The Butlers were no different. They moved to the suburbs because they wanted to start their life together in a nice house, with some grass and trees outside, in a place that would be good for children. The house is in College Park Woods, a predominantly white middle-class subdivision in Prince George's County, a short commute from the Government Printing Office where Barbara and Phillip Butler both work as printers.
They were the fifth black family in the subdivision. They weren't looking to make a lot of friends "I'm not the type to visit back and forth," Mrs. Butler said but neither did they expect to be shunned. The neighbors did not speak to them for months. They had been told, wrongly, that the Butlers, known among their friends as a caring couple devoted to their family, were "black militants." There were several incidents: A car drove onto the Butlers' front lawn and knocked over their lamppost. Trash was dumped in their yard. The telephone would ring, and when one of the Butlers answered it, the caller would hang up. It became a habit for Mrs. Butler to look out the windows of the four-bedroom brick house, expecting trouble.
On the night of Jan. 30, 1977, she noticed something strange in the front yard. She called her husband. He was watching the last segment of "Roots" on television, and later they would wonder if it had been planned that way. When they went outside, they found a carefully constructed 3-foot-high wooden cross. It had been set afire.
"We knew it was the Klan," Butler said afterward. "Who else burns crosses but the Klan?" He brought the cross inside and several days later a fire investigator took it away as evidence. Seven months later a 22-year-old Ku Klux Klan member was convicted of a criminal misdemeanor in the case and sentenced to 90 days in jail. He didn't live in the neighborhood. He lived in another county and, as far as anyone knows, he had no connection to anyone in College Park Woods. But the cross burning and the way that people reacted to it would make it impossible for the Butlers to ever feel at home there.
Last week, more than five years after the cross burning, a federal judge ordered William Aitcheson to pay the couple $23,000 in civil damages and issued an injunction barring him and unidentified others who acted with him from further acts of intimidation or terror against the Butlers or any blacks or Jews in the metropolitan Washington area. As part of the same case, the judge ordered Aitcheson to pay $1,500 each to the B'nai B'rith Hillel Foundation at the University of Maryland and the Beth Torah Congregation in Hyattsville, where he burned crosses in 1976.
Lawyer Steve Fennell, whose Washington firm, Steptoe and Johnson, took the civil rights case without a fee, has so far been unable to learn Aitcheson's whereabouts. The former University of Maryland student is said to have left the state and the Klan and found God. Since Aitcheson has no known assets, there is little chance that any of the plaintiffs will receive any money. Fennell hailed the ruling as "a clear sign to Ku Klux Klan members and others of like mind that their messages of racism will not be tolerated by the courts or the community."
For Barbara and Phillip Butler the ruling was recognition, at last, of the act that had changed their lives. They still live in the house in College Park Woods where six years ago they were newylweds, where today they are the doting parents of a 4-year-old girl. And while their fear and anger over the cross burning have subsided with the years, they have never felt completely safe or right in that house.
"Every time we hit the corner, we wonder, 'Is the house still going to be there?' " Phillip Butler, 40, said. "What's next? Is something going to come through the window? You don't know. To me, it's going to be like that forever. No one can take this away from us now. We are always going to be coming around that corner."
Barbara Butler, 39, said, "Our six years there--it hasn't really been happy. I feel as if I was cheated out of a start--being in a house, enjoying a house. We had just gotten married, and no one would come to visit. Or if they did, they'd leave before it got dark. We were in a house by ourselves not knowing what was going to happen . . . . "
The Butlers are private people who are uncomfortable with the attention they have received because of the cross burning. "We don't know everyone in the neighborhood, but everyone knows about us," Mrs. Butler said. "I don't want to be a freak in the neighborhood. I don't want people to shy away from me . . . It's been totally unfair. Here I am minding my own business, going to work every single day, and someone decides just because you're black to do something that changes everything. You get tired. You keep saying 'Why me?' "
For weeks after the cross burning Phillip Butler slept in the living room. The police were always around, watching the house that became known, the Butlers say, as "the house where the cross was burned at." The neighbors offered little comfort. "It made people stay further away," Mrs. Butler said. "A couple of people knocked on the door and said they were sorry about what had happened. We got five or six cards from people I don't know. We got a letter from the church."
The Butlers did not find support among the other black families in the development. "It was like 'stay away from me--it might happen in my yard,' " Mrs. Butler said.
At the Government Printing Office, where a U.S. District Court five years ago ruled in favor of 600 black men in a discrimination suit and where a federal government study last year showed that blacks still earn substantially less than whites, some of the Butlers' coworkers were cruel. "One guy cut his finger and wrapped it up like a cross," Butler said. "They don't take it seriously. You get in the elevator to go home and someone says, 'I hear the Klan is having a meeting tonight' . . . There were little sly remarks--things like, 'He didn't have any business living there in the first place.' "
Phillip Butler was born and reared in Southeast Washington. His wife was born in Washington and grew up in the Los Angeles area. She moved back to the District 20 years ago and lived in her own house on East Capitol Street before her marriage. Neither of the Butlers gave much thought to their being the fifth black family in their suburban neighborhood.
"It never crossed my mind to think I shouldn't live in Prince George's County," Butler said. "We were looking for a nice home, peace. It was a nice community. We didn't expect hostility . . . Civil rights laws say we can live anywhere we want. I went in the service and went to Vietnam. I was there during the Tet offensive. I was good enough to fight for my country, and now you're going to tell me that I can't live where I want to live?"
But even before they moved to College Park Woods, there were indications that the suburbs would be less than welcoming. They found their dream house, but they couldn't buy it because the real estate agent wouldn't accept their bid, which, the Butlers learned later from the owner, was higher than any other bid offered. They filed a discrimination suit in federal court and won, but it was too late: The Butlers' dream house ("It was fabulous--like something out of a magazine," Mrs. Butler said) had already been sold. "We bought another house in the same development the next month," Mrs. Butler said. "We paid $6,000 more. It was a little larger, but the other one was better. There was nothing we could do. The realtor turned us down. We couldn't get a written contract."
Eight months after they moved in, the Butlers found the cross in their front yard. Aitcheson was arrested three months later at his parents' home in Ellicott City, Md. Police seized nine pounds of black powder, a 9-mm Browning pistol, an Armalite AR-18 semiautomatic rifle, 4,500 rounds of ammunition and combat-readiness equipment that included 25 containers of survival Minuteman Food Tablets. Aitcheson's parents were apparently unaware of the explosives stored in their home.
Aitcheson belonged to a paramilitary splinter unit of the Ku Klux Klan modeled after the Army's Green Berets, known as the Klan Beret. The unit was infiltrated by Maryland State Police undercover agent Frank Rauschenberg. He testified at a pretrial hearing in Carroll County Circuit Court that the Klan Beret's avowed purpose was military training and the use of light arms, bombs and guerrilla tactics for the coming "revolution" against blacks, Jews and others in this country.
He also testified that Aitcheson had given him a book called "How to Kill," that Aitcheson was "obsessed" with bombs and had constructed two pipe bombs in Rauschenberg's presence and had talked about placing a pipe bomb at the foot of the door of the Butlers' house in College Park Woods.
At the pretrial hearing in Carroll County, Aitcheson's public defender told the judge, "Now, here's a boy who has lived with his family all his life. He's been no problem at all up until this point. He goes to church on a regular basis. He has no hangups except the Ku Klux Klan . . . Now, there's no question about the fact that he and other people got together and were concerned about, well, what's going to happen if there's trouble in the United States and what if we have another 1968, and we have bombings and lootings. How are we going to take care of ourselves? And they decided they were going to do something about it."
In the year before the cross burning at the Butlers' house, Aitcheson sent two letters to Coretta Scott King in Atlanta. Inspector Rauschenberg testified that the letters stated: "Africa or death by lynching, take your pick, the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan"; "Stay off the University of Maryland campus or you will die." Aitcheson was convicted in U.S. District Court in Baltimore of mailing threatening communications and sentenced to 60 days in prison and four years' probation.
Aitcheson was charged with seven cross burnings--including those at the Butlers' house, the Hillel Foundation and the Beth Torah Congregation--that occurred between 1976 and 1977 in Howard and Prince George's counties. He was convicted in Prince George's County District Court of the Hillel Foundation and Butler home cross burnings and sentenced to 90 days in jail--to be served at the same time as the federal sentence--and three years' probation.
The federal lawsuit that resulted in last week's ruling was brought on behalf of the Butlers, the Hillel House and the Beth Torah Congregation by the Lawyers Committee on Civil Rights Under Law and the Metropolitan Washington Planning and Housing Associaton.
Rabbi Robert Saks, director of the Hillel Foundation, recalled a meeting with the Butlers and the lawyers at Steptoe and Johnson. "They were talking about what the experience meant. It was a very moving thing to hear . . . . We felt a strong emotional identity with the Butlers. You hear so much talk about tensions and splits between the Jewish and black communities. But there is so much that we have in common, so much more than what separates us. We have common enemies, common experiences of prejudice and suffering, common political responses to that, a sense that we have both been down in Egypt and faced Pharaoh."
Rabbi Saks, 38, described his role at that meeting as "the dove among the plaintiffs." He said he is perhaps less disturbed than others by anti-Semitism, having grown up with it in Baltimore, where his family was among the last Jewish families to leave the neighborhood for the suburbs. "I feel good in America," he said. "It's good to be a Jew, it's good to be alive. I think most Americans are nice and friendly and well meaning. I'm able to see people who burn crosses as social misfits. I'm not going to let people like that get under my skin. But the Butlers were threatened very directly and repeatedly. That would've gotten under anyone's skin."
More than five years after the cross burning, the Butlers still feel threatened. "Who sent him?" Mrs. Butler asks. "He has never said who sent him . . . . .He's sleeping fine wherever he is, but he's changed my whole life." She wants her husband to buy a gun, but he is reluctant because he worries about accidents.
Life in College Park Woods is more pleasant than it was those first few years. There are about 20 black families in the 500-home subdivision now. "The block is okay now," Mrs. Butler says. "The neighbors have changed. They found out we're not militants. They speak to us now . . . " But for the Butlers, College Park Woods will always be the neighborhood where a Ku Klux Klan member singled them out for the ritual cross burning that has, for more than a century, symbolized racism and hatred. "I could never feel at home here," Mrs. Butler says.
And so the Butlers, who began their life together six years ago in College Park Woods, have decided to move. They have found a newly developed neighborhood they like in Montgomery County. "I want to move into a neighborhood where everyone is new," Mrs. Butler says. "When people are already settled, then you get problems. I want to make a new start without anyone knowing anything about us . . . I asked the real estate agent, 'Are there any blacks?' He said, 'Let me put it to you this way. There's a little bit of everybody here.' "