When I was about four y/o, I was riding in a car with my grandparents and great-grandmother headed to my great-grandfather’s cabin on Fowl River (where our permanent home now stands). It was about 1957. My grandfather’s father (Big Daddy) lived on a piece of property on a fresh-water river with no air conditioning, no indoor bathroom (an honest-to-God outhouse) and an old-fashioned ice box that was actually cooled with a block of ice each day. He cooked on a kerosene stove. There was no electricity in the cabin at the time. But I loved to go there because I could swim and play in the river with my grandfather’s dog, Betty.
On this particular trip, we were in my grandfather’s un-air-conditioned Ford with the windows down and Mother Nature providing what little air conditioning was available in the 90-degree heat of summer. As we approached an intersection where we turned off to go to the river, I saw some men in white robes with white hoods standing in front of each lane of cars in every direction.
Well, I may have been only four, but I knew it wasn’t Halloween, so they weren’t pretending they were Casper the Friendly Ghost. Before I opened my mouth to ask the flood of questions that my grandmother knew would come, she pulled me close to her and “shshed” me. I could immediately tell she was scared, as was my grandfather and great-grandmother. When we got up to tthe front of the intersection, two men in white robes with their faces covered by hoods stood in front of the car at “attention” with rifles in their arms. Another of the men in one of the white robes came up to the car and pushed a bucket at my grandfather saying, “Good morning, Louis.” My grandfather reached in his pocket and pulled out some money and put it in the bucket. The men moved aside and let us through the intersection.
Well, as you can well imagine, the minute we got through the intersection, all the adults breathed a sigh of relief, and I started in with a barage of questions. My grandmother tried to explain that these were bad men. I wanted to know why Pappaw gave them money, then. My grandmother explained that they had to or the bad men would beat Pappaw up and might even hurt us. Well, it didn’t make any sense to me at all. I was only four.
Later, when I was a teenager and long after my great-grandfather had passed on, my grandfather and I were talking about the event. I asked him, “Why did you give them money? Why didn’t you just report them to the sheriff?” My Pappaw smiled sadly and looked me in the eye and said, “Honey, that WAS the sheriff with the bucket in his hand.”
He then went on to explain how the KKK used fear and intimidattion to operate under the cloak of secrecy. He was worried about his elderly father at the time. With no running water, no telephone and very few permanent residents on the river, if Pappaw has pissed the KKK off, they might have taken it out on Big Daddy. He said that the way it worked was, if you pissed the Klan off, they would burn a cross in your yard in the middle of the night as a warning. You would wake up to the racket and see the burning cross in your yard with a bunch of trucks lined up, their bright lights on, just to let you know you had better “straighten up.” If you really pissed them off or didn’t take the first warning, the would set your house of fire, he called it “burning you out.” Since Big Daddy had no running water, just a hand pump, and there was no fire department to save his house, if they had set the house on fire, it would have burned to the ground and Big Daddy would have been unable to do anything about it. Then, he said, if that didn’t straighten you up, they would set your house on fire, surround it, and shoot at you when you tried to escape. I looked at him in horror. It was hard for me to belief a sheriff would do that, and, for that matter, COULD do that and get away with it.
Later, my father, who was an educator and administrator, was involved in a disagreement with the School Board (his employer) about the Bertie Mae Davis case. Ms. Davis had sued the public school system regarding segregation. My father recommended to the board that they could either elect to meet the demands of the judge and have some control over how they integrated the school system, or they could waste money by fighting the court case, which they would eventually lose, then be forced into busing or other measures to achieve integration. The board stubbornly refused to listen to my dad, who was absolutely right. History proved him so. At that time my family lived in a nice middle-class suburb in Mobile. That night, we were awakened by a gun shot that went through our living room window. When we woke up and my dad looked outside, there was a burning cross in our front yard.
Sure, we called the police, but, of course, the culprits were never found or arrested.
That is my experience with the KKK. The moral of this story is that our homegrown terrorists operated in secrecy and were able to get away with it because they instilled fear in everyone — not just the black community.
I will leave you with a repost of one final thought:
This is probably the most quoted statement attributed to Edmund Burke, but bears a striking resemblance to the narrated theme of Sergei Bondarchuk’s Soviet film version of Tolstoy’s book “War and Peace”, in which the narrator declares:
“All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.”
And in the words of MLK:
“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends. ”
“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter. ”
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. “