The well-dressed black woman sat in a pew at the Howard University chapel last Friday, hands folded in her lap, waiting for the speaker to begin. She is a Fairfax County education official and she wouldn't give her name, but she whispered a list of vague fears that brought her to the two day anti-Ku Klux Klan workshops.
"In the past I felt that racism was not to be brought up into polite company, but with this resurgence of (KKK) activity, people are much more willing to express the racism they buried. Now it's popular to hate again. And let me tell you, one of my girlfriends told me, 'We know Fairfax, and are arming ourselves and taking lessons, I mean rifle lessons.'
"These are middle class people," she said, smoothing a carefully groomed black mane. "I've had white staff people say to me, 'Be careful what you say, be careful what you do, there are many who'd like to see you fail.' You have to be concerned," she said, eyes widening.
The white, 18-year-old Georgetown University freshman, sporting John Lennon-type glasses and shoulder length brown hair, said he came because, "You've got to have a society where people trust each other and can work together, so you've got to fight a group that causes hate in black people, that causes distrust in blacks against whites. Maybe it's my Catholic upbringing, but I know right from wrong and they're wrong."
So from Georgetown and Fairfax, New York and North Carolina, from an estimated 23 states and with as many political philosophies, black and white gathered last weekend to organize a fight against what many call a rising tide of racial violence. The approximately 300 organizers, church representatives, labor leaders and curious individuals attended a two-day conference at Howard University, sponsored by the National Anti-Klan Network, and endorsed via proclamation from D.C. Mayor Marion Barry.
They sang songs from the civil rights movement, heard speeches from veteran organizers and traded business cards and battle tales. Their objective is to combine the remnants of the old movement with the seeds of a new one. They plan to orchestrate a massive movement this spring they hope will culminate in a declaration of a national "state of emergency."
"I think the Klan should be thought of as a very sophisticated organization of terrorism, and I think terrorism is antithetical to the functioning of a democracy," said Lawrence Guyot, an employe of Youth Pride, Inc. and a local coordinator. "I think people will get involved once they see the connection between the Klan and terrorism."
"This is just the tip of the iceberg of a larger violence which is already threatening our people," said the Rev. Lucius Walker, executive director and a founder of the Newwork. "We are concerned that the rise of racism be opposed initially, and not be allowed to implant. Our fight is against the Klan mentality."
According to Walker, a New York-based Baptist minister, the 18-month-old Network initially formed after shots were fired on leaders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference who were visiting Decatur, Ala., in 1978. The Network existed at first as a loosely based coalition of groups that shared information.
But increasing evidence of stepped-up Klan activity and the nation's political shift to the right encouraged the Network to tighten its organization and increase membership, which now includes groups as diverse as the National Office for Catholics Association and the Communist Workers' Party. Those efforts led to the first anti-Klan conference in Atlanta in December 1979.
More recent incidents of racial violence led to this weekend's conference in the university's chapel, and Walker's call for a declaration of a national "state of emergency" until Klan activity diminishes. Walker said the Network hopes the declaration will encourage the federal government to aid them in stemming Klan and Nazi violence, example of which were discussed throughout the weekend.
Some incidents cited by the Network include the shootings of four black women in Chattanooga, Tenn., in 1979; the gruesome sniper and stabbing deaths of blacks in Buffalo in the early months of 1980; cross burnings and inflammatory Klan marches in cities around the country, and the killing of five anti-Klan demonstrators in Greenboro, N.C., in 1979.
An October 1980 report of the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith charged the Klan with operating paramilitary training camps in seven states, and using the schools to recruit new Klan members. The report also cited a now widely quoted statistic that claims the Klan has more than doubled to 11,000 members in the last five years. But Walker said his group was less concerned with the numbers of Klan members than with the resurgence of support for its ideology.
"It isn't our position to do a head count of the KKK. No matter what their numbers, they are a secret, racist, terrroist organization, which threatens peaceful . . . relations in our communities," Walker said.
Walker's statement echoed the sentiment of many conference participants, most of whom lacked evidence to support their assertions of renewed Klan activity. But generalized feelings of fear, coupled with widespread distrust of the Reagan administration, were enough to convince many attendees that the time to act against racism had come once again.
"I would like to see the whole organization taken apart," said Howard Matthews, a Washington without any organizational affiliation who attended the meeting. "If the could take apart the Black Panthers, they can take apart the Klan," he said.
Garry Hutchinson, a recent graduate of Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., attended the conference sure of his fears but uncertain what he wanted to about them.
"I came because a cross was burned at my alma mater," he said, speaking of a widely publicized inclident last Novermber. "You don't really think of these things until they affect you personally. My fiancee is still there, so I'm very concerned."
Many speakers addressed these amorphous worries, simultaneously threatening and cajoling their audiences into action.
"It is time to call for a national emergency, because people are being killed, and people are being intimidated, and no one can go along with normal life when this is happening," said Anne Braden in her speech opening the conference Friday afternoon. Braden, a salt-and-pepper-haired Louisville organizer and a founder of the Network, stirred the audience to repeated applause with her homespun widsom and encouragement.
"We had racism on the defensive in the sixties. But we have a generation of young whites that is in danger of being poisoned in this country, we have a generation that may be lost," she said. "So it can't be business as usual.We can't forget the other issues but we've got to do this first. And maybe this can be the open sesame for a movement that can turn this country around."
Friday's speeches were sandwiched between a crowded press conference that drew the attention of the Soviet and Chinese news agencies, and an afternoon of workshops and panel discussions that continued on Saturday. Panel members, including labor organizers from the Postal and Machinists' unions and civil rights activists from the South, discussed projects researching the Klan's history and legislative protections against the Klan's activities. An ex-Klansman, C.P. Ellis from Alabama, described the Klan "mentality". Workshops the Klan "mentality". Workshops explained techniques for organizing in churches, unions and communities and for reseraching Klan activities.
Many participants who emerged from the workshops with lists of suggestions and plans for future meetings seemed satisfied that they had made more than symbolic strides toward planning the spring organizing effort.
One participant remained perplexed, however, even as the second day of workshops broke up. A young blond girl about 10 years old, she raised her hand, waved at the group leader and said, "This guy on television said that Martin Luther King said we should love our enemies. Couldn't we tell the Ku Klux Klan that?" she asked.
The leader hesitated for a moment, and said, "Yes, honey, I think that's what we all want."