Defending the New Klan
Itis perhaps a sign of millennium madness that the century will end with the bizzare phenomena of an African American lawyer defending in court the right of a member of the Ku Klux Klan - whose name ironically is Black - to burn crosses. However, it seems that some sense of sanity prevailed in that both the lawyer and his client lost.
This unnatural event occured in the recent trial of Barry Elton Black, who in August 1998, in his role as the Imperial Wizard of the International Keystone Knights of the KKK, held a rally and burned a cross in Carroll County Virginia. The inferno, but not the rally, violated a 1930s state law that specifically prohibits cross burning by the Ku Klux Klan. The International Keystone Knights, one of about 50 Klan groups nationally, is thought to have less than 200 members.
Arguing that Black had a constitutional right to carry out this act was his lawyer David P. Baugh, who is African American and a member of the Virginia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. Among the many irrational and naive statements made by Baugh justifying his defense of Black was his view, "If I can's protect him, I can't protect anyone else." Baugh apparently believes that Black and the Klan have a right to verbally and physically terrorize others which is exactly the purpose of these rituals. It is extremely doubtful that Black used an African American lawyer for anything other than tactical purposes, or that his views on race relations were progressively altered.
Nobody was buying Baugh's argument. Significantly, an all-white jury took on 25 minutes to return a verdict of guilty. In addition, testimony against the Klansman came from three whites - the sheriff who witnessed the event and arrested Black, his deputy, and Rebecca Sechrist, a white woman whose lives in a trailer adjacent to the property where the cross was burned. Sechrist breaks the stereotype of poor whites who are routinely portrayed as unrepentant racists waiting for Pat Buchanan, David Duke, or the local militia to recruit them into racism's army. While these "ordinary" citizens did the right thang and said no to intolerance and discrimination, the same can not be said for the so-called liberals around this affair.
An important political battle among liberals is going on here. On the surface, it appears to be a conflict between two principles. On the one hand, liberal groups such as ACLU, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and others, argue that freedom of speech and of expression should not be breached under any circumstances. On the other hand, there is also the principle of anti-racism, racial equality, and protection of human rights, which these groups also strongly support.
In fact, there is no conflict. What the KKK is all about, whether in white hoods or blue suits, is not freedom of expression or freedom of speech. In the post-Civil Rights Era, racist groups such as the Klan no longer have the bold-face protection of local sheriffs who use to let them violate the Constitution without nary a whisper of opposition. Now, these groups attempt to employ constitutional protections as they continue to advocate and, in many instances, seek the elimination of people of color, gays and lesbians, Jews, trade unionists, and others who fall outside of their narrow notions of worthiness.
While the Klan remains numerically small, estimated to be less than 5,000 nationwide, what they represent should not be casually dismissed, nor have they surrendered the agenda of violence and coercion that has marked Klan history from the mid-1860s to the present. Racist violence continues to raise it vicious head. Only two years ago, in the same county where the Klan rally occured, a black man was burned alive and then beheaded by a white laborer. To view the Klan and other organized racists as only fringe politics misses the role they play in perpetuating an atmosphere of intolerance where old stereotypes can fester and grow.
Not only has the Klan continued to represent the most repugnant racist views here in the United States, but has expanded its international reach. Various Klan leaders, such as David Duke and Bill Wilkerson, have long had ties to racists in Europe. In France, the neo-fascist National Front, led by Jean Marie Le Pen, has invited Klan members to meetings and conferences for a number of years. In England, the modern Klan has worked with fascists and racists organizations such as the British National Front and the National Socialist Movement, since at least the early 1960s. In the 1990s, U.S.-based Klan leaders have facilitated the creation of a small Klan chapters in England, Wales, and Scotland. According to the anti-fascist magazine, Searchlight, their activities have mainly been confined to defacing synagogues, some fist fights, and passing out racist literature. Though marginalized in the United States and elsewhere, the Klan has not disappeared and neither should the opposition to its purposes and goals.
So the decision by 12 white jurors in a small town in Virginia may be only a small footnote in the contemporary political passions of the present, but it signifies an important statement against racism. The Virginia case once again underscores the view that when faced with a radical option liberals duck and run for cover.
Clarence Lusane, Ph.D. "Chance Favors the Prepared" American University School of International Service (202) 885-1674