Prince George's County leaders speaking at an NAACP-sponsored public forum on the Ku Klux Klan last week urged their listeners to fight the menace of "the Klan mentality" -- racism -- as vigorously as they oppose the Klan's symbolic cross-burnings.
Except for legislation now being considered by the Maryland General Assembly to increase the penalties for crossburnings, the speakers at the forum, both black and white, suggested few strategies that would challenge Klan activities directly.
"When I look at the Klan and the individual who represents the Klan, I don't think of a person who is coward enough to wrap himself in a white sheet to frighten blacks," said the Rev. Louis Shockley, pastor of the Ridgely Zion Methodist Church in Largo, the site of a cross-burning last month.
"I think of insensitive county government officials -- those who want to keep blacks off the job -- and people who wear a badge and don't protect communities as they should," he said.
A Riverdale man, Marvin Alan Costella, 31, has been arrested in connection with the Largo cross-burning, and has been charged with burning a religious symbol.
Like other speakers at least week's conference, Shockley stressed the importance of increased black participation in the political process, a campaign to improve the school system, support of legislation that would benefit blacks (such as national health insurance) and an effort to improve relations between police and the black community.
NAACP President Josie Bass called this the black community's "action plan" against the "Klan mentality."
"The Ku Klux Klan may suffer from tunnel vision, but the NAACP does not. We need an action plan that addresses the whole range of issues affecting the black community," she said.
The speakers did, however, emphasize the importance of the anti-intimidation legislation now before the Maryland legislature and the need for a system of alerting police to Klan activity.
John Sisson, president of the Prince George's Educators Association, told the group his organization has passed a resolution condemning the Klan and encouraging teachers to report any Klan activities in the schools.
"Some may say that teachers should tend to the three Rs and keep their mouths shut, but we believe that everyone has a role to play exposing Klan activities," said Sisson. "No one is of any use to himself or others if he is involved in the business of spreading fear."
Sisson said the FBI has reported that Klan membership grew 25 percent nationwide last year, and that the number of Klan-related incidents increased from 8 in 1978 to 44 in 1979.
"The Klan remains a sore that will not heal," he added."While the tactics may be slightly different, the objectives are the same. And I think that it is largely a result of our apathy and complacency. It is not enough to simply agree something needs to be done; you have to do something."
The NAACP leaders stressed the importance of the pending Maryland legislation, which would classify cross-burnings as felonies rather than misdemeanors. The penalty for cross-burnings would also increase, with fines going from $500 to $2,000 and sentences going from 90 days to one year.
"We're quite sincere when we say that we intend to put the Klan on notice that its days are over," said Bass.
According to Yvonne Armstrong, chairman of the NAACP Anti-Klan Activities Committee, the organization will provide transportation to the hearings on the bill, which are scheduled for today.
"We want to put some pressure on the legislators and show them that there are a lot of people who are interested in this bill," said Armstrong.
As part of their action plan, several NAACP and local black elected officials argued that the county should try to increase the number of black voters. Bass said the NAACP has already launched a voter-registration campaign and that there probably would be at least three black candidates for the positions on the Prince George's County school board.
"We've got to put the elected officials on notice that we put them where they are and we can bring them back to where they were before they won their offices," said Bass.
County Council member Floyd Wilson, who spoke on police-community relations, urged the group to support legislation now being considered by the council. It would create four appointive, policy-level positions on the police force, thereby making it possible for blacks to advance to influential police positions.
At present, advancement is determined by seniority, and according to Wilson, few blacks on the force have high seniority because of past discrimination in hiring.
"In the future we're just going to have to get some blacks at the policymaking level," said Wilson.
Wilson urged the group to focus not only on Klan cross-burnings, but to take a broad approach to the problem.
"The Klan comes in many disguises," said Wilson. "It may come in a white sheet and it may come in a Botany 500 suit, but whatever forms it takes, we have to deal with it."