A bloodied Billy Roper. (Photo courtesy of Southern Poverty Law Center)
Residents of Harrison, in Boone County, Arkansas, want to move beyond the town's racist history. The trouble is, the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan have settled in the area and made it their national headquarters. On the 15th of March, the Klan and other racist groups are planning to convene in Harrison for a “White Man's March”, part of a national day of rallies mustered by the white supremacist website StormFront.org.
Flyers for the event, set to occur two days before St Patrick's Day, advertise that marchers will be “piping up about white pride”.
"Harrison is a really nice place to live,” said Pastor Thomas Robb, national director of the Knights – a role formerly known as Grand Wizard. “I suspect that's because it's majority white.”
Race riots in 1905 and 1909 drove out most of the black population from Harrison, establishing it as a “sundown town” – a term applied to thousands of municipalities in the Deep South during the days of Jim Crow where it was unsafe to walk the streets at night if your skin was the wrong colour. The number of minorities living in Harrison has remained low ever since. According to census figures, blacks make up just .3 percent of Harrison's 13,000 citizens.
“We are not the only former sundown town in the world,” said Harrison mayor Jeff Crocket, who is designating the 15th of March as Love Your Neighbour Day. “There are tons of ex-sundowns around; some were much worse than we were. The problem Harrison has is that ever since the Robb family decided to migrate here, every time something appears in the news media about them it says Harrison, Arkansas.”
The town is also home to a storefront for “Kingdom Identity Ministries”, whose adherents believe that Eve had sex with Satan in the Garden of Eden and gave birth to Jews. In 2010, a Kingdom Identity follower shot and killed his friend and then set the man's corpse on fire for having a Mexican girlfriend. The head of the group, Mike Hallimore, is known for publishing classified ads in several small town papers across the country, starting in 2008, looking for a "Christian white lady" to be his wife and secretary and join him in matrimony in Arkansas. Mike's ad is still up on Christian Identity's website, in case you're interested in bagging a psycho racist.
There isn't much Mayor Crocket can do to rid Harrison of the racists who have gravitated to the community, but he has established a diversity task force comprising himself and local citizenry in the hope of making the town more welcoming to minorities. On the 2nd of April, they will be hosting a youth nonviolence summit together with the Arkansas Martin Luther King Jr. Commission. Children from across the state will arrive in Harrison to learn about the civil-rights movement and the peaceful struggle for racial equality.
Tom Robb is worried the event will eventually lead to “white genocide” in Harrison. Some of the children attending will be coming from Little Rock, and he tried to make clear to me that Little Rock spells urban, urban spells black and black spells crime.
“We should judge people not by the colour of their skin, but by the character of their heart,” he said, drawing on the words of Martin Luther King. “And I know that the character in the heart of black communities in Detroit and Cleveland and Kansas City, Missouri, is not a good one.”
When I asked about Floyd Melton Lewis – a Klansman currently in Boone County jail for taking naked pictures of a 13-year-old girl, growing pot and selling pills – Tom said he hardly knew the man and threatened to end the interview.
The Knights trace their lineage back to original opponents of Reconstruction, who murdered, lynched and otherwise terrorised black families throughout the South. These days, however, the group has adopted a subtler approach to racism.
“I love all God's creations,” Tom said. “I'm a believer in diversity. Diversity is a wonderful thing. I like Louis Armstrong. I like his music. I like the blind guy, Ray Charles. I like his music.” The Klan doesn't hate black people, he wanted me to understand, they just really love white people.
Tom's two granddaughters, Shelby and Charity Pendergraft, have formed a musical outfit of their own, called Heritage Connection.
“He's an Aryan Warrior / He's an eagle taking flight,” the white power duo sing in flat, nasally voices on one of their tracks I found on the internet. “We shall reign in victory / after the final fight.”
The Robb family settled in Zinc – a town even smaller than Harrison to its north – in the early 70s and established what many locals described to me as a “compound”. Pastor Tom prefers to call it a “church”. He wouldn't provide membership numbers, but he did claim there is support for his ideas in Harrison, where the group maintains a PO Box.
“I can hardly walk into Walmart without people shaking my hand,” he said. “We've got members of the Klan that Jeff Crockett and his diversity task force rub shoulders with everyday.”
Mayor Jeff was doubtful. “The Klan is not the organisation it used to be,” he said. “Most of what they focus around today on that compound 15 miles out of town is selling their brand of hate memorabilia – T-shirts, that sort of thing – in order to support their families.”
The majority of people in Harrison that I spoke with said they think the Klan's presence more of an embarrassment than anything else.
“They've been considered to be a joke,” Nate Jordan, a member of the mayor's task force explained, “a kind of stain on our community.”
Nate, who writes a literary blog documenting life in the Ozarks, moved back to Arkansas from Denver about a year ago to be near his folks. He had no idea of Harrison's reputation when he took up residence there. It wasn't until a friend emailed him a clipping on the Knights that Nate realised he had just moved into the heart of Klan country.
“I was like, 'What the fuck?'” he said. “I talked to a lot of folks who didn't think racism was a problem here. I said, 'Well, of course you don't; you're white.' The community at large really hadn't seen the need to address the issue. People were hoping that if they just ignored the Klan, it would wither away.”
In October, an anonymous donor paid for a billboard on Bypass 62-65 in Harrison that forced the town to confront the funk of racism brewing beneath its surface. “Anti-Racist is a Code Word for Anti-White”, it read.
I asked Tom Robb to imagine being black. What would he make of that sign if he were driving through Harrison with his family and spotted it? Would he feel safe?
“No, I probably would not,” he conceded. “I would probably move on.”
Mayor Jeff's diversity task force started posting signs with the message “Love your neighbour” around town. Others worried that, with the opposing views standing beside each other, an observer might feel that both sides had equal merit.
(Photo courtesy of the Woodsman Project)
In the dead of night on the 29th of November, someone painted over the billboard so that it instead proclaimed: “Anti-Racist is a Code Word for Love.” Chad Watkins, a local interior designer, was charged with the act of vandalism. He still hasn't gone to court yet and plans to plead not guilty, but he said he approves of the billboard's new message.
“I would pat the fellow on the back who did this act,” Chad said. “It was an elephant-in-the-room kind of thing with that billboard, and someone finally did something about it.”
It took Chad a while to warm up to me when we spoke on the phone. The last call he'd taken had turned out to be from a Klansman. He wasn't threatened by the fellow on the other line. The guy asked a lot of questions, just like a reporter would, but then launched into a racist diatribe. Pretending to be a reporter is an old trick among white supremacists. In 1984, Tom Robb showed up at the headquarters of the Southern Poverty Law Center, an organisation that monitors the activity of hate groups in the US, with what he claimed was a documentary film crew. He was recognised and denied entry to the building.
“I'm cautious,” Chad told me. “These are unscrupulous fellows we're dealing with.”
On the 11th of February, about a dozen members of the Klan turned up at a Black History Month event at the Boone County Library in Harrison. They sat and listened to National Public Radio reporter Jacqueline Froelich give a presentation on the history of racism in Arkansas. During the Q and A portion, a few of them stood up and said they wanted to keep Harrison safe. Though they didn't create a disruption, many were rattled by the Klan's presence, startled that they would possess the brazenness to turn up at all.
“They're pushing buttons,” said Nate. “They're getting riled up. There's been some blowback from the community, and it is making Tom Robb angry. That's what's making people scared.”
“Roper is a real hardliner,” the Law Center's Mark Potok told me. “He's got into street battles and fist fights with anti-racists. I have a photo of him with blood pouring out of his head because some anarchist smashed him with a steel pipe.”
When I spoke to Billy, he seemed to be following Tom's lead, attempting to project a kinder, gentler version of racism. “I wish that slavery had never happened,” he said. Sounding almost like a Tea Partier, he emphasised that he wants to “return to the ideals that this country was founded on" – circular logic considering the founding fathers were slaveholders.
But for now, those challenging racism in Harrison can at least take some comfort that the Klan appears far more paranoid and fearful of them then they are of the Klan. In the same conversation, Billy worried that Mayor Jeff is working with a reality TV programme to move “1,200 blacks into Harrison” and said he believes Oprah Winfrey wants to kill off the white race.
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