Although it’s a small town of about 7,800, Pulaski, Tenn. may well be the white supremacist epicenter of the nation — at least if the number of rallies held there by bigoted groups is any indication.
The mayor and other residents aren’t pleased. “There’s never been a local person involved in these marches or rallies,” Mayor Daniel Speer told Hatewatch this week. But they’re resigned to being a favorite locale for the haters on the American radical right. Speer’s town is more than one-quarter black, but it has for decades been a favorite place for white supremacist groups to rally because of one unfortunate historical fact: This was where the Ku Klux Klan was born.
The next such event on tap in Pulaski: the annual European Heritage Festival, scheduled for Oct. 23. The event, despite its name, has the heavy footprint of the Klan all over it. Sponsors include the Christian Revival Center led by long-time Arkansas Klan leader Thom Robb; the Knights Party USA (better known by its original name of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan), which is Robb’s “political” organization; Voice of Reason radio, which features interviews with white nationalist luminaries such as Jamie Kelso and Tomislav Sunic; and Abundant Life Fellowship of Morgantown, Ind.
Abundant Life’s pastor, Jonathan Harness, is apparently a reader of Klan material. Last year, he responded to a blog by Robb’s daughter, who is involved in her father’s racist group, by writing that he was dismayed when black rapper Kanye West rudely interrupted a speech by country singer Taylor Swift at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards. Harness wrote that West had “absolutely disrespected this white woman.”
“It’s a great place to come and learn about the heritage of European Americans,” the festival’s website says. The site includes links to racist individuals and groups including David Duke, who founded Robb’s Knights of the Ku Klux Klan in 1975; the Council of Conservative Citizens, a group that has described black people as a “retrograde species of humanity” and opposes “race mixing”; and The Barnes Review, the leading American journal devoted to denying the Holocaust.
The European Heritage Festival follows by three months a “White Unity Day March and Rally” in Pulaski conducted by the neo-Nazi Aryan Nations. A year earlier, in July 2009, the Fraternal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan staged a birthday march in Pulaski for their hero, Confederate Lt. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest. There have been many other Klan rallies in Pulaski over the decades.
The Klan was organized as a secret fraternity by six Confederate veterans in December 1865 in Pulaski. As the club grew, it evolved from a club for wealthy and bored young veterans into a vigilante terrorist organization. It soon attracted as its first national leader Forrest, who had been a millionaire Memphis slave trader before the Civil War and also presided over the massacre of black Union soldiers attempting to surrender at Fort Pillow, Tenn., in 1864. (It remains unclear whether or not Forrest actively encouraged the massacre, as many Union survivors testified.) Forrest led the Klan through its most violent period, when thousands of acts of terrorism essentially forced black Southerners back into a form of servitude.
Robb’s Klan group has staged events in Pulaski going back to at least 1983, says Speer, who has been mayor nearly 21 years and has lived most of his 60 years in the southern Tennessee town. So many Klan events were held in the 1980s that local businesses, large and small, closed their doors in disgust during a 1989 rally as a way of silently protesting, Speer said. At times, folks in Pulaski hoped that if they ignored the Klan and other white supremacist groups when they came to Pulaski, they would lose interest in the town and permanently leave, Speer says. But they didn’t, and over the years the groups’ events have brought people ranging from satirist Stephen Colbert to reporters from as far away as Russia and Italy.
That’s of no concern to those attending next month’s European Heritage Festival. They’re planning on hearing speeches and eating hot dogs, apple pie and barbecue pork. Entertainment will be provided by Charity and Shelby Pendergraft, singing sisters who call themselves Heritage Connection. Thom Robb is their grandfather. Their mother, Rachel Pendergraft, is spokeswoman for Robb’s Knights Party. And if that’s not excitement enough for those attending the festivities, there’s always the Sam Davis Museum on Sam Davis Avenue. Davis was the “Boy Hero of the Confederacy” who was captured by the Yankees in 1863 and charged and convicted by a court-martial of spying. Davis was hanged by the Union Army on his 21st birthday — in Pulaski, of course.
Speer says that his town can’t constitutionally stop these groups from staging events as long as they comply with terms of their rally permits. At one point, the town passed a parade ordinance banning participants from wearing anything covering their heads — say, a hood. But a federal judge tossed the measure, which Speer says could have barred Boy Scouts from wearing their full uniforms in a parade.
“It’s frustrating,” the mayor says. “[We’re associated with] the Klan. It’s a stigma. Unfortunately, I just don’t see it going away.”