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The KKK Is Trying to Save Its Image with Community Service

The Klan is trying to participate in an Adopt-a-Highway program in Georgia, and the state is not happy.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

The Ku Klux Klan has a public image problem. You might assume it has something to do with the whole white supremacy and lynching black people thing, and you would be correct. While the Klan hasn't directly addressed that problematic aspect of their platform, they have tried to clean up their image in other ways—most notably, through community service.

Right now, a Georgia Court of Appeals is deciding whether or not the KKK should be allowed to participate in the state's Adopt-a-Highway program. The KKK petitioned to join the program in 2012, and after being rebuffed, they appealed, sending their case to court.


Surprisingly, this is not the first time the Klan has tried to participate in public service—and almost without exception, they are legally allowed to do so. Back in 1992, Nathan Robb—son of the KKK's national director, Thomas Robb—filed to adopt a one-stretch mile of US highway 65, near Harrison, Arkansas. The state rejected the application, but the ACLU took on their case and the state's decision was overturned in federal court. The "Klan Highway," as it became known, attracted significant amounts of trash, and when the Klan neglected to renew their application, the state quickly removed them from the program.

In 1998, the KKK petitioned to adopt a stretch of I-55 in Saint Louis. Again, the state initially denied their request, but was overturned in higher courts. Since there was nothing the state of Missouri could do to stop the KKK from participating in the program, they responded by naming a portion of the Klan's highway the Rosa Parks Highway.

Later on, when a Neo-Nazi group adopted part of a highway near Springfield, the state of Missouri pulled a similar trick, renaming a portion of the highway after Jewish theologian Rabbi Abrham Joshua Hertzel.

The reason the Klan pursues issues like this is simple: Adopting a highway is one of the only ways the group could possibly advertise. The media won't sell them ad space, and people aren't exactly clamoring to have the Klan sponsor their kickball team. That leaves public works and the perk of public works, name recognition. If the state fights it, even better.


Another way the Klan is trying to change their public image: passing out "Klandy."

It's a classic move for a criminals and criminal organizations. Al Capone routinely sponsored food drives and clothing giveaways to the poor. The Los Zetas cartel leaves gifts for the poor to celebrate the Epiphany holiday. Pablo Escobar was practically worshipped in Colombia for building low-income housing and building stadiums in his impoverished country.

Beginning in the Klan's salad days, they took a similar approach and handed out the turkeys like Nino Brown on Thanksgiving. Sociology professor Katherine Blee, who has written several books about women in the Klan, told NPR that in the 1920s, the Klan routinely "sponsored, in public, baseball teams, father-son outings, beautiful baby contests, weddings, baby christenings, junior leagues, road rallies, festivals."

The Klan, needing to remain close with local authorities, was particularly adept at shifting the focus off the racism and murder with public works projects. In his book One Hundred Percent American: The Rebirth and Decline of the Ku Klux Klan, Thomas Pegram cites several instances of local chapters, or "klaverns," shilling out money for the ostensible public good, "in an effort to legitimize its credentials as a quasi-public organization."

A Klan-sponsored beautiful baby contest probably wouldn't garner too many entrants in 2015, but their current Adopt-a-Highway ploy fits perfectly into this mindset. Shift the focus to everything you're not. What's the Klan? Why, they're the people who clean up the roads. The newer, gentler, Ku Klux Klan. Why, they haven't lynched anyone since 1981!


The community service attempts are probably also an effort to save the sad, dwindling membership of the group. Time has not been kind to the Klan. Once a mighty band of assholes that had more than 4 million members, the Klan now only counts between 5,000 and 8,000 members, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. In other words, the Klan is dying.

Private events like Klan ballgames and picnics might be permanently a thing of the past. But the government protects are for everyone. That's what made the Adopt-a-Highway program such an appealing in-road to publicly protected PR.

The KKK has a right to practice free speech as much as any other group, so they are usually protected in their attempts to participate in community service programs. Instead of outright banning them, local and state governments have to take other approaches to deny the KKK's attempt. These usually go one of two ways: either appealing to public safety, or arguing government signs aren't considered speech.

These people cleaning the highway do not belong to the KKK. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

In their 2012 denial of the Klan's highway cleanup application, the state of Georgia cited "potential social unrest, driver distraction, or interference with the flow of traffic." Arkansas' Department of Transportation denied a similar application from the Klan, saying a KKK sign would "be harmful to the public image of the Adopt-A-Highway Program and to the Arkansas State Highway and Transportation Department" while calling the KKK an "overtly and patently racially and religiously discriminatory organization."


In short, a group has to be pretty shitty to be denied the right to contribute free labor to the government. At the time KKK filed their application in Arkansas, 2,200 groups had previously applied to take care of the state's roadways. The KKK was the only group to receive a rejection.

After these inevitable rejections, the ACLU has famously defended the KKK. As Brenda L. Jones, the executive director of the ACLU-Eastern Missouri, explained: "Defending the rights of groups that the government tries to censor because of their viewpoints is at the heart of what the First Amendment and the ACLU stand for, even when the viewpoints are not popular."

With the current case before the Georgia court, it's all going to come down to one thing. As Georgia Assistant Attorney Brittany Bolton told CNN, "This case is about whether a state-designed, state-created sign, erected on a state highway, with the name Georgia in bold letters, constitutes the state's own speech."

In the past, the courts have sided with the Klan. But with public revulsion over racist iconography like the Confederate flag and hooded Klansmen reaching new heights, the Klan's winning streak on First Amendment issues might be coming to a close.

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