The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The day President Reagan comforted a black family who had a KKK cross burned on its lawn

President Reagan and first lady Nancy Reagan walk with Barbara and Phillip Butler, the victims of a 1977 cross burning, and their daughter Natasha outside the family’s home in College Park, Md., on May 3, 1982. (AP Photo/Barry Thumma, File)

President Reagan read the story about the cross burning in his morning Washington Post. A black family in College Park, Md., had just won a civil suit against a young Ku Klux Klan leader who had been convicted of terrorizing the family five years earlier.

Reagan’s deputy press secretary, Larry Speakes, said the president was jarred by what had happened to Phillip and Barbara Butler. “That was the first thing on his mind this morning,” Speakes told The Post on May 3, 1982. White House Chief of Staff James Baker and Deputy Chief of Staff Michael Deaver walked into the Oval Office, and the first thing he said to them was, “ ‘I’ve read this story. I’d like to go see these people.’”

Listen to this story on “Retropod”:

For more forgotten stories from history, subscribe: Apple Podcasts | Amazon Echo | Google Home and more

Deaver found the Butlers at their jobs at the Government Printing Office, where they both worked as printers, and told them the president wanted to visit them at their home.

The Butlers had been newlyweds when they bought the house in 1976. They were the fifth black family to move into the neighborhood. They had lived there for five months when, on Jan. 30, 1977, the Klan burned the cross on their front lawn.

William Aitcheson, then a University of Maryland student and “exalted cyclops” of a Ku Klux Klan lodge, was charged with burning crosses at the Butlers and five other properties, including a synagogue, and sending a death threat to Coretta Scott King, the widow of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

But by the time a federal judge ordered Aitcheson, who had been convicted and sentenced to 90 days of jail, to pay the Butlers $23,000 in civil damages, his whereabouts were unknown, according to the 1982 Post story that Reagan read.

A family’s long ordeal

Aitcheson re-emerged in an astonishing way earlier this year. Now a Catholic priest, he published a personal essay about his involvement with the Klan and the cross burnings, calling his own actions “despicable.” On Friday, the Butlers held a news conference to announce that Aitcheson had finally apologized to them after 40 years and paid them $23,000 he owed from a civil suit judgment, plus $9,600 in attorneys fees. In a letter, he told the couple: “I seriously regret the suffering it caused you” and that he’d been “blinded by hate and ignorance.”

Reagan would have agreed with that description. Although his relationship with African Americans was strained by his repeated references to “welfare queens” and efforts to cut government programs for the poor, the Republican president had a visceral reaction to what the Butlers had endured.

Before he went to see the Butlers, President Reagan met with the National Security Council; was briefed by top aides over lunch; and discussed voting rights with the attorney general and the federal budget with members of Congress, according to The Post account of that day by staff writers Sara Rimer and Kenneth Bredemeier.

He finished his last meetings at the White House at 4:15 p.m. Fifteen minutes later, he and first lady Nancy Reagan climbed aboard a helicopter on the White House lawn.

A few minutes later, the helicopter landed in Beltsville, Md., and the president and first lady rode in a motorcade to the Butlers’ beige brick rambler in College Park Woods.

The Butlers, their 4-year-old daughter, Natasha, and Barbara Butler’s mother, Dorothea Tolson, were waiting outside to greet them.

The Reagans arrived with a jar of gourmet jelly beans, the president’s favorite candy. The Butlers invited them inside, where they sat on the sofa in the living room.

Rimer, who then was a Post Metro reporter, remembers how dignified the Butlers were. “My one memory is of how great the family was,” said Rimer, who now works in communications at Boston University. “My thought was, ‘How could someone do that to them?’ ”

Inside the house, Reagan told the family: “I came out to let you know that this [cross burning] isn’t something that should happen in America.”

Google memorializes the Silent Parade when 10,000 black people protested lynchings

Barbara Butler, then 39, was touched. “It makes a difference when the president of the United States will take time to come from the White House to a little community like this,” she told Reagan. “It’s been a long hard battle out here. We know by your coming that everything has changed.”

Reagan chatted with Barbara Butler about growing up in California, where he had been a movie star and later governor. And he recalled how he had befriended William Franklin Burghardt, who was black and was the center on the 1931 Eureka College football team on which Reagan was a starting guard.

“In an incident celebrated by Reagan in his autobiography and confirmed by his football coach, Ralph McKinzie, Reagan took Burghardt and the team’s other black player into his own home when a hotel in a small Illinois town refused them admittance on a road trip in 1931,” Post political reporter Lou Cannon wrote in 1986. “Many public places in the Middle West in those days were as rigidly segregated as they were in the South.”

In College Park, the Reagans posed for a photo with the Butlers in front of the fireplace. The White House photographer snapped photos. After 20 minutes, the visit ended.

“The Reagans shook hands with the Butlers,” The Post reported. “Mrs. Reagan kissed Mrs. Butler on the cheek. The president hugged Mrs. Butler.”

The president’s limousine pulled out of the Butlers’ driveway at 5:15 p.m. By 5:40, the Reagans were back at the White House.

The Butlers held a news conference, and Phillip Butler, then 40, told reporters that he thought the president was sincere. “I really think he came here on his personal feeling,” Phillip Butler said. “I don’t feel it was political.”

After the news conference ended, The Post reported, “the Butlers went inside to watch themselves on the evening news.”

This post has been updated.

Read more Retropolis: 

Seeking justice for the mass hanging of black soldiers after the bloody 1917 Houston riots

The shadow of an assassinated American Nazi commander hangs over Charlottesville

The day 30,000 white supremacists in KKK robes marched in the nation’s capital

‘Detroit’ and the police brutality that left three black teens dead at the Algiers Motel

Death of ‘a devil’: The white supremacist got hit by a car. His victims celebrated.

The first woman to start a bank — a black woman — finally gets her due in the Confederacy’s capital

When Portland banned blacks: Oregon’s shameful history as an ‘all-white’ state