It was Saturday night, an hour after sundown. The field was filled with trash, chiggers and hate. The speeches were over, but the rhetoric still rippled through the crowd. As our reporter watched from the shadows, a cross perhaps 50 feet tall was torched by about 150 white-robed figures. It was an awesome sight blazing against the night sky.
Then a rusty yellow school bus, packed with kerosene -- soaked straw, was set afire by half a dozen school children as proud parents shouted their approval. Within minutes, the bus was a roaring inferno, illuminating some 500 faces, many cheering and yelling at the fiery theater of protest against school busings.
As the cheers died down and fire, raged on, a voice rang out. "Okay, all you little nigger kids can come out of the bus now," and the roar of the flames and crackling of heat-splintered glass was drowned out by a new sound -- gales of laughter and shouts of "let 'em burn!"
Another Ku Klux Klan rally - - this one in the strife-torn northern Alabama town of Decatur -- drew to a vivid close. Similar ugly gatherings have become all too common from New York to California as the Klan enjoys its biggest resurgence in more than a decade.
This column has kept a watch on the Klan since my predecessor Drew Pearson accepted a dare from Klan leaders to broadcast from the steps of the state capitol building in Atlanta, Ga., in July 1946. We worked closely with black and Jewish groups to expose the secret operations of this hooded hate cult. At last, after a series of columns in October 1965, we turned to the more urgent investigations as the Klan faded from the headlines.
Now it is back again, mean as ever. But the blacks and Jews are quarreling with one another, FBI agents have also stopped infilrating the Klan. Its recruiters, meanwhile, are exploiting such race-related issues as school busing, affirmative action, minority quotas and illegal aliens. There is also growing frustration over rising prices, job insecurity, high taxes, government spending, gas shortages and a host of related aggravations. In troubled times, people look for outlets for thier anger and scapegoats for their problems. For some, the KKK is providing the answers.
The message of white supremacy and racial separation is no longer confined to the backwoods and cow pastures. It is being heard increasingly on college campuses, state fairgrounds, television talk shows, military bases and even ships at sea. The Navy is investigating Klan activity aboard Atlantic Fleet ships, following reports of a cross burning on the mess deck of the aircraft carrier America.
Marches, demonstrations and rallies have been staged at racial flashpoints. In Decatur, violence has exploded since a mentally deficient black youth was convicted of raping a white woman. In Tupelo, Miss., black protests over police brutality have drawn strong Klan responses.
Oxnard, Calif., was the scene of a five-hour, club-swinging, rock-tossing riot when Klansmen protested the rape of a high school student and the murder of her boyfriend by Chicago youths. The Klan has been stirring up trouble in San Diegeo, Calif., Colorado Springs, Colo., Selma, Ala., Flemington, N.J., Seabrook, N.H. and Winstron Salem, N.C. to name a few places.
In Baton Rouge, La., Klansmen make a show of parading in large numbers brandishing Thompson submachine guns, riot guns, sawed-off shotguns, .44 magnum handguns and other heavycaliber weapons. Members of the youth corps, some as young as 10 years old, proudly wield knives or clubs.
Brags their leader, Imperial Wizard Bill Wilkinson: "These guns ain't for killing rabbits. They're to waste people. We're not gonna start anything, but if anyone does, we're ready to defend ourselves." Such brandishing and bravado, lawmen fear, is bound to explode sooner or later either by accident or design.
Our reporter witnessed a chilling incident at the height of the Decatur bus-burning rally. After two hours of hate speeches and calls for armed attack upon "niggers, commies and Jews," the Klansmen prepared to light the cross. Suddenly a trigger-happy member fired into the bushes at what he thought was a black face. Some 500 Klansmen hit the ground or ran for cover. This was followed by the ominous sound of dozens of safety catches being clicked off machine guns and carbines, and the sight of 100 or more Klansmen leveling their weapons and looking for targets. Luckily, in this instance, no more shots were fired.
There's a lot of hate building up, along with a lot of weapons," warns Wilkinson's former Alabama Grand Klaiff, who quit the group. We interviewed him in a Huntsville, Ala., jail where he was being held on a federal weapons charge. He mused, "We've had some good solid Klansmen resign because the group is moving in the wrong direction. It's attracting riff-raff, people who want to go night-riding, who want to see violence."
Responded Dr. Joseph Lowery, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, whose own car was hit by bullets during a Decatur rally: "The Klan's growing militancy is frightening. It reflects a step backward. Unless law enforcement takes stronger action, more blacks are going to defend themselves. They're not going to stand by and let the Klan shoot up thier homes and families."