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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
There was a meeting of the Ku Klux Klan on Saturday, September 12, 1992, in the farm country of Madison County in Southwest Illinois. It was said that it had been thirty years since the last such open gathering in the Madison County. The meeting was well organized, enthusiastic, and very secure. Local, county, state, and federal officers were encamped across the street and fanned out in cars for miles around.
Standing in front of the farmhouse gate were two men in Klan uniforms holding homemade shields painted with a large cross and a white power symbol. Flags and KKK banners boldly adorned the chain link fence. Inside the fence were other uniformed men. Some were wearing headsets with boom mikes so they could talk to other Klan security personnel. The Klan had organized for its own protection. A cadre of newspaper and TV representatives were gathered across the road but stood separated from a large contingent of police.
I first learned about this extraordinary meeting the previous week from a local newspaper article. Once the “story” was out, all of the St. Louis region newspapers picked it up. Their reports were quickly followed up by TV and radio news. Word traveled throughout the region. The Klan was to reemerge into public view after a generation of being invisible.
The Madison County Sheriff, a good cop, insisted that this was going to be a peaceful event and closely watched. He spoke to the press and asked citizens to stay away from the meeting. He notified everyone of a newly created “no-parking zone” which would extend a mile round the site. He warned those who traveled to the meeting that their auto license plate numbers would be written down. Then he did his duty as an officer of the law and let the public meeting go forward. The Klan would have its public say.
At 4:00 PM, when I left my house, I was very nervous. I feared meeting Klansmen. Who knew how they would behave. Would they be physically dangerous? Would they attack me as a police spy? I did not know. My other fear was about getting to this rural meeting area, finding parking, and getting past all the partisan players by 6:00 PM to hear the Klan’s speakers for myself. It was going to be a challenge.
The first thing I noticed upon my approach to Torch Club Road were three police vehicles at the intersection. A reporter friend of mine was out of his car and having strong words with one of the police officers. I kept driving.
I turned left and drove down the street looking for the address noted in the newspaper. A sign on one property read “Parking $5.” Driving further down Torch Club Road another sign announced, “Rally Here.” It was a farmhouse with a very large field around the property. Inside the fenced yard, a large crowd was already gathered. Most of the people I saw in the front yard were wearing T-shirts with KKK or white power logos. KKK guest parking was available on the property. I continued driving past the farm house. On the other side of the street was an army of police. Freshly planted “No Parking” signs forced me to keep going.
Far down this country road, there was a residential street on the right. Unfortunately, a sheriff’s deputy parked at the corner told me there was no parking allowed on that road, either. Already a long way from the rally, I turned around and headed back. This time, near the rally farmhouse, I spotted a clearing between some trees. It was off the road, down in a ditch. I took a chance that I would not get towed.
As I approached the rally site on foot, my stomach tightened. I was going to have to walk past the uniformed men with their decorated shields, through their gate, and into a crowd attending a meeting of the Ku Klux Klan.
On the other side of the road were reporters I recognized and who recognized me. “Are you going in?” I answered yes, I want to see and hear the event for myself. Isn’t that what writers were supposed to do. Walking closer to a group of reporters who were huddling together, I asked them if they were going into the event. All I got in response was a couple of shrugs and a terse “maybe later.” How those reporters were going to know what to report was a mystery to me. They were going to file reports about what they saw only from an exterior point of view. Had they gone inside they would have been able learn what the crowd was thinking, feeling, and maybe learn why they were there in attendance.
It was time for me to cross the street. I turned from my reporter friends, took a deep breath, and walked toward the entrance gate. Walking, I watched the gate guards closely. I smiled. As I approached and to my surprise, they let me walk right by. No questions were asked.
Inside the yard I was warmly greeted by several people. Roaming about I spotted a literature table on the other side of this large fenced in area. (I almost wrote the word ‘compound’ in the previous sentence but remembered it was someone’s backyard.) When I approached the literature table a very handsome woman greeted me and offered brochures and fliers. I picked up a copy of the “White Patriot” the “Worldwide Voice of the Aryan People.” It’s banner headline exclaimed, “THIS IS THE KLAN.” Stories about “Today’s Klan” filled the publication.
A dozen youngsters were running and playing in an adjacent separately fenced area further away from the house. Mom’s sat nearby. A grill was fired up near the literature table, cooking hamburgers which cost a $1.00. Sodas were fifty cents. There was a big hungry crowd waiting in line.
People were busily talking in groups just like at any other outdoor event. By my count there were about 125 people in attendance. At least a third were under 21 years old. Another third were 21 to 35 years old. The relative youth of the crowd surprised me. There was one man in a suit. Probably he was the featured speaker mentioned in the press release.
Excusing myself from the lady at the literature table, I wandered toward a group of guys in their mid-twenties talking together, stopping close enough to hear what they had to say. One was talking about negative encounters with the police and others concurred with personal stories about being harassed by the “feds” (FBI) and local police. All of them keep glancing across the street at the police. One said to the others “the feds had been grabbing letters out of a certain residential mailbox” and to prove it he and some other friends had put “interesting mail” into that box and later “discovered” it was gone and not with the mailman. An anxious looking fellow standing with that group fiddled with what looked like a small wooden spear tipped with a metal spike attached by chain to his leather belt. One of the young men declared they should be on the lookout for police infiltrators inside the fence. Yet, they drew me into their conversation. As we talked I noticed across the street, near the reporters, student protesters had arrived and were lining up. Their signs and banners were raised in protest against the Klan meeting. During my continuing conversation with the young men, I discovered that some had driven many hours to be at this meeting. One said he came from DeKalb. Another said he’d come up from Texas. All said in recent years they had been to other meetings just like this one.
Moving from that group, I met another man from Texas, his lovely wife, and their beautiful children. The two kids darted in and out as we conversed. These Texans had also been other meetings like this one and were pleased to be at this one. They said that the featured speaker, Thomas Robb (the man in the suit), was very inspirational. Mr. Robb is a minister from Arkansas, I was told. He was also a candidate for the Arkansas state legislature. As I spoke to this couple, around us were other conversations about family and work. This Klan event was a social occasion, much like a company picnic. Whole families had come. Wives met and chatted with other wives. Kids met kids and they played together. The people were festive. They ate burgers and drank cold drinks. Mothers fed their babies.