The Klan recruiting in the Panhandle; Klan cop in Florida; a Klansman says ‘I’m sorry.’ (Oh… and how they shot us up in the Sixties!)
As if things weren’t bad enough, The Ku Klux Klan is back in the news. Jobsanger reports that they’re recruiting in the Texas Panhandle and Jay Jurie passes along a report from the Orlando Sentinel about a Klan cop being unearthed and axed from the force in Orlando.
All this brings back memories of our, shall we say, exciting adventures with the Ku Klux Klan back in the Sixties in Houston. The Klan bombed our cars and shot up our offices — and my mother’s art gallery! But first the news.
The Amarillo branch of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan is recruiting in Tampa, Texas. According to Jobsanger, “they are stuffing their leaflets into a plastic bag with a few stones and throwing it out on lawns in the dead of night.”
These days the Klan is trying to pass itself off as a kinder gentler version. The leader of the national group says they are the “traditional” Klan. He says they don’t accept skinheads or fascists. He would like people to believe they are just another “charitable fraternal” group.
And, in the Orlando area:
James Elkins, 28, resigned on January 20 after the [Fruitland Park, Florida] police department launched an internal investigation after receiving information that Elkins was distributing fliers promoting the KKK in Sumter County…
The Lake County Sheriff Office also received photos earlier this week that allegedly show Elkins dressed in KKK gowns and hoods…
In a different vein, there’s this terrific story: a former Klansman who participated in the beating of then civil rights leader John Lewis has sought forgiveness for his actions of 48 years ago. Elwin Wilson traveled to Washington, D.C., to meet with Lewis, now a U.S. Congressman from Georgia, and the two men embraced and sent bygones scurrying for cover.
According to the Boston Herald,
Elwin Wilson was an unabashed racist, the sort who once hung a black doll from a noose outside his home. … [He and Lewis] faced each other at a South Carolina bus station during a protest in 1961. Wilson joined a white gang that jeered Lewis, attacked him and left him bloodied on the ground.
Wilson said he tried to block the memory but couldn’t. “I just told him I was sorry,”
Lewis said Wilson is the first person involved in the dozens of attacks against him during the civil rights era to step forward and apologize. When they met Tuesday, Lewis offered forgiveness without hesitation.
“I was very moved,” said Lewis. “He was very, very sincere, and I think it takes a lot of raw courage to be willing to come forward the way he did. … I think it will lead to a great deal of healing.”
In Houston in the 60s, the Klan decided we were safer to mess with than our brothers and sisters of color
Back in the late 60s-early 70s I was in Houston where I was active in SDS and was an editor and publisher of Space City! – an underground newspaper that did some muck raking and rabble-rousing in the region and was a significant nuisance to the powers-that-were. The Klan was experiencing something of a revival at the time and the role of that organization in the Houston police force then is a thing of legend.
It wasn’t until Fred Hofheinz became mayor that the Klan infestation within the Houston constabulary was seriously addressed.
In a remarkable article published by Edit International about secret interviews he had with members of the Houston area Klan in 1972, Ron Laytner wrote about being blindfolded and taken away by an unseen man.
“a powerful flashlight was turned on me and I began to see a City of Houston police officer removing my blindfold. …across his face and over his head he wore the mask and hood of the Ku Klux Klan, the secret terror organization dating back to the American Civil War. …
His face was hidden, the number of his police badge was covered with masking tape and so were the identifying numbers on his Houston police car.
Laytner described one Klansman he met with:
In one hand he held a big black Bible. In the other he held a hair trigger semi-automatic rifle. On his head he wore a Western hat with a Confederate flag.
He spoke of God and love, but on the wall behind him was a yellow Klan bumper sticker of hate. It listed as “signs of the Anti-Christ” peace movements, the United Nations, Jews and communism.
A giant American flag was pinned on the wall in a nearby room next to the rest rooms and beside an assortment of Confederate flags was a badge sticker on a wall saying “Friend of Police.”
A collection of loaded rifles and shotguns stood in various corners around the room.
But, despite the scary posturing shown Ron Laytner, the Klan of the Sixties and seventies was, at least in my experience, a shadow of the terror-inspiring Klan of regularly scheduled lynchings and church burnings. There were still incidents of serious and brutal violence in the deep south, but there was also a lot of bravado. In Houston, they did their really dirty work – like throwing Hispanics and blacks into Buffalo Bayou with virtual impunity – while wearing the blue uniforms of the Houston police.
Laytner points out that
A few years later an FBI task force gave lie detector tests to every policeman in Texas resulting in the firing and resignations of more than 200 Klan member cops and high police officials.
The Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, part of the United Klans of America, were led by a rather hefty Grand Dragon name of Frank Converse. They were aiming much of their trademark venom at white radicals, apparently figuring we were less likely to fight back then our freshly militant and notably better armed brothers and sisters of color.
(Converse told Space City!’s Gary Thiher it was actually the Jews they were worried about.)
The battle between right and left in Houston has been marked by bombings, shootings, beatings and burnings, many of them attributed to the Klan.
The hearty denizens of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan threw a concussion grenade into the Space City! office, sent the occasional bullet through our windows and firebombed a couple of our cars– and they shot up my mother’s art gallery. (Not only did Dreyer Galleries exhibit the work of black artists, but Margaret Webb Dreyer – an acclaimed painter and teacher now listed in “The Great Women of Texas” – was also a pacifist to the core who spoke out against the War in Vietnam.)
My father — a reporter for the Houston Chronicle – joined by my peacenik mom, and heavily hirsute me, responded by storming downtown to rail at – and be ignored by – the Houston City Council.
The Houston Klan twice bombed the transmitter of Pacifica radio station KPFT-FM, the first time before the station had even hit the airwaves. So KPFT, glued to the concept of freedom of speech, responded by offering Grand Dragon Converse a weekly show! He eagerly accepted but, as news director Mitch Green remembered, in effect, “They did it for a couple of weeks but realized that nobody was listening to them, so they got pissed and went out and bombed us again.”
Space City!, in its Nov. 14, 1970 issue, reported that two well-known Klansmen — Louis Beam and Jim Hutto — were picked up driving with their lights off near a local radio station after a bomb threat had been called in. They were equipped in paramilitary garb, “with several rifles, a bottle of gasoline and a walkie-talkie.” They had been spotted near the Space City! office earlier in the evening. They were released without charges.
Louis Beam — who was implicated in the KPFT bombing and the bombing of a Socialist Workers Party headquarters in Houston — would himself become a Grand Dragon, spend some time on the FBI’s most wanted list, be acquitted of sedition and become a leader of the Aryan Nation and the Christian Identity movement.
Frank Converse admitted that the Klan had members working undercover in the police and city government. And, “for over two years we kept Klansmen working in the SDS,” he said, but added that they had pulled them out for fear their cover would be blown. Jim Hutto had in fact successfully infiltrated Houston SDS for a bit, selling himself as a working class hero.
The Klan attempted to infiltrate the Space City! staff but scrawny and clueless “Mike Love” didn’t fool anyone for long. In what — through the coolness of retrospection — seems genuinely knuckleheaded, a couple of staffers actually went to a cross-burning and photographed Love in full Klan regalia. Space City! ran the photos in the next issue. The next time he came to the office to volunteer, Dennis Fitzgerald and Cam Duncan chased him down, tackled him cleanly, and held him in a headlock. A picture of this textbook takedown would also grace the pages of Space City!
One night Sherwood Bishop, who lived at the time in the Space City! office — a big old house on Wichita Street in a transitional Houston neighborhood — awoke to the sound of suspicious stirrings. He saw a car creeping by out front, while Houston cop cars hovered at each corner. Suddenly a head and a crossbow poked out from the car’s window and an arrow came screaming to a halt, lodged firmly in our front door.
On it was a sticker that proclaimed, “The Knights of the Ku Klux Klan is [sic, to be sure] watching you.”
No one from the Houston Klan has come forward to confess their remorse.
[Long-time alternative journalist Thorne Dreyer edits The Rag Blog, hosts Rag Radio, and is a director of the New Journalism Project. Dreyer was a founding editor of The Rag in Austin in 1966. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org]