Being selected for membership in a well-known fraternal organization, one with roots in history and known across the world, is a heady experience. This recently happened to me, but I had to decline the invitation.
The appeal arrived at my house, but not in the mailbox. It was thrown in the driveway, courtesy of the local recruitment arm of the Ku Klux Klan. Apparently, the delivery person drove down rural roads, throwing out plastic zip-lock storage bags, weighted with gravel and containing an enlistment message.
It was an early morning delivery, apparently intended to coincide with arrival of the Sunday newspaper to be noticeable when the subscriber walked to the end of the driveway.
REALM OF TENNESSEE, proclaimed the single sheet of paper.
It was scrawled in marker above a very distorted, obviously much-reproduced copy of a photo in which a small army of white-robed and hooded Klansmen stand at attention with a fiery cross in the background.
ORIGINAL KNIGHT RIDERS
KNIGHTS OF THE KU KLUX KLAN
There followed a national office address in Bexley, West Virginia, a web address and a hotline number.
The flier was folded in a bag gritty inside with gravel dust, covered in wet grass and leaf debris on the outside from the dew. Whoever threw it out had bad aim. The bag landed in the ditch, and I found it only by chance that afternoon after nearly running over it while mowing.
The image apparently intended to set the message’s tone did exactly the opposite. I was reminded of the scene in the movie “Oh, Brother, Where Art Thou,” in which John Goodman portrays a one-eyed Klan enforcer (Cyclops in the Greek mythology plot framework) at a 1930s Mississippi lynching that goes awry.
Not a very good marketing approach to use, in my opinion. Instead of awe, I laughed out loud and trashed the package.
But the Klan was not finished. Two weeks later, another baggie appeared, this time obviously placed with care in the middle of the driveway. This one was weighted with rice, like congratulatory ammunition to throw at a wedding party. It contained the same flier.
I ran over it several times before seeing the tattered flier fluttering in a flower bed.
This time, I became perturbed.
As a citizen, taxpayer and property owner, someone who holds to conservative social values but will forever defend the right of free speech, no matter how disgusting or hateful, and who has a problem with those who would limit the rights of others on the basis of political correctness, I do not appreciate the Klan throwing litter in my yard.
As someone who made his career in media, public relations and marketing, I find their recruitment efforts primitive and embarrassing, exactly opposite of what they probably intended. However, the Klan is protected by the Constitution in this matter. I might disagree with what they stand for and revile their tactics, but they are within their rights to recruit potential members and hold to their beliefs.
Just as I am protected by the Constitution to write a column about a subject that in my lifetime has reared its ugly head in regular cycles. I grew up around the Klan, had relatives and neighbors who were members, and witnessed them conducting fund-raising roadblocks at rural intersections wearing sheets surreptitiously snatched from their wives’ clothes lines.
I remember the time my uncle left me in his truck as he got out to chat with the “Kluxers,” as he called them. Although their faces were hidden, he called each by name. This made them angry, but he laughed and pointed out that their feet were peeking out from under their robes – and he knew them by the scuffed shoes and boots.
They were folks he grew up around and gossiped with at the country store. They were not mysterious Knight Riders, only men playing a game based of hate and misunderstanding.
“Governor Wallace would be ashamed of you,” he lectured. He was always a Wallace man, worked in the campaigns. “You should be out doing good for the community instead of ganging up to scare people out of pocket change.”
“We know where you live!” shouted one of the hooded brethren.
“And I know who you are, where you live, work and go to church,” my uncle shot back with a grin. “Your wife is my cousin. Does she know you are marching around in her sheets?”
We drove through the crossroads, leaving behind a group of dispirited robed men with an empty bucket.
Forty years later, the bucket is still empty because the Klan’s public image is no better than it was when poor under-educated whites in rural communities donned ghostly costumes to promote a hateful, archaic message (that many of them, in the heart of hearts, were ashamed of in later years).
Now some good advice from a Klan critic: The Klan needs to trash the images of fiery crosses and peaked hoods. Those emotional touchpoints resonate with tremendous negativity in the 21st Century, even among those who might possess some empathy for Klan positions.
Instead the organization should find a way to be part of the discourse about social issues and national values. Offer opinions not grounded in racism but what is best for all Americans.
Wouldn’t the media – and world — be surprised and shocked if the Original Knight Riders, through sensible and logical argument, political persuasion and reasonable debate, came up with a solution for a pressing national issue that everyone could get behind?
And while you’re at it, can you tell your member who keeps littering my yard to take me off the delivery list? I do not subscribe.
ν Steve Oden is an award-winning columnist and former newspaper editor. He resides in Tennessee.