After hearing about potential hate crimes near Gillette, Wyoming, Jimmy Simmons, president of the NAACP branch in Casper, Wyoming, asked John Abarr, a Ku Klux Klan organizer from Great Falls, Montana, if he'd be interested in meeting to discuss them. Abarr obliged and, by all accounts, their Aug. 31 meeting seems to have been just as awkward as one would expect. Some highlights from Casper Star-Tribune’s coverage:
- At one point, when explaining why he believes races should be kept separate, Abarr said, "because we want white babies."
- Abarr, on what he enjoys about KKK membership: “I like it because you wear robes, and get out and light crosses, and have secret handshakes.”
Regardless, there are lessons to be learned from what is believed to be the first ever peaceful meeting between the KKK and the NAACP.
You have to start somewhere.
When Rosemary Lytle, president of the NAACP Colorado Montana Wyoming State Conference, learned of the meeting, she was adamant that she hadn't given it the "green light." Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center told The Associated Press that the meeting was "outrageous and counterproductive," saying that it gave legitimacy to the KKK.
On the other side, KKK members took to white nationalist forums such as Stormfront denouncing the meeting. Abarr even told the Casper Star-Tribune that he'd be called names and might not even have a group left when he returns to Montana.
But how would no meeting at all have been any better? It's unusual when two completely opposing sides are willing to sit down and listen to each other, and especially these two groups. Even if it was heavy on awkward moments and light on compromise, Abarr actually signed up for the NAACP at the end of the meeting, paying the $30 membership fee, donating $20 more, and citing an interest in learning about the group's views.
That doesn't, by any means, mean everything is hunky-dory. Abarr, of course, didn't extend a KKK invitation to the NAACP members ("You have to be white to join the Klan," he told The Associated Press). And, just one look at his Twitter account, @TheHoodedone33, makes it very clear he's not likely to invite blacks over for dinner any time soon.
Still, maybe the meeting's a tiny step toward more of the same in the future. And maybe more interaction in the future could lead to more understanding and less hatred. In a recent interview with WTVR in Richmond, Va., KKK leader Bradley Jenkins said, “I will sit down with the NAACP or anyone and discuss. I’m not trying to push my issues on anyone.”
The KKK needs more than just a rebranding/refocusing to prove it's not a hate group.
According to the Casper Star-Tribune article, written by Jeremy Fugleberg, Abarr only believed the KKK committed violent acts during the Reconstruction Era between the mid-1860s and mid-1870s. When asked about Klan lynchings that occurred in the '20s and '40s, he said, “I had relatives in the Klan in the ’20s and they didn’t lynch anybody.”
And regardless, he said, that's not what the KKK is today. Repeating the recent sentiments of many Klansmen, he suggested the KKK believes in treating everyone equally. In May 2011, the KKK showed up at Arlington National Cemetery and denounced the Westboro Baptist Church, which was protesting there. In 2012, while the group was trying to adopt a highway in Georgia, leaders told CNN that the KKK isn't a hate group, it's just a fraternal organization that does good works.
"In March," Fugleberg wrote, "Jenkins worked to stop a massive KKK rally in Memphis, decried hate, and called those participating in the rally fake Klan groups."
It seems that everyone has an opinion on whether the group has successfully refocused its mission, or if it will ever be able to.
The bigger questions are, can one aspire to have an entirely white nation without persecuting other races in some way? Even if no longer violent, can the KKK escape its horrid past? And, are leaders such as Abarr truly representative of the larger KKK membership? After all, Abarr is worried about having a group left when he returns to Montana.
There is still a huge misunderstanding of what “race” really is.
In an interview with NPR, Fugleberg detailed one part of the meeting where Abarr insisted that he wouldn't let anyone who is even a tiny part black join the Klan. At one point, according to Fugleberg, Abarr said, "Oh, I would know. I would know if somebody was black."
The NAACP members then laughed, and rightfully so.
It is widely acknowledged that the human race came out of Africa — the earliest fossils of recognizably modern Homo sapiens were found in Ethiopia almost 200,000 years ago. As a result, it's almost inevitable that all humans, including Abarr, have at least a drop of "black" in them, regardless of superficial changes that have occurred over thousands of years.
But that's an abstract concept, and some don't buy into evolutionism. Theories aside, there are cases such as that of MSNBC host Karen Finney. Her father is black, but very few would guess that just by looking at her.
Obviously, the concept of race — even if not scientifically backed — has had, and continues to have, huge implications. But that Abarr appears to believe he can judge "blackness" and "whiteness" simply by looking at or being around someone is, quite frankly, absurd.