It is with a bitter taste and a saddened heart that I know quite vividly members of the NAACP and the KKK have met before. That is why it is important for us to know that last Saturday night, in a Wyoming hotel room, the head of the Casper branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People met with an organizer/recruiter of the United Klans of America … just to talk. It just may be the very civil meeting between the two was the first in history.
Jimmy Simmons, the NAACP leader, is very concerned that black men in his Wyoming town are being attacked when they are seen accompanied by white women. Not long after several of these blatant hate-crimes occurred, KKK flyers and materials, stuffed in plastic baggies weighted with a rock inside so the missive can be easily thrown from a car and land in a driveway, started showing up in the state’s second-largest city.
At first Jimmy thought to stage a NAACP rally but then he came up with a far-better idea. “If you want to talk about hate, get a hater,” he told the Star-Tribune. “Let him tell you something about hate.”
Simmons had to work hard to get permission from NAACP headquarters – they were none too thrilled over the idea – and then he contacted the Klu Klux Klan and began weeks of careful negotiations over boundaries of what would be discussed, promising that heavy security would be present, and assurances that, well … everybody already agreed on one thing – everybody would behave.
The Imperial Wizard of the United Klans of America – Bradley Jenkins -- had to overrule the Imperial Council for the meeting to take place and – get this – Jenkins went as far as to say he’d love to meet with NAACP leaders in his state, which just so happens to be Alabama. It’s a fabulous idea, long overdue in a nation where – in the year 2013 -- we still need healing.
Last Saturday afternoon the four NAACP members who arrived first didn’t think anybody from the KKK would show up. Suddenly a security officer said, “Showtime!” and John Abarr, dressed in a dark suit instead of white robes and his hood, walked through a metal detector, was whisked with a hand wand, and stuck out his hand, “Hello, Jimmy.”
The NAACP delegation was equally cordial, Keisha Simmons smiling as she poured John a cup of water. Then the Klansman leaned forward in his chair. Abarr said the Klan had nothing to do with the attacks, admitting the possibility that some members could still act on their own. He called the attacks “hate crimes” and urged police action and prosecution.
Abarr told the group he is a member of several anti-racism groups, such as the American Civil Liberties Union and the Southern Poverty Law Center. He said there is no evidence the modern-day Klan is violent at all, although everybody in the room knows there is a picture of a gun target on the website that has an Obama campaign sign as its bullseye.
He said he liked being a member “because you wear robes, and get out and light crosses, and have secret handshakes. I like being in the Klan – I sort of like it that people think I’m some sort of outlaw,” Abarr explained to his rapt listeners.
He told the group that there is a desire (by some in the Klan) to take states in the Northwest (like Wyoming, Montana, Washington, Oregon) and, as a white territory, secede from the United States. Blacks could stay there but no more would be allowed in. Then states like Georgia, which is primarily black, and other Southern states could become a black territory of sorts.
Asked how that would happen, Abarr answered, “Legally, hopefully.”
Abarr tried hard to sell segregation, saying white people should have white police and black neighborhoods should have black police. He said there shouldn’t be interracial marriages “because we want white babies.”
About then Mel Hamilton, a NAACP representative, asked Abarr, “Tell us what you want, and you maintain the secrecy and injustice. But you are here, we’re trying to do something good, and you are half-stepping on us. You are not serious about this, I don’t think,” the Star-Tribune reported.
Abarr responded by saying he holds the rank of Kleagle and organizes young men in Great Falls, Montana. He’s seen a rush of recruits since Obama got elected but said he calms radicals down after they join. He also said – among other things – that homosexuality is largely genetic but still a sin, that gay marriage and polygamy are OK because “marriage isn’t the government’s business” and that the KKK tries to recruit police with little success.
One other thing John Abarr told the NAACP: “People (in the Klan) are going to call me names for coming down here. You know, I (may get excommunicated by the Klan and) not even have a group when I get back.”
At the end of the meeting Hamilton wouldn’t shake Abarr’s hand. “I’d love to shake your hand tonight and truly believe that you have good will towards all people,” he told Abarr, “and I can’t seem to come to that point.”
Simmons, on the other hand, politely asked Abarr if he would like to join the NAACP. “I wouldn’t have a problem with that,” the Klansman countered, filling out an application and paying the $30 fee with a $50 bill, donating the rest to the Casper branch. Simmons accepted Abarr’s application.
“We’ll have to do this again,” Abarr said as he stood and then paused, “ … or maybe not. I don’t know. We’ll have to keep in contact for sure, though.”
The huge thing – obviously -- is that they sat at the same table and talked. Like Abarr told the group, “It is obvious we don’t agree on everything,” but at least both sides talked. And everybody listened -- very intently.