyone was wearing a shirt or a hat or a uniform with a KKK logo. Good speakers can help an audience imagine a world different from the one in which it finds itself. But, I would have had to be both blind and deaf to believe this was not a Klan Meeting.
Tom Robb knew more history than his audience. He used it to his advantage when talking about the founding of America. He stated that the colonies were established by those who sought religious freedom. He spoke of the signing of the Magna Carta in white Europe and its significance to American democracy. The history lesson was crafted to prove that American democracy is a white invention and white men should by rights keep control of its laws.
He was a great story teller. Robb walked his listeners step-by-step to the “truth.” To hear him tell the tale, one would have thought that the English lords who forced King John to sign the Magna Carta were doing it to give every white person new political rights.
Those of us who know history knew he is wrong. The Magna Carta granted rights to a few rich, Norman land holders. He failed to mention that Saxon white men and women gained nothing. They had lost most of their rights a century and a half before when Normans invaded Eng1and. By the thirteenth century, Saxons still had few legal rights and little economic security. From the year 1000 AD, to the year 2000 AD, gaining political rights in Western Europe was an evolutionary process.
In discussing the establishment of the American colonies, he talked of colonists motivated by freedom of religion. He failed to talk about their political rights. In reality, the colonies were financed by rich white men in Europe who, in pursuit of profits, made most of the rules and treated the colonists like employees (or worse). Political rights came later, much later. Yet, without defining the process, this Minister of the Christian faith, Thomas Robb, implied there was a single formula for a well-run Christian government and that by following those rules white people grew to their fullest potential.
As I listened to his speech, I imagined a similar meeting in 1978. Leaders of the faith told their followers that people with religious values should be in political power. The people of Iran listened to the promises but what they got was the Ayatollah Khomeini’s dictatorship.
Tom Robb put on his most liberal face for this meeting. He never talked about beating up Blacks, Hispanics, or Asians. We didn’t hear graphic racial slurs from the platform. From him we heard about using the vote. The fighting words came from the crowd. One young lady, later in the evening, while waiting for the cross lighting ceremony said, “There wasn’t enough nigger-bashing during those speeches.” Others agreed in more graphic detail.
None of the evening’s speakers offered an action plan to the crowd. The leaders are still gathering political strength. Action will be announced later.
Tom Robb probably knew that only a few weeks before this rally, over in Eastern Germany and Romania, immigrants, including Gypsies, were attacked and injured by fervent Nazis. It took the German police days to put the Nazis’ violence down. Days after those news reports, there were other news stories, only this time it was about Nazi-like activities in England.
To my shock and utter dismay, the well dressed lady with the lovely hat loudly said, “You’re absolutely right,” and other affirmations during Mr. Robb’s inflammatory speech. I was standing near her and was flabbergasted by her utterances. That was the scariest part of the evening for me. When she and I had talked before the speeches she said this was her first event and she was here to “check out” what was being said. Apparently she liked what she heard and was an immediate convert. Many times during the speech she loudly vocalized her approval. She was a seemingly intelligent woman, a professional woman, a real estate broker in agreement with hate. I wondered how many more “good people” like her there are in our community. People like her who might vote for someone local like Tom Robb?
Grand Wizard Robb finished his speech and invited everyone to the “cross lighting” in the field immediately adjacent. The lady in the hat and I spoke for a couple of minutes. She told me people in Southern Illinois were fed up and wanted change now.
Assembling for the Cross Lighting ceremony, which was set up a fair distance from the farm house, the crowd lined up in two circles, an inner circle nearer to the cross, and a much larger outer circle around them. Once everyone was in position surrounding Grand Wizard Thomas Robb and the ten foot high wooden cross, he spoke to the crowd. It felt eerily like being part of a movie. He lit his torch and passed the fire to the inner circle. Those in the inner circle carried torches and passed the fire, torch to torch, around the circumference. A chant was called and the torches were slowly raised from the ground to the sky. This continued for several minutes. Torches down, then up, down, then up. More incantations and then all the torches were piled at the foot of the cross. The fabric which sheathed the cross began to burn. The heat warmed the crowd. The fire rose up the vertical leg to the horizontal and then out onto the crossbar. It was an impressive sight. One lone airplane circled above, watching the proceedings.
The ceremony lasted twenty minutes. At the end the crowd dispersed. The program was over. The cross continued to burn. People moved toward their car, leaving Terry Taviner’s land. Within fifteen minutes most of the crowd was gone. I stayed and listened to talk from those remaining. Their assessment was that it had been a good meeting. When only the hardcore members remained, I left the property and walked down the road to the ditch where I left my car, hoping it hadn’t been towed. Luckily, it was exactly where I left it. I got in, made my way back up onto the road, and drove away.
At the corners of Torch Club and Fosterburg roads, cars had to stop for the stop sign. A deputy was standing with a flashlight and a clip board. He wrote down the license numbers of all who were passing him. As I passed the deputy I thought, “guess the FBI will be following up with me, too.” It made me mad at the time, but on reflection, I understood that some of the hardcore Klansmen/Nazis do need to be watched to make sure they are staying within the constitution.
The crowd’s prediction about the slant in the newspapers and on the television news proved accurate. The reports for the most part were about the circus which surrounded the meeting with precious little about the state of mind of the people who attended. This tendency by the press is most unfortunate. The readers are left with a false impression of those who attended. One front page report quoted an expert as saying, “The Klan won’t take root in the area.” To me it looked as though the Klan already had. He was also quoted as saying that the young people were at the meeting, “Mostly for the free food.” There w as no free food. The young people I listened to had strong political and economic reasons for being at the meeting. From news reports one would think the crowd was filled with kooks who bore no resemblance to the general public. Yet, many of those who attended looked like my neighbors (and your neighbors). Some were so politically frustrated they could and would vote for candidates with extreme political views in an attempt to ‘fix’ their country.
The more important story which was missed by the press wass the large number of people living in Southern Illinois (and throughout the U.S.) who were not in attendance but feel to some extent the same as those who were. That’s a story the mainstream press prefers not to talk about.
Here in 1992, during a Presidential Election, America is in a moment of great economic stress. Some families are fighting for their economic life. For millions it is too late. They have already crashed on hard times. They ask, “Why this has happen hardworking, honest people?” The Klan/Nazi/White Power organizations have a ready answer for weary voters, and they are learning to package it for local and national consumption. David Duke’s name was mentioned more than once at the meeting. Duke’s packaging nearly got him elected governor of Louisiana. With times getting harder, nerves fray, and normally tolerant people change their behavior. Some of those “good people” were at the rally. More may come next time. Maybe many more. For those people, life has changed too fast. They want the changes reversed. They want their comfortable old life back. Like good politicians, the Klan promises to get it back for them. If the political climate continues to deteriorate along with the economy until the 1994 elections, the extreme right will make inroads. Some voters, maybe a lot of them, will believe the extremist’s promise; I’ll fix it so you get your old life back.
During the 1994 elections, many new people will be running for public office. If the tension between the races is increased by continuing competition for jobs, voters may find candidates who are right of center with positions which seem extreme by today’s standards.
Economic issues faced by Middle America’s must be dealt with now or future political consequences could be dire. The press has an obligation to report what is happening to our economically stressed out neighbors, rather than only what they want the public to know.
The process will require members of the press to get to know people whose ideas different and may be personally offensive. They must report on why support for extreme right wing groups is growing rapidly.
It is critical that national leaders find a way to bring Middle America back to the center. Young men who yell “White Power” and give a Nazi salute don’t feel like they have a strong stake in the American dream. If they did, they would probably be growing their business rather attending Klan meetings.
But in today’s economy these young people can’t even get a good paying labor job. They don’t own a house and are not sure they will ever be able to afford one. They can’t see how they will be able to give their kids the life they took for granted while growing up. These items include three meals a day, a place to sleep at night, healthcare coverage, college or trade school education, a neighborhood without driveby shootings, and most importantly, a future.
As long as a significant portion of the population feels that the system is failing them and that they will never have economic security without winning the lottery, there will be people who would vote for social change without fully understanding how far the change could go.
Remember, their vote will affect you, too.
The American system is to grant police powers to the elected officials. Elected officials declare the laws by which they use those police powers. Imagine how a President David Duke might use his police powers. Some of these young men and women have lived their entire life without hope. Some are newly poor. For this growing underclass a recession has been going on a lot longer then it has for many of us.
History records that when people feel unconnected to their society, disorder follows. There are tens of millions of people in America who have fallen outside of the system. Those 18 and over can vote. Under the proper conditions they could be persuaded to vote for any cause which promises a shortcut to a better life. A lifetime of listening to advertising has already conditioned them.
I am glad I went to the rally. It’s given me the chance to tell you about it. Please pass this information along to others.