In many ways this community of 15,280 residents in the rolling, pine-studded hills of northeast Georgia is a typical Southern town.
The town square is dominated by a weathered bronze statue of a Confederate soldier with an inscription on the pedestal that reads: “Dedicated to Southern Convictions, Consecrated to Southern Valor.”
The local country club, a rambling structure with plate-glass windows overlooking scenic Lake Lanier, has yet to admit a black member. And despite the bustling pace of economic growth in recent years, Gainesville retains much of its rural Dixie flavor.
An Untraditional Response
But two weeks ago, when a fearsome band of robed and hooded Ku Klux Klanners marched into town and staged a demonstration at a predominantly black public housing project, Gainesville responded in an untraditional Southern way.
Law enforcement agencies obtained a temporary restraining order from a county court judge banning the “White Knights” from demonstrating anywhere in the city. When three robed klan members--one of them a woman--showed up two days later near the home of a black family in a white neighborhood, Gainesville police promptly arrested them on charges of contempt of court.
Then, in a more decisive step, the town’s leading white civic organizations and churches joined together and publicly issued a resolution condemning the klan’s philosophy of “racism, bigotry and hatred” and calling for the klan to “cease its activities in this community now and in the future.”
“We wanted to send a very clear message to the klan,” said Roger Bower, president of the Gainesville Chamber of Commerce, one of the 16 organizations and churches signing the resolution. “This is not a divided community between blacks and whites, and there is no fertile ground here for the klan’s poisonous seeds to grow.”
Action Not Isolated
What Gainesville did is no isolated phenomenon. Although pockets of klan support remain, a growing number of communities across much of the South are taking concerted action from the top down to counter the hooded order, refusing any longer to turn a blind eye toward the klan’s hatemongering and violence-prone activities.
In the mid-1970s, a renewed growth of klan and other white supremacist organizations got under way nationwide. But the resurgence of the klan itself peaked earlier in this decade, with membership falling from a high of between 10,000 to 12,000 in 1981 to about 6,000 or 7,000 at present, according to estimates by the Klanwatch Project of the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala.
Since then, however, what anti-klan activists describe as an alarming “Nazification” is sweeping the groups as their leaders have abandoned the traditional goals of restoring Jim Crow segregation of the races and are instead advocating the initiation of a race war with the eventual goal of establishing a “white Christian republic.”
Last January, for instance, the head of a group based in North Carolina known as the White Patriots Party, a klan offshoot, told a rally of his followers: “Our forefathers shed some (blood) to make our country, and we’re going to have to shed some to keep it--and we will.”
Still Pose a Threat
Although their numbers are small and on the wane, the klan and its fellow racist groups still pose a threat--they have the potential to polarize and terrorize communities far beyond what might be expected judging from size alone.
But as Gainesville’s example illustrates, communities increasingly are taking unprecedented actions to cut short efforts by hate groups to stir up trouble, employing a variety of tactics, from legal maneuvering and political pressure to anti-racism instruction in schools and “community harmony” rallies.
“We’re encouraged by this trend,” said Eva Sears, a spokeswoman for the Atlanta-based Center for Democratic Renewal, an anti-klan organization that is preparing a handbook of model community responses entitled “When the Klan Comes to Town.”
“Communities can’t bury their heads and hope the problem will go away,” she said. “You can turn the klan away, but you have to have unity and community spirit.”
--In Commerce, Ga., about 30 miles east of Gainesville, the City Council canceled the annual Christmas parade last year rather than let the klan enter a float. The holiday parade was replaced by the town’s first ecumenical, interracial church service. “It’s unfortunate that it took something like this to draw the community together, but tonight was the true meaning of Christmas,” City Councilman David Sanders said afterward.
--In Iredell County, N.C., scene of a spree of klan cross burnings and violence, community leaders last year wrote a “Resolution of Conscience and Concern” opposing klan activity that was adopted by local governments and county churches. The community leaders also began pressing statewide organizations to take a stand against the klan. Anti-klan activists now cite Iredell County as a model on how to fight racial terrorism.
--In Nashville, where there were six klan chapters a few years ago, there is no longer a single active KKK unit. In the late 1970s, the Tennessean newspaper laid the groundwork for a citywide anti-klan effort with an expose of the organization. The Nashville Panel, a local civic organization, held public forums and launched a major educational campaign for schools, churches and community groups. City officials began speaking openly against the klan, leading chapters to be disbanded.
--In Cedartown, Ga., a multiracial coalition that included the town’s ministerial association and the local NAACP chapter launched a “Campaign for Oneness” in the face of klan-led demonstrations protesting the hiring of Mexican workers at a local frozen food processing plant. The campaign, which included circulation of an anti-klan petition signed by a sizable percentage of the community, eventually led to a drop in klan membership to 35 from around 200 and a dramatic easing of racial tensions.
But not all efforts meet with such success. In Hopkinsville, Ky., city officials and community leaders managed to rebuff the klan in 1978 when it planned to hold what it billed as a “national conference” there.
Klan Remains Active
When the day of the conference arrived, the KKK met privately in the city and never appeared in costume. Only 30 members, most of them apparently from outside the locality, attended a wreath-laying ceremony at a nearby Jefferson Davis memorial.
But the klan returned a few years later--this time with more of the members evidently from within the Hopkinsville area--and remains active today.
Getting the white Establishment even to join in acting against the klan also poses difficulties.
In Madison County, Ga., just north of Athens, blacks managed to win a federal District Court order last week prohibiting the klan from picketing near two county schools after black parents complained the klan was interfering with their children’s education.
‘Couldn’t Stop Crying’
“The klan upset me so bad that I couldn’t stop crying for 15 minutes in my homeroom,” said Rena Goss, 14, an eighth-grade student at North Madison Middle School. “I’ve heard so many things about the klan killing blacks and burning crosses in their yards.”
The klan demonstrations at the schools began after unfounded reports of a sexual encounter between a black boy and a white girl in the high school gymnasium.
The court order restricting the klan’s picketing came as part of a lawsuit filed on behalf of 18 black parents who contend the klan activity has disrupted their children’s education and seek damages totaling $4.9 million.
But so far, whites have ignored appeals by blacks to speak out against the klan. Not even the county education board has seen fit to publicly condemn the klan demonstrations.
“Unfortunately, many otherwise well-meaning whites don’t feel threatened by the klan and don’t stop to think why black citizens are,” said Bill Stanton, director of the Klanwatch Project in Montgomery. “But if nobody in the white community expresses any public opposition, black people have a right to question whether that means there’s acceptance of the klan.
Wary of White Silence
“In the South, the black community has to look back only to the bloody ‘50s and the ‘60s when klan activity was accepted. So to blacks, the silence of the ‘80s has the ring of the silence of the ‘50s and ‘60s.”
By comparison, the white community in Gainesville needed little prompting before it acted to denounce the klan.
For one thing, white businessmen quickly perceived that news- media attention Gainesville was getting from the klan demonstrations might impair their efforts to lure new industry to the town.
But more important, community leaders say, although Gainesville may be typically Southern, it also has a progressive spirit. The mayor, for instance, is black. And it was the first community in Georgia to join with its respective county to declare Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday a public holiday.
“We don’t turn our back on our heritage,” said the Chamber of Commerce’s Bower. “But Gainesville has moved into the 20th Century and we don’t maintain the prejudices of the past.”