A burning cross and men in white pointed hoods. Since its "rebirth" in 1915, the Ku Klux Klan's (KKK) violent legacy of hate, particularly against blacks, has been painfully seared into our nation's history. Formed in 1909, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) has long been pitted against the KKK in a historic battle on the racial divide.
So when the leaders from branches of the NAACP and the KKK held face-to-face talks in Casper, Wyo., the significance of this watershed moment was at times tempered by its sheer weirdness.
Jimmy Simmons, the president of the NAACP's Casper Branch, reached out to John Abarr, a "kleagle" or local head of the KKK, to discuss the proliferation of Klan pamphlets and a spate of violence against black men in the neighboring town of Gillette, Wyo. With a heavy security detail, the meeting was largely driven by questions directed at Abarr by members of the NAACP. Topics ranged from the events in Gillette to Abarr's personal motivations for being a Klan member.
The Klan leader agreed that the recent beatings of black men in Gillette were hate crimes. He made it clear that he does not condone such acts. Abarr also touted a more moderate Klan chapter, saying that the movement is fractured. Apparently, Abarr's own group underscores that the Klan is a neighborhood watch. They toss fliers onto people's driveways. If that's truly the case, then why does Abarr bother aligning himself with America's largest white supremacist group?
"I like it because you wear robes, and get out and light crosses, and have secret handshakes," he said. "I like being in the Klan I sort of like that people think I'm some sort of outlaw."
The "sort-of outlaw" maintained that people perpetrating racially charged violence are "hoodlums," and insisted on the image of a non-violent KKK.
"You're really confusing me, because I don't think you understand the seriousness of your group," said the NAACP's Mel Hamilton.
"I think what Mel is saying is that based on your history, based on the Klan's history, it's hard to shed the skin of your group not being violent, not being killers, murderers, terrorizers," Simmons said.
At the end of the meeting, when Abarr was offered membership, he went for it. "I wouldn't have a problem with joining the NAACP," he said. Then he added a $20 donation to the $30 membership fee upon filling out an application.
"We'll have to do this again sometime," Abarr said. "Or maybe not. I don't know. We'll have to keep in contact for sure, though."