I Burned the Klan in Effigy

Excerpt from Chapter 16 of The Sword of the Lord.

In the fall of 1978, when I was 28, the Ku Klux Klan was undergoing one of its periodic revivals in the South. In May that year, Decatur, Alabama police had arrested a black man named Tommy Lee Hines. Tommy was a 25-year-old mentally disabled student in a day school for the retarded. He reportedly had mental capacity of a five-year-old, and was incapable of carrying on a conversation or even riding a bicycle by himself. Police charged Hines with the rapes of three white women. One of the accusing women weighed 200 pounds, while Tommy weighed 120.

The Klan held a rally that attracted a crowd of 5,000 in the spring demanding Hines‚Äô conviction and execution. At the rally, an 80-year-old Baptist preacher told a reporter, ‚ÄúGod will have a special place for the Ku Klux Klan in Heaven.‚Äù Another rally of 9,000 Klan supporters took place in September 1978 before a trial on the first rape charge. At trial, the purported rape victim testified she recognized Tommy, while also claiming her attacker had a plastic bag over his face. After three hours of deliberation, an all-white jury convicted Hines, and the judge sentenced him to three decades in prison.

In the wake of Hines’ conviction, Don Black, the Grand Wizard of the reconstituted Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, announced a Klan march to the Birmingham City Hall, where they would promote the Klan’s “pro-white and pro-Christian platform.”

Black was a slick, young graduate of the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, complete with a three-piece suit, fluency in the English language, and well-polished teeth. This new Klan proclaimed that it was a modernized organization that advocated nonviolent protection for white people whose civil rights were endangered. The Klan for the first time accepted women as equal members and welcomed membership applications from Catholics, whom they had excoriated in the past.

The October morning of the march found Black and two dozen other Klansmen in their trademark white robes pinned up against the doors of the City Hall, protected by a ring of several score Birmingham police officers dressed in riot gear and wielding batons. Both the police and the Klansmen were surrounded by a very angry crowd of over 2,000 overwhelmingly black anti-Klan protesters who hollered insults at the Klansmen across their line of protective cops.

I was in the vanguard of the demonstrators, only a few feet away from Don Black. As a member of the Birmingham Coalition to Stop the Klan, I had worked feverishly to organize a response to the Klan march. I printed the anti-Klan leaflets on the printing press installed on my back porch, and I had spent the previous evening constructing a silly looking and highly flammable effigy of a Klansman dressed in a ceremonial bed sheet.

With my fellow demonstrators, I chanted slogans at the top of my lungs: ‚ÄúDeath to the Klan! Down with the Klan! Cops and Klan work hand in hand!‚Äù The effigy was hung by its neck from the end of a broomstick that I waved vigorously in the air. Don Black and his Klansmen looked terrified and said nothing, cowering far back into the recessed doorway. At the height of the tumult, I lowered the effigy into the crowd behind me, where a black steelworker named Trane dowsed it with lighter fluid and fired it up with his Bic lighter. I raised my broomstick and the effigy flared, igniting cheers. Happiness was a combustible mixture of lighter fluid, Alabama sunlight, the gleeful rambunctiousness of the demonstrators, the breeze whipping around the corner of City Hall, and an intense aroma from the purple azaleas surrounding the plaza.

My delight was paired with rage. I identified the Klan with its violent oppression of black people in the South for a century and a half. But at a deeper level, I was incensed that the Klan could pretend to be a “pro-Christian” organization, despite the fact that I no longer thought of myself as a Christian. In a way I couldn’t articulate, I felt that the Klan’s claim to the mantle of Christianity was personally offensive and insulting to me as well as to my whole family.

Two more decades would pass before I discovered, almost by chance, that my own great-grandfather had been a Klansman.