It began about two weeks ago, when a local television station in Memphis, Tenn., allowed a man with a hooded face, identifying himself only as “Edward” and speaking on what was apparently his own rear deck, to announce to the world that he would soon be bringing “thousands” of Klansmen to a protest with no date.
From there, the thin little tale morphed into something of a national story about what is being characterized as “one of the biggest KKK rallies of all time.” Articles have run in New York City newspapers and even abroad about the event, now planned for March 30 while officials weigh the Klan's permit application, and national TV networks are considering covering it. Memphis Police Director Toney Armstrong is asking for help from local and federal law enforcement agencies. The NAACP has decried the event, and a local university art professor created a 600-member Facebook page called “Challenging the Klan’s Message.”
But is the rally — which is a protest of an earlier decision to rename three Memphis parks that honored the Confederacy, including one named after the first national leader of the Ku Klux Klan — really going to be that big? Not even remotely likely. It would be a surprise if the event drew 40 Klansmen, and it will likely be considerably fewer than that.
In the meantime, the group that organized the event — the North Carolina-based Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, created last year from the rubble of a group called the Rebel Brigade Knights of the Ku Klux Klan — is reaping a publicity bonanza. On its website, it claims that the Northern Mississippi White Knights of the KKK and the International Keystone Knights of the KKK will be joining its protest. All this began with a comment to WMC-TV from Edward, later fully identified by The Commercial Appeal as Edward Beasley: “It’s going to be thousands of Klansmen from the whole United States coming to Memphis.”
The Loyal White Knights are headed by Chris Barker of Pelham, N.C., who told The Commercial Appeal that Armstrong had suggested that the group could be liable for some $150,000 to cover the cost of police protection. Whether or not the chief said that, many courts have found that charging groups for police protection or insurance or similar costs is an impermissible abridgement of the freedom of speech.
The whole brouhaha stems from the City Council’s unanimous decision earlier in the month to change the names of Forrest Park, named after Confederate cavalry lieutenant general Nathan Bedford Forrest, to Health Sciences Park; Confederate Park to Memphis Park; and Jefferson Davis Park, honoring the president of the Confederacy, to Mississippi River Park. The bulk of the controversy has swirled around Forrest Park, in part because Forrest’s remains and an equestrian statute honoring him are also there.
The Memphis drama has provoked some unusual sideshows. Last week, a spokesman for the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV), a Southern heritage group that doesn’t like to see the Klan take up its issues, denounced the Klan’s plans even as he opined hotly that the names of the parks should never have been changed. “If the Klan comes to Memphis due to the inappropriate actions of the City Council,” a scolding Lee Millar told The Commercial Appeal, “then any results are entirely the responsibility of the Council.” He went on to urge the Klan to stay away from the city.
Millar acted, presumably, to protect the SCV from the racist stench of the Klan. But Millar may be closer to that group’s views than he lets on. In 2005, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) revealed that Millar was listed as the contact for a band called Snowflake’s Minstrels that was to play for an event celebrating the dedication of a statue of Forrest. It turned out that Snowflake’s Minstrels were known among SCV members for the “wildly entertaining” “grand blackface performances” that they apparently regularly put on. Millar claimed he didn’t know why he was listed as the contact for the band and knew nothing about it — and then, in an apparent contradiction, added that the band had called him later to cancel its scheduled appearance.
Curiously, Millar was then a musician with something called the 52nd Regimental String Band, which specialized in Civil War era music and had recorded “The Minstrel Skit,” featuring two well-known black minstrel characters. Millar told the SPLC at the time that the two bands were not the same group, although another member of the 52nd Regimental String Band said that he had performed in blackface as a member of that band. But he argued that the blackface performance was not intrinsically racist and, in any case, had been done only to please audiences.
The man whose name both Lee Millar and the Ku Klux Klan want to see reinstated in a Memphis park is wildly controversial in his own right. Although the SCV and Millar, who is a member of the Forrest Historical Society, see Forrest as a great and noble defender of the South, they are utterly wrong. Forrest is rightly known as a great cavalryman who repeatedly fought against long odds, but he was also a violent, guttural racist.
In fact, Forrest was infamous even before the Civil War for becoming a millionaire by running one of the country’s most brutal slave yards in Memphis. During the war, he presided over the massacre of several hundred black Union soldiers who were attempting to surrender at Fort Pillow, Tenn. And after the war, Forrest, who had a richly deserved reputation for stunning violence, became the first national leader of the Ku Klux Klan and presided over one of its most violent periods. He disbanded the Klan only after it had essentially cleared the way for the imposition of Jim Crow laws.
Yesterday, The Commercial Appeal reported that both Barker and Beasley, the national and state leaders of the Loyal White Knights, said they weren’t sure exactly how many KKK members would attend, although Beasley said it could be as many as 2,000. Barker, however, was more careful, claiming that other protests were scheduled elsewhere at the same time, and that that “could reduce the numbers able to travel to Memphis on March 30,” in the words of the newspaper.
And that is the one Klan prediction you can count on.