A cross-lighting ceremony that took place near Tupelo, Mississippi, in late March following a Ku Klux Klan rally in Memphis, Tennessee, that was organised to protest the renaming of three parks in the city built in honour of the Confederacy. It is a “cross lighting”, not “cross burning”, because these Klansmen “do not burn, but light the cross to signify that Christ is the light of the world.” Photo by Robert King.
n the middle of an unkempt park in Memphis, Tennessee, stands an oversize bronze statue of a Confederate lieutenant general astride his mount. Its subject, Nathan Bedford Forrest, is considered by some to be one of the most infamous and powerful racists in American history. The first official leader of the Ku Klux Klan, some historians allege that Lieutenant General Forrest’s most heinous act was ordering his troops to slaughter hundreds of surrendered soldiers at 1864’s Battle of Fort Pillow, more than half of whom were African American. Others celebrate him as the physical manifestation of the South’s ethos during the Civil War and beyond: a rebel hero who relentlessly campaigned for his cause until it became untenable; he never gave up, even after his death.
Unveiled in 1905, the Memphis News-Scimitar reported that the masterfully sculpted monument to Nathan Bedford Forrest (or NBF) would “stand for ages as the emblem of a standard of virtue.” And today it seems the newspaper’s prophecy was correct, except for perhaps the “virtue” part. As of 2013, “that devil Forrest”, as he was infamously nicknamed by Union General William T. Sherman, is still sprinting across a Tennessee ridge on his stallion, kicking up dust in a city with historically tense racial relations.
Pink granite tiles and modest bronze headstones that look like plaques skirt the sculpture. General Forrest and his wife, Mary Ann Montgomery, are buried underneath. NBF’s more celebrated moniker, at least in some circles, is the “Wizard of the Saddle”, a nickname he earned for his wondrous equestrian talents in battle, and one that calls to mind the highest modern-day rank of the KKK – the Imperial Wizard.
The latest controversy surrounding the park and statue came to a head in early February, when the Memphis City Council unanimously voted to change the name of Forrest Park to Health Sciences Park (at least temporarily; a special commission is still in the process of deciding its final name as of press time), in line with the downtown medical-student facilities of the University of Tennessee that surround it. Two other Memphis parks – Confederate Park and Jefferson Davis Park, named after the president of the Confederacy – were also renamed by the City Council, with the reasoning that they were publicly funded reminders of an era that could be considered offensive and unwelcoming to the majority of the city’s residents, 63 percent of whom are African American according to the 2010 census.
Shortly after the City Council’s decision, a man identifying himself as Exalted Cyclops Edward announced that his chapter of the Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan was planning a massive rally to protest the renaming of the three parks. “It’s not going to be 20 or 30,” he told local NBC affiliate WMC-TV. “It’s going to be thousands of Klansmen from the whole United States coming to Memphis, Tennessee.” Later in the month the city granted the Loyal White Knights a permit for a public rally to be held March 30 on the steps of the county courthouse in downtown Memphis, one day before Easter and five days before the 45th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination at the Lorraine Motel.
It was an eerily familiar scenario for Memphians. On January 17, 1998, around 50 members of the KKK held a rally at the very same courthouse in what they claimed was an attempt to protect their “heritage” in the lead-up to MLK Day and that year’s 30th anniversary of his assassination. Outnumbered by counterprotesters, the Klan’s vitriolic screeds incited a small riot that resulted in looting and the ill-prepared police force teargassing the entire crowd.
One Memphian and self-proclaimed member of the Grape Street Crips seemed to take the Klan’s threats to return to his city very seriously. Following the announcement of the planned rally, 20-year-old DaJuan Horton posted a video on YouTube in which he states that he’s organizing a consortium of local gangs – some rivals – to unify and show their discontent on the day of the rally. Local and national media suddenly became very interested in the impending event, whipping a diverse cross-section of the city into a frenzy.
“They gonna come to Memphis, Tennessee… where Martin Luther King got gunned down,” DaJuan says in the video. “You’re going to come here and rally deep – really, really deep, in my language, just to talk? No, it’s not gonna happen like that. When you come to Memphis, Tennessee, we’re gonna rally right across from you, and it’s gonna be Young Mob, Crips, Bloods, GDs, Vice Lords, Goon Squad… I’m getting on the phone with them daily. I’m talking to the big guys, the big kahunas. I’m talking to the Bill Gates of the gang wars. You come to Memphis, we’re going to be waiting on you. It’s versatile down here. We got every gang you can think of; we’ve got the fucking Mob down here. Bring your ass on.”
Had the City Council’s decision to rename the park sparked a potential showdown with what many law enforcement agencies consider America’s oldest terrorist organisation and a mega-alliance of the country’s most violent gangs? Or was the Klan struggling to retain relevancy in an era when race relations have progressed so much that the US has elected a black president twice over? I travelled to Memphis about a week before the rally to meet everyone involved and find out.
This bronze statue of Confederate Lieutenant General Nathan Bedford Forrest has stood for more than 100 years in a Memphis park that, until February 2013, was named after him. Photo by Robert King.
M y first order of business in Memphis, a wonderfully diverse and eclectic city that has been hit hard by economic woes in recent years, was to interview the protagonists of the situation at hand. Long-serving council members Myron Lowery and Janis Fullilove spearheaded – or were at least the most outspoken about – the decision to change the names of the parks.
“Change produces controversy, and that’s what we have in this case,” Myron, a middle-aged black man who has the bluntly authoritative look and demeanor unique to experienced local politicians, told me. “Many people don’t want to change, they want to live in the past with the memories that they had. And whenever there comes along an idea to offer to compromise, they object to it because they say, ‘This is history, and you can’t change history.’”
What, I wondered, were Myron’s thoughts on NBF, a man who has been dead for over 130 years but still haunts Tennessee’s largest city from beyond the grave?
“Nathan Bedford Forrest was a racist,” he said. “He was head of the Klan – ‘Oh, no, it isn’t the same Klan today as it was yesterday’ – it was still the Klan… I’ve referred to the Klan as a terrorist organisation. In fact, I call them the ‘American Taliban’ because of who they are and what they do.”
No stranger to controversy, Myron’s counterpart Janis has been arrested on alcohol-related charges four times in the past five years (all the while serving on the council), and told me she was once shot at by a police officer while marching with MLK (the bullet left a hole through her wig). On the day we met she wore a fiery red suit and short, bleached blond hair. Forrest Park in particular, she said, had been a source of contention since 1904, when the remains of NBF and his wife were reinterred at the base of the statue after they were exhumed from nearby Elmhurst Cemetery. She was present at the rally in 1998, where she was “trampled and teargassed”, and told me that this time around she had received multiple death threats from anonymous parties who disapprove of the council’s decision to rename the parks. I asked her if she was prepared to accept responsibility for any resulting fallout.
“I do, yeah, I take the blame,” Janis said, “even though I’ve got death threats – they gonna hang me, ‘Nigga, we gonna get you.’ Fine. I don’t know if it was the Klan, [but it was] somebody… OK, so what. Hang me.”
My next question addressed accusations from the Klan and other Confederate-history enthusiasts: Was the Memphis City Council – made up of six whites and seven blacks – trying to erase the city’s controversial past?
“The bottom line, at the end of the day, the names of those parks are not going back to what they once were. It’s going to change… So if Nathan Bedford Forrest is their hero, fine. Take his statue, put it in your backyard, your front yard, put it wherever you want to put it.”
Earlier in the day I had met with Lee Millar, spokesperson for the Memphis chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) who wears a gray beard that wouldn’t be out of place in the late 19th century. Last year, Lee and his fellow SCV members raised the funds to install a massive stone engraved with the words forrest park at its perimeter, facing the street. He showed me a few emails from the parks department that seemed to approve its placement. But a few weeks back, a city maintenance crew had removed the stone in the middle of the night and relocated it to a municipal storage garage close to the city zoo. This happened without warning, Lee said, and virtually in tandem with the announcement that the parks’ names would be changed. Lee also said he considered the entire ordeal to be underhanded and detrimental to Memphis’s history.
DaJuan Horton (center, in the black tank top), a member of the local Grape Street Crips, recruits friends in east Memphis to participate in a counterprotest of a planned KKK rally on Easter weekend. Photo by Robert King.
“It’s just idiotic,” he said. “Look at the Jews over in Germany, they keep parts of the prisons there as a reminder. This is all history for Memphis and America, and history should not be erased. You should add to it and enhance it, but don’t get rid of it, because you always want to know about your past so you can go forward in your future.”
Lee added that he was also frustrated that the KKK had seemingly co-opted the entire ordeal for its own means. “I think the Ku Klux Klan capitalized on the controversy to stage a rally in Memphis, to gather attention for themselves, to bring awareness more to the Klan [than NBF].”
About an hour later, Lee and I visited what, less than a month ago, had been known as Forrest Park. NBF’s statue watched over its domain, glaring down at us as if he were about to lead his garrison into battle. The artist who created the statue, Charles Henry Niehaus, was at the height of his craft. An American sculptor who throughout his career stayed true to the neoclassical training he received in Germany, Charles is best known for his 19th-century depictions of US President James A. Garfield, Moses, Louis IX, and other meticulously rendered statues of historical figures scattered throughout the States. His depiction of NBF is perhaps his most controversial work, but judged against the rest of his oeuvre, Charles was just doing his job: NBF looks merciless and singularly determined.
Lee introduced me to a man standing in front of the NBF statue with a cigar in his mouth. Wearing a wide-brimmed hat, one of his white-gloved hands was stuffed in his pocket, pushing aside a jacket that halfway covered what appeared to be an authentic, standard-issue Union general’s uniform. He introduced himself as General Ulysses S. Grant; the resemblance was striking. I didn’t hesitate to ask the good general’s opinion of NBF, perhaps one of his greatest rivals. “I have a very healthy respect for Nathan Bedford Forrest,” he said with the cadence of a proper Southern gentleman.
Later, when I asked him about the city’s decision to change the name of the park – which, of course, he disagreed with – he broke character and introduced himself again, this time as E. C. Fields Jr. A local high school principal, reserve police officer, SCV member and historical reenactor, E. C. appeared to be a prime example of a highly educated and well-spoken man who apparently had no agenda regarding the naming of the park other than his love for history.
Feeling like reality was slipping from my grip, I got right to the point and asked E. C. if he thought NBF was racist.
“No,” he replied with a drawl. “He had the culture of the country at the time. He had no personal vendetta against any group of people; he was fighting for what he believed in.”
What, exactly, did NBF believe in? I wondered but thought it would be futile to ask a man so enamoured with the history – or perhaps a certain type of history – of the Civil War. But it seemed to be the crux of the matter, the murky but bold ethos of a man who’s proved nothing but divisive in the annals of history.
Later, while perusing the few books written about NBF, I may have discovered the answer. In the foreword of the 1989 edition of John Allan Wyeth’s preeminent NBF biography, That Devil Forrest, Western Michigan University history professor emeritus Albert Castel writes: “Despite all the rhetoric from the South’s politicians and editors about ‘States Rights’ and ‘Southern Nationalism’, [NBF] had no illusions about [the Civil War’s] true purpose: ‘If we ain’t fightin’ to keep slavery, then what the hell are we fightin’ for?’”
After his death from diabetes-related issues in October of 1877, NBF was buried in Elmhurst Cemetery in accordance with his will. His body’s disinterment and its transfer to Forrest Park by Confederate sympathisers over 25 years later could cause one to wonder what their true motives were. While it would be very difficult to remove the statue regardless (Councilwoman Fullilove told me it would require a court order), throwing NBF’s corpse into the mix adds a macabre element to any such attempts politicans have avoided until now.
NBF’s grave isn’t much different than the man himself: stubborn and resolute. Born dirt poor on July 13, 1821, in what is now known as Chapel Hill, Tennessee, NBF was the most unlikely of heroes. The oldest of seven brothers and three sisters, he became the head of his household when he was around 16, following the death of his blacksmith father. Almost completely illiterate throughout his life, NBF had still managed to amass a sizable fortune as a speculator, plantation owner and slave trader. After the so-called War Between the States broke out, he enlisted in the Confederate Army even though he lacked formal military training of any kind. He was, however, a natural tactician and courageous woodsman, and quickly shot up through its ranks. By the time he was named lieutenant general, NBF had recruited a large and intensely loyal force culled from the South.
Perhaps the most feared and dangerous soldier in the Confederacy, NBF’s greatest contributions to humanity were his innovative battle techniques, some of which served as the basis for US military tactics well into the 20th century. Tennessee-born poet and novelist Andrew Lytle once described NBF as a “spiritual comforter”, due to the mythical status he attained during the Reconstruction era. This may be why NBF was appointed the first head of the Ku Klux Klan in the late 1800s.
Historical reenactors E. C. Fields Jr. and his spouse portray Union General Ulysses S. Grant and his wife. They believe the city’s decision to change the name of the parks was wrong. Photo by Robert King.
M y initial contact with Edward, the mysterious, hulking Exalted Cyclops (the title bestowed on Klavern, or local chapter, leaders) who had called the rally and appeared on local Memphis newscasts wearing a ski mask, happened a couple weeks before my arrival in Memphis. I had called the number of a Tennessee “Klan hotline” listed on the Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan’s website. I left a voicemail, requesting an interview, and a few days later I answered a blocked call. It was Edward. He invited me to meet up for an interview with him and his associates before the rally in Memphis, as well as a cross-lighting ceremony a couple hours’ drive away in Mississippi that would follow. We had arranged to conduct the interview at my hotel shortly after I arrived. “Don’t be freaked out when you see a 300-pound guy with a hood on standing outside your room,” he said. I told him I would try my best.
The hotel meeting never happened, and after a series of intermittently returned calls and emails, Edward finally told me to meet one of his underlings outside a local restaurant. He instructed me to keep an eye out for a purple car that was “loud as hell”.
Arriving at the restaurant at the specified time, I spotted a purple compact sedan. Its driver, who was wearing a camouflage wraparound mask and hood like those used for bird hunting, pointed down the road and peeled off. We followed him for a few miles, ending up at the mouth of a dirt road that led to a field of trash and discarded tires that looked like the perfect location to film a murder scene. The driver emerged, still wearing his mask and revealing a pear-shaped frame swathed in black military-style fatigues to which various patches featuring Klan-related imagery had been sewn. He was talking on the phone, I assumed to Edward, and motioned to keep my distance. Then he hung up and said, “OK, we’re good now.”
Seconds later a beat-up truck rolled up and parked next to us. Three young men – in their late teens or early 20s – exited. One of them was black. Great, I thought, they are going to think we set them up.
The anonymous Klansman looked nervous. He waved to stay back and put the phone up to his ear. “We gotta change locations,” he said after hanging up, and instructed us to follow. We drove around for another few minutes, tailing the purple car once again, when Edward called me: “It’s all good, come back. My security guy just got spooked by those kids. They’re just metal scrappers.”
On our return to the disused dirt pit, we were ushered toward the back of the lot by our masked chaperone. Along the way we passed a 20-something man in a black hoodie holding a German shepherd on a leash at bay as it bared its teeth and barked viciously. The entire scene was so absurd that there wasn’t room to be scared.
A large black truck parked across the field came into view. Two men were inside, one of them wearing a ski mask. It was Edward. He exited and approached while his driver peered at us through his sunglasses. I introduced myself and asked how much time we had for the interview. “Until it gets hot, I guess,” Edward said and explained that earlier in the day he had received information that African American ex-military sharpshooters who were now gang members had travelled from Detroit to stalk him and his fellow Klansmen before the rally. It sounded ludicrous, but then again I was standing in the middle of a garbage dump talking to a member of the Ku Klux Klan in 2013.
Our interview in the field wasn’t particularly informative and mostly consisted of the same rhetoric that can be found on most Klan websites, coupled with regurgitations of what Edward had already said to the media: the Klan was based on Christian principles, they were defending the white race’s “loss of rights”, and their criticisms about President Obama. (“Well, yeah, I’m very happy with him. [laughs] I have got to say he’s made the Klan a lot stronger.”) He also told me that he was introduced to the KKK at the age of three.
It had been mentioned in the local press that while the Klan had been granted a permit to protest in Memphis, they were forbidden from covering their faces during the rally. I found this ironic, considering both of the Klansmen I was speaking to wore masks. Were they worried about retaliation?
“Yep, absolutely, because they don’t understand us,” Edward said. “They think we’re just a straight hate group and want to kill people, and we’re not that way. I’m just concerned about them knowing who I am. I have grandkids, I have kids and I don’t want, you know – my house has been shot up twice already since this has aired on the TV.”
There was a rumbling in the distance, and seemingly out of nowhere a middle-aged man appeared on a four-wheeler with a younger black woman seated behind him. After they passed, I asked Edward what he thought about “race mixing”, as the Klan commonly refers to interracial relationships. “That’s disgusting,” he said. “Stick with your own race. That’s a horrible thing.”
Minutes after the four-wheeler had driven off, Edward said he had just gotten word that the cops were on their way. He added that he’d spotted a police radio on the ATV that just passed us, and he’d see me at the rally on Saturday. None of it made much sense, and I wondered if the whole thing was a setup, but it didn’t matter either way. They were already in the truck, on their way to wherever it was Klansmen hang out. The hefty masked man who had taken us to the lot waddled his way back to the purple car, and I followed to mine. It was time to go back to the hotel.
A KKK member who would only identify himself as Exalted Cyclops Edward (right) and his associate agreed to be interviewed in a junkyard a few days before the rally in Memphis. Photo by Robert King.
T he following afternoon I arrived at DaJuan Horton’s apartment to speak with him and fellow members of the Grape Street Crips about how their plans were coming together for the counterprotest. DaJuan clarified his statements from the YouTube video that had brought me here, saying he had been organising other local gangs under the banner of an alliance he had named Divine United International – DUI. He explained that they weren’t looking for trouble or violence, they just wanted to show the Klan how to hold a rally in Memphis. Smoking blunt after blunt, it wasn’t far-fetched to believe that DaJuan and his buds could pull off a low-key and ultimately peaceful event. But, understandably, I was a little dubious.
The Crips’ volition and mission seemed to waver in the smoky haze, with DaJuan saying things like, “The KKK can’t wear their masks at the protest, but that doesn’t mean we can’t wear ours.” He also had his friend, whom he referred to as “Shooter”, show off his handgun. Shooter said DaJuan wasn’t allowed one because he was “too trigger happy”.
I asked DaJuan his opinion on NBF, and what he thought about the renaming of the eponymous park. “I researched and learned who he was,” he said, “and he really did some stuff for them, but I don’t really care for it. They can name the park what they want to name the park. I don’t care what they do with his body, I don’t think it’s important or nothing like that. I don’t mean to sound mean, but that’s just how I feel about it. I can see it from their angle, that he really means something to them, but that’s their stuff.”
We made plans to meet again in two days, a Thursday, so that I could tag along with DaJuan and his crew while they drove through neighbourhoods on the east side of Memphis in an effort to enlist more people to join them to oppose Saturday’s Klan rally. I followed him as planned, to a street on the east side of town that quickly filled with kids who seemed enthusiastic for the cause. There was a lot of “Fuck the KKK!” and ruminations on why the Klan was granted a permit in the first place, but no one seemed to have a clear vision, except to express their outrage in some sort of fashion on Saturday.
After the impromptu meeting in the street with his friends, DaJuan took me to Robinhood Park – a Section 8 housing complex that, he told me, was strictly Bloods territory. About 150 of Robinhood’s residents watched as we rolled in, many of them dressed in red, and children rapidly fired cap guns at us. We loitered around for about 15 minutes as DaJuan tried to explain the mission of DUI and why he wanted as many gang members as possible to attend the rally. A few listened, but most were hesitant to talk. Eventually a white woman appeared who looked to be in her early 60s and asked us to leave before we caused any problems. DaJuan agreed, and we parted ways. I wasn’t convinced that he would be able to pull off his plan to align the local gangs against the Klan, but given all the strange occurrences of the past few days, I didn’t think it was entirely out of the question.
A week before the Klan rally in Memphis, a Mississippi chapter of the KKK who were planning on attending the event held a “practice rally” outside the Tishomingo County Courthouse. Photo by Robert King.
O n Saturday morning, the day of the rally, the forecast was rain. I was supposed to accompany DaJuan and his comrades to the county courthouse, but he said they weren’t quite ready yet and told me to come by his apartment in one hour. When I arrived he wasn’t there but drove up about 20 minutes later. By this time, the gray sky had opened up into a drizzle.
DaJuan told me he wouldn’t be going to the rally, nor were any of his recruits, because the Klan wasn’t worth being cold and wet all day. “White people don’t mind the rain,” he said. “I just don’t have a good feeling about it.” He said that he might reconsider if it stopped raining, and that he planned to carry on DUI’s mission, but it was apparent that there was not going to be a standoff of Clockwork Orange proportions between the Klan and local gangbangers. It was a relief on some level, and judging from reports in the local news, it would be nearly impossible for the Crips or anyone else to get remotely close to the Klan. About ten square blocks had been cordoned off by the Memphis Police Department and an assortment of other regional law enforcement, who would reportedly be out in forces that numbered around 700. The Klansmen would be isolated, shuttled in on city buses and confined to a fenced-in area on the courthouse steps. Spectators and counterprotesters would be funneled in to a separate pen and required to pass through metal detectors and undergo random searches. Downtown Memphis was on lockdown, and many neighbourhood businesses had closed for the day. Reports estimated that the rally cost the city $175,000.
The massive police presence, which included multiple SWAT units, hundreds of vehicles, mobile surveillance-camera towers and cops in full riot gear, ensured that the rally was kept under control. As about 50 Klansmen filed in from the buses and through the courthouse, they amassed on the steps, waving KKK flags alongside what appeared to be a dozen or so skinheads and members of other white-supremacy groups. It was far from the thousands Edward had promised.
Klansmen took turns shouting into a megaphone, but it was hard to see or hear anything from the media tent that had been purposely situated behind a SWAT truck and other vehicles. They occasionally chanted “White power!” in unison. The rain continued to pick up, and the small group of antifascist counterprotesters who had gathered a few blocks away from the rally had been dispersed or cordoned off in the civilian area. DaJuan and his crew were nowhere to be found. As the local reporters bemoaned having to stand out in the cold and rain on a Saturday, I began to think the modern-day Klan had turned it into what was basically a historical-reenactment society who yearned for the “good ol’ days”, whatever that means. I left the rally early and went back to my hotel to dry out before the cross-lighting ceremony in Mississippi that had been planned for later that evening.
Shortly before dusk I arrived in a small country town outside of Tupelo, Mississippi, about a two-hour drive away from Memphis. I was warmly greeted by Nicole, wife of North Mississippi White Knights of the KKK Imperial Wizard Steven Howard, outside their home where the cross lighting was to be held. She told me Steven was still on his way back from the rally in Memphis, and that she’d been unable to attend because she had young children to look after. Steven, who is known for his shimmery, red Klan robe, was one of the main speakers at the rally, although I had no idea what he or any of his fellow Klansmen had said because of the way the cops had them positioned – they were effectively yelling into a brick wall.
The rally in Memphis was largely a nonevent, with a massive police presence that completely separated the Klan from the counterprotesters and all but blocked the media from even getting a clear shot.
From the looks of the handful of people gathered on Steven’s property – which appeared to consist of a single-wide trailer amid a couple acres of wooded land – there wasn’t much doing. Then, all of a sudden, a cavalcade of vehicles drove up and, one by one, parked in Steven’s front yard. By my count, there were approximately 100 Klansmen and women in attendance.
After dinner a half-dozen men got to work constructing the cross for the impending lighting ceremony, wrapping pieces of wood in burlap and pouring diesel fuel over their handiwork. Soon enough, it was time to “robe up”.
I took the opportunity to talk with Steven – who is 31 and speaks with the enthusiastic charisma of a natural-born leader – for a few minutes as he donned his cherished red robe. He told me that he had served as a marine in the Iraq War, and that some of his fellow Klansmen had also been in the military. “When they strung him up on the bridge and shit, his body burning and shit, that’s when I was over there,” he said in reference to the four Blackwater Security contractors who were killed, burned, and hung from a bridge in Fallujah that spans the Euphrates River.
As he finished buttoning his robe, I asked him about his thoughts on the afternoon’s rally. “I think they had too much police protection,” he said. “I think that’s ridiculous. I know a lot of people said they didn’t even hear us; a lot of people said they couldn’t even see us.”
Steven went on to tell me that the reason the cross lighting was happening so late was because the convoy of Klansmen who had trailed him from Memphis was alarmed by a strange vehicle they thought was following them. They pulled off to the side of the road, forcing their pursuer to do the same. It turned out that the vehicle in question contained a local television news crew. “They got out and they were two white guys, but their film crew – their camera crew – was Indians… not Indians, but they was chinks and gooks and niggers, and I was like, ‘Naw, you can’t come to my house, man.’” Then he thanked me for coming out, saying that I was welcome anytime.
As Steven’s fellow Klansmen made their final preparations for the cross lighting, I spoke with a 26-year-old from Baltimore who said he had recently started a local Klan chapter following his wife’s firing from a local Walmart for, what he believes, were racists reasons. He told me that he had helped develop an online application and screening process, as well as a chat room, for the North Mississippi White Knights, and that his local Klan – which at the time consisted of him, his mother and a friend – did a lot of good for his community. When I asked for specifics, he told me that they sometimes organise trash pickups in nearby parks. Another 26-year-old I spoke with, a Grand Dragon from Virginia, showed off his vintage green robe.
I also met two members of the Supreme White Alliance, a white-supremacist skinhead group. They said they had driven through the night from Cincinnati, Ohio, to attend the rally and were planning to do the same later that evening to get back in time for their day jobs.
As I was speaking with the two men, someone called out with instructions to pick up makeshift torches that had been dipped in a barrel of diesel, ignite it and proceed to the hollow behind Steven’s house that seemed custom-made for lighting crosses on fire. I watched as, one by one, a hooded figure asked each attendee, “Klansman, do you accept the light?” They did.
Taking a look around the circle that had formed around the cross, I was surprised to see so many young faces among the grizzled Klansmen. Some of the freshly initiated looked like teenagers. The ceremony that followed included a dedication to Nathan Bedford Forrest, but first Steven performed his ritual duties as an Imperial Wizard. A red KKK banner, as well as a black Nazi SS flag, flapped ominously in the background.
“Klansmen, for God!” he shouted, his declaration echoed back by his guests. “Klansmen, for Mississippi! Klansmen, for the Loyal White Knights!” Steven then instructed his audience to march clockwise before continuing what might as well have been an incantation. “Klansmen, for the National Socialist Movement! Klansmen, for the white race! Klansmen, approach the cross!”
“Don’t turn your back on a fiery cross,” someone shouted to the crowd as it was set ablaze.
Considering that just a few hours earlier, I’d felt certain that the Ku Klux Klan was in the throes of death and a united America was finally prevailing, the Klansman’s warning was the soundest advice I’d heard all week. Bigotry in America, it seemed, wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon.
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