Hoods off: When the Ku Klux Klan sat down with the NAACP
After a series of attacks on black men, an unlikely summit held in a Wyoming hotel ends with the Klansman applying to join the civil rights organisation
Tim Walker is The Independent’s Los Angeles correspondent, covering entertainment and other concerns from the West Coast of the US. He was previously a features writer and the editor of the paper’s diary column. His first novel, Completion, is being published in January 2014.
Tuesday 03 September 2013
For a century or more, the two groups – one anti-racist; one explicitly racist – have been in fundamental opposition. Yet the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People and the Ku Klux Klan are thought never to have come face to face in an official setting. Until last weekend, that is, when representatives from the NAACP met with a member of the KKK at a hotel in Casper, Wyoming.
Remarkably, the historic summit ended with the Klansman applying for membership of the civil rights organisation.
Jimmy Simmons, president of the NAACP’s Casper branch, called for the talks following a series of attacks on local black men who were seen with white women.
The Klan had circulated pamphlets in the community, and Mr Simmons considered holding an anti-KKK rally. Instead, in June, he requested a sit-down meeting. The United Klans of America’s (UKA) imperial wizard, Alabama-based Bradley Jenkins, was reportedly keen; the national leadership of the NAACP, less so.
After months of negotiations, the meeting finally took place on Saturday evening in a conference room at the Parkway Plaza Hotel, witnessed by a reporter from the Casper Star-Tribune.
Mr Simmons, who regularly encountered racism during a successful career in the Wyoming oil industry, was joined by three other NAACP leaders, including vice-president Mel Hamilton, who was the state’s first black school principal. Sitting opposite them in a dark suit was John Abarr, a UKA organiser or “kleagle” from Great Falls, Montana, who claimed he risked expulsion for his attendance. “People are going to call me names for coming down here,” he said.
Once an aspiring political candidate, Mr Abarr made national headlines in 2011 when he thought about running for Congress in Montana. He dropped out of the race due to lack of funding and an outcry over his views.
He ran on a platform that included decriminalising marijuana, abolishing the death penalty, keeping abortion legal and “[saving] the white race”.
At the meeting on Saturday, Mr Abarr also said he was unconcerned by gay marriage, though he remained opposed to interracial marriages because, he said: “We want white babies.”
Mr Abarr comes from generations of Klansmen and joined the KKK when he was 18, yet he told the NAACP representatives that he was also a member of anti-racist organisations, including the American Civil Liberties Union.
The contemporary KKK, he claimed, is a non-violent Christian group. The recent beatings of black men were a police matter, he said, and a hate crime that the KKK would not condone.
As for the pamphlets, their distribution was perfectly legal, he said.
Mr Abarr claimed he enjoyed being a KKK member largely “because you wear robes, and get out and light crosses, and have secret handshakes… I sort of like it that people think I’m some sort of outlaw”.
Mr Simmons countered, telling him: “Based on the Klan’s history, it’s hard to shed the skin of your group not being violent, not being killers, murderers, terrorisers.”
Mr Abarr claimed the election of President Barack Obama had swelled the ranks of the UKA with angry white men, mostly in their twenties and thirties. Mr Obama’s presidency also inspired his own abortive political career, he said, because it showed that white people were losing power. His solution? The northwest US, including Montana and Wyoming, ought to secede from the Union and close its borders to black people.
On his Twitter page, Mr Abarr encourages his followers to: “Get active and move to the Northwest Aryan Homeland and secure the existence of the white race and a future for white children”. He also complains: “There are way to [sic] many n*****s in Montana especially here in Great Falls. Also there are a lot of Indians.”
The NAACP members were not convinced the summit was a success. Mr Hamilton told Mr Abarr, “It’s obvious you don’t know the history of your organisation… and it’s obvious to me you don’t know what you are… So I don’t know what good this dialogue has done tonight.”
Mr Abarr replied, “It’s obvious we don’t agree on everything.”
Before he left, however, Mr Simmons invited the Klansman to join the NAACP – an invitation Mr Abarr readily accepted, filling out an application form, and even adding a $20 (£13) donation to his $30 membership fee.
Though whether he will show his face at any more NAACP-organised gatherings remains to be seen.
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