Alan Riquelmy: When an anachronism of hate marched down the street
I stood in the parking lot, a cub reporter watching my breath escape in the cold morning, waiting for the KKK rally to start.
This was not my idea of a fun Saturday morning.
I didn’t want to be here. I doubted the cops patrolling the area wanted to be here. I wondered if the Ku Klux Klan members, who’d traveled to the Alabama town for the rally, even wanted to be here.
Even then, some 20 years ago, they were an anachronism. Men in white sheets and hoods — though a state law prohibits a full face covering, which led to oddly designed hoods and many sunglasses — traipsing down the street while shouting offensive slogans and thrusting their arms into the air.
It was an oddity for the town, and not welcome. Residents stood on the sidewalk, watching the Klan march past, more out of curiosity than anything. Then they went back inside, got a sweet tea and turned on the television.
But not me. Interning for the local paper, I drew the short straw the day before and was consigned to cover the rally. I walked alongside the Klansmen as they shouldered their way to the courthouse.
Not on the street with them, though. I avoided it like a kid playing the floor is lava. I wore jeans, a T-shirt, had a camera around my neck and a notepad in hand. My hair was past my shoulders. Don’t confuse me with them, I might have screamed.
I saw a woman I recognized who was watching the passersby and asked for an interview. She waved me away. Just to watch and then go away, she might have said. Certainly not to be seen as watching. Never to appear in a news article, cementing herself in time and space as being present.
Maybe it would have been better if no one had stood outside watching that day. Maybe the local newspaper should have avoided covering it. What’s a Klan rally with no audience? They could have shouted their hate onto empty streets and then driven to wherever they lived.
However, that’s a tough pitch to make to your editor when there’s an overwhelming police presence on the streets and helicopters overhead.
And, of course, there’s the argument that the story wasn’t about the Klan. It was about the number of people who didn’t merely watch them pass by, but actively opposed their appearance.
A massive crowd gathered at the courthouse, where the march ended and speeches began. There were some supporters, but I’d seen them at the parking lot where the day began. They’d traveled here with the Klansmen. Like them, they wore dark sunglasses.
They wanted to march through the streets. They just didn’t want to be recognized, even though they were three states away from home.
Most of the crowd came in opposition to the Klan. I remember one black woman standing still, shaking her head as she listened to the speeches.
“We pray for people like this every day at my church,” she said.
That made me stop. Could I ever have that strength of character, that level of forgiveness, toward a group based in hate against me? Could you?
The thought stuck with me hours later, after returning to the newsroom and writing the story. The speeches had ended, everyone had gone home. I stood in the darkroom, developing the photos I’d taken.
Would the story I’d written only propagate the Klan’s hate, or help reduce its spread? Was the opposition I saw that day one of many seeds germinating across the country that we’re now seeing grow? Does a white-hooded racist 20 years ago become the toppled statue of a Confederate general today?
Or was it just another story out of hundreds, thousands, to be written, read and disappear the next day?
I don’t know.
In darkness, I spooled the film and placed it in another canister. The chemicals used in the developing process, like that day itself, clung to my hands.
I couldn’t get rid of its stink.
Contact City Editor Alan Riquelmy at email@example.com or 530-477-4239.
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