Police in Durham, North Carolina, have launched an investigation after three crosses were set alight in one night - triggering fears that the Ku Klux Klan may have targeted the city. Yellow leaflets, purportedly produced by the KKK, were found at the site of one of the burning crosses.
While burning crosses have long been associated with the Klan, people in Durham said this was the first time for a generation that such an incident had been reported in the city. Students of the Klan also say that it is vastly reduced in its membership and influence from 40 years ago. It may be that the crosses were simply set ablaze by pranksters.
"At this day and time, I thought we'd be beyond that," said the city's mayor, Bill Bell. "People do things for different reasons, and I don't have the slightest idea why anyone would do this."
The first burning was reported at around 9.20pm outside one of the city's churches, the second 40 minutes later next to a construction site and the third half-an-hour later at an intersection in the city centre. Each cross was around 7ft tall and 4ft across. They had all been wrapped in sacking and doused with kerosene. "We're working with the FBI in investigating this, but right now we don't have any leads," said Kammi Michael, a spokesperson for the Durham Police Department. Durham's population of around 200,000 is evenly split between white and black and the city has long enjoyed a reputation for having little racial friction. Mr Bell, who entered politics in 1972, said that even after the assassination of Martin Luther King which sparked riots elsewhere across the country, the city was able to remain relatively calm.
But observers say that even today the KKK retains a strong presence in parts of the US South, where there are said to be between 30 and 50 cross burnings reported every year. Many of them are known to be carried out by the Klan.
Joe Roy, chief investigator for the Intelligence Project at the Southern Poverty Law Centre, an Alabama-based campaign group, said that North Carolina had 37 active "hate groups", including neo-Confederate and neo-Nazi organisations. Of all of these, the Klan is most active.
"You've got a lot of Klan presence in North Carolina - always have," said Mr Roy. "Something may have touched them off." In recent weeks there have been other reports of KKK leaflets being distributed across the South. In Philadelphia, Mississippi, where in two weeks the trial is due to start of an 80-year-old former Klan member accused of organising the 1964 killing of three civil rights workers, leaflets apparently printed by the KKK were discovered two weeks ago.
In Durham, part of North Carolina's prosperous "technology triangle", local people have been holding vigils since the burning crosses were discovered on Wednesday evening.
"I think that the community is bringing itself together. I've heard nothing negative, just shock from everyone," said Mayor Bell.
Theresa El-Amin, director of the Southern Anti-Racism Network, which organised a community meeting, told the Raleigh News and Observer newspaper: "People in Durham are not going to let this go down. This is a mean and evil thing."Reuse content