MEMPHIS, Tenn. – Pay no attention to that man beneath the sheet.
Do not go downtown to listen to his wicked words. Do not heckle or protest his presence. He is not worth it. His time has passed. He has no teeth.
That’s the message of the city of Memphis as it faces a trying day.
On Saturday – Easter eve – the Ku Klux Klan is scheduled to hold a “mass” rally here to protest the city’s recent decision to rename three Confederate-themed parks, including one honoring Nathan Bedford Forrest, the wealthy slave trader and ruthless Rebel cavalry lieutenant general, who became the first national leader of the KKK. But as the general’s modern day Klan kin rant and rave on the steps of the Shelby County Courthouse, local political, religious and business leaders hope everyone else in town – except for a huge contingent of police officers in riot gear – is more than five miles away at a hastily organized counter-event called the Heart of Memphis. It is scheduled to be an all-day affair at the fairgrounds with food, music, an Easter egg hunt and several panels on improving race relations in this Mississippi River city of more than 600,000 residents, 63% of whom are African-American.
Memphis has been grappling for weeks in letters to the editor and community meetings about the best way to respond to the Klan rally and to avoid a repeat of what happened here the last time the hooded haters came to town on a winter day in 1998. Then they were protesting Martin Luther King Day in the city where the Nobel Peace Prize winner was assassinated. The city pleaded with people to stay away. But before the afternoon was over, tear gas and the sound of shattered glass filled the streets as police battled with hundreds of anti-Klan demonstrators, giving the city a black eye and the KKK a good laugh.
This morning the, city awoke to a chilling headline on the front page of The Commercial Appeal: “Police braced for KKK mayhem.”
“We’re basically sitting on a powder keg that can go at any time,” the paper quoted the city’s police director, Toney Armstrong, as saying. “For the past couple of months, I’ve been waking up hoping this Saturday would never come.”
A woman wrote into the Appeal and suggested that this time around, rather than simply ignore the Klan and stay away, the city’s churches should dispatch their choirs to the rally to confront them, not with bricks or curses, but and in a “united effort to silence the KKK’s angry voices by singing.”
“Instead of spewing invectives, sing spirituals,” she wrote. “Celebrate forgiveness, hope, humility and love.”
The editors of the Appeal urged the city, “Don’t make Klan rally a bigger deal. … [T]he group has already received a ton of publicity about the event and caused much anxiety among some Memphians.”
At a community meeting about what to do, someone said Memphis should do what dozens of residents in Charlotte, N.C., pulled off last November when a band of Klansmen and neo-Nazis tried to hold an anti-immigration rally there. Many of the anti-Klan protesters dressed up like clowns and drowned out the white supremacist speeches with noisemakers and laughter.
And in an example of strange bedfellows, an African-American Crips street gang leader from Memphis and a KKK imperial wizard from Alabama said they would stand together to protest the rally. The Klan leader said renaming the parks was a local matter and the Klan should stay home.
In the end, Memphis opted for a picnic and an overwhelming police presence as the best response.
No one knows for sure how many Klansmen will show up for the rally organized by the Loyal White Knights of Ku Klux Klan, based in North Carolina. Two other out-of-town Klan factions as well as neo-Nazis from the Detroit-based National Socialist Movement (NSM) also say they will attend. A spokeswoman for the city, Dewanna Lofton, said Memphis authorities expect “no more than a handful.” In 1998, there were about 50 Klansmen. “I’d be surprised if it were that many,” Lofton said. Local news reports say the Klan promises between 80 and 100. When the KKK first announced the rally in February, the leaders vowed thousands would turn out.
Still, whatever the number, scores of police officers will be on hand and huge swaths of downtown will be cordoned off.
“We’re trying to have a protest, a counter-protest of these racist terrorists, but the police are going to set up this really big perimeter to make sure no one can get anywhere near the Klan,” JoNina Ervin, of the Ida B. Wells Coalition Against Racism and Police Brutality, told Hatewatch. “They’re bent on protecting the Klan’s First Amendment rights but the rest of us don’t seem to have any.”
Protesters, however, will be allowed a lot closer than Ervin first thought or feared. A permit has been granted to anti-Klan demonstrators to gather an hour before the Klan rally in a fenced off area on the opposite side of the Courthouse. The protesters must be done and gone by the time police bus the Klansmen in at 1:30 PM.
“The Klan is trying to re-establish a base in the mid-South,” Ervin told Hatewatch today. “They’re using the renaming of the parks as an excuse. We want them to know we’re here and we’re not going to let that happen, not without a fight.”
Ervin, a 64-year-old former Black Panther, is a Memphis resident, but anti-Klan protesters from as far away as Indiana and Chicago are said to be car-pooling their way to the city. As one local activist wrote on a Facebook page set up to generate support for an anti-Klan rally, the feeling among the protesters is “the appropriate response to Fascism is not pacification, toleration, avoidance or negotiation.”
“The appropriate response to Fascism is a working-class fight back.”
In 1998, when the Klan last came to Memphis – openly that is – the counter-protest “started peacefully and even jovially,” with people carrying signs with slogans such as “Race Mixing is Cool” and “The Klan Is a Disgrace to My Race,” according to The New York Times.
But only the few reporters allowed close enough by the police could hear Klan speakers as they called “for a return to racial segregation and denigrated blacks, Jews, Asians, foreigners and homosexuality,” the Times reported at the time.
Unable to get close to the Klan, according to the paper, some in the crowd of between 1,200 and 1,500 counter-demonstrators and onlookers started taunting the 200 police and sheriff’s deputies. The situation quickly escalated from taunts to tear gas to at least 25 arrests.
“We’ve learned a lot of things from the ‘98 rally,” Armstrong, Memphis police director, told the Appeal. “I was an undercover sergeant, and I inhaled a lot of gas that day. I don’t care to do it again.”
Ervin told Hatewatch that the anti-Klan efforts were organized on Facebook. She said she made it clear that there should be no physical confrontation with police or with the KKK. She said that the police “overreacted” in 1998 and were too quick to use force.
“If a racist group like the Klan is allowed to demonstrate on the Courthouse steps, we should be entitled to be right across the street so they can hear and see us, the people,” she said.
How many anti-Klan protesters show up is anyone’s guess. The city has done everything it can think of to discourage them: from hotdogs and Easter eggs at the fairgrounds to condoning off block after block around the Courthouse, a 10 to 12 block area Ervin calls a “Klan Safety Zone.”
All of the preparations and worry may be washed away by rally time. Rain began to fall on Memphis today – Good Friday – and the forecast calls for more of the same through much of Saturday.
“Pouring rain always messes up the best laid plans,” Ervin said. “I have a raincoat.”