When the Ku Klux Klan was granted a permit to rally on the Illinois state capitol steps the day after Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, it made instant news. The Klan’s an anachronism, its endurance a signifier of how far we’ve come and how far we’ve yet to go. Undeniably evil, not as bizarre as racist skinheads or as politically slippery as neoracists like David Duke, the Klansmen are almost exotic in their old-fashioned, pedantic approach to hatred.

Some saw the Klan as so far to the fringe that their rally was unworthy of response. Janette Wilson, national executive director of Operation PUSH, said her group is more concerned with “Klan members in suites–the people in the board rooms–than Klan members in sheets.” PUSH organized its own demonstration against homelessness for King’s birthday, directing those who called about the Klan rally to the mostly white, ad hoc Chicago Coalition to Stop the KKK.

The coalition members were eager to confront the Klan. They spent most of their planning meeting two weeks before the rally deciding what response to make. Some wanted to try to “take their space,” symbolically drowning racism by flooding the capitol with protesters and leaving the Klan no place to assemble. Some wanted a counterdemonstration around the Martin Luther King Jr. statue across the street from the capitol. Some wanted to hunt down individual Klansmen and kill them.

The big question was whether to encourage people to get arrested. Everybody discussed the dozens of well-known strategies for coping with the cops, from “unarresting” someone by surging forward as a crowd and literally pulling a person out of the cops’ arms to making sure you have your ID if you’re arrested, which generally keeps the whole ordeal under 24 hours and practically eliminates any chance of punishment.

Most of the folks at the meeting had been arrested before, but they differed over when it’s politically imperative to hurl yourself at a cop’s nightstick. Finally they decided that rather than hold up the returning coalition buses for anyone who got arrested, they’d pass out commercial bus schedules, along with Xeroxed sheets on arrest wisdom.

Not everyone thought this was an adequate approach. Luke, who’d driven from Detroit on behalf of the National Women’s Rights Organizing Committee, made an insistent pitch for stopping the Klan “by any means necessary.” He didn’t call the coalition a bunch of pansies or anything, but he did ask some pointed questions about their “tactical perspective.” Susan, who was leading the meeting, told him she didn’t have time for a philosophical discussion.

Then there was Chicago activist Bernard Branche of the Partisan Defense Committee, who handed out copies of an angry letter taking the coalition to task for dismissing his suggestion at an earlier meeting that they include labor unions. He was there to invite the coalition members to join the PDC’s counterdemonstration at the Klan rally.

I was looking for a big crowd as the coalition buses wound between the deserted state office buildings and pulled up on the west side of the capitol’s rather grubby dome. But there was no one in sight.

It turned out that the action was on the east side of the building. The police had set up plastic fencing to enclose a safe zone about the size of a soccer field that would keep anyone from getting too close to the Klan’s designated rally site on the steps. Two groups of protesters circled at the edges of this zone, one concentrated on the east side, the other on the north.

Susan and Ellen, from “tactical,” herded everybody over to join the 200 or so people clustered along the east side. They set up their “half-mile hailer,” a kind of mega-bullhorn, and started chanting “KKK, Go Away!” But it was hard to hear them over the north-side group, which was smaller–only about 40 or so–but had superior PA power.

Standing still was deadly in the blistering wind and snow, so most people wandered back and forth between the two groups. The north-siders turned out to be from the PDC. They’d hung a big white banner on the side of the capitol building proclaiming that the group was a “Black/Labor mobilization to stop the KKK.” Their speech about the evils of racism echoed across the lawn, drowning out five different bullhorn wielders on the east side.

I walked over to look at the King statue. It’s on a corner across the street from the capitol: a slightly smaller than life-size bronze figure of King in a short-sleeved shirt and shabby loafers, sauntering merrily along, apparently whistling. The inscription is simply “Martin Luther King, Jr.” No catalog of accomplishments, no inspirational quote. It’s clearly a token.

Nobody was rallying around King anyway. Most of the Chicago people had started a semiorganized march that wound down the street like a drunken Chinese dragon. Their shouts were still being drowned out by the PDC speeches and the tolling of the bell at the United Methodist church on the corner, one of several Springfield churches ringing their bells in a symbolic antiracist protest.

The pealing had stopped and a good third of the protesters had straggled back to the buses to get warm when 40-odd Klan members finally emerged from the capitol to huddle on the steps. Many carried trademark red shields with white crosses. Several carried confederate flags, and one or two had American flags. As for the people behind the paraphernalia, from outside the safe zone it was difficult to distinguish them from the herd of reporters in the roped-off press section a few feet away. For that matter, it was difficult to distinguish them from the anti-Klan protesters. They were just a bunch of well-bundled figures dressed mostly in black.

But they did have music. First “Dixie” blared out, and many of the Klansmen raised their arms in the Nazi salute. It was followed by “The Ride of the Valkyries” and then by Scottish bagpipe marches. When the music concluded, a figure in a white jacket stepped up to the podium and began to speak in a voice that was thin and reedy with a southern rhythm.

“Glad y’all could come out and listen to us today,” he taunted the protesters. “Hope ya ain’t too frostbit! Thanks for bringing out the weather and the other”–he paused–“elements.”

“There’s all kinds of pride now,” he went on. “There’s black pride, Jewish pride, even gay pride. But the one group with the most to be proud about isn’t proud at all.”

Soon he segued into a particularly grating diatribe about black men having sex with white women. “Of all the rapes committed last year, the majority was black men raping our white women! Black men are more likely to rape white women than whites are to rape white women.”

The next speaker reeled off a list of social ills. “Our kids are getting killed for the clothes they wear and for their shoes! Instead of public education, it’s public execution!”

He didn’t explain how his own children were falling prey to these crises associated with inner-city schools. Instead he described the Klan’s proposed system of religious, privatized, and segregated schools.

As his voice swelled, the PDC mike boomed even louder. The east-side crowd broke ranks and pressed against the orange-and-white fence, screaming variations on the anti-Klan theme–“Stop the Klan!” “Smash the Klan!”

I’d noticed small groups of black-clad teenagers prowling outside the barricade, but I’d thought they were moving to keep warm. Then I heard someone yelling “Let’s go! Let’s go!” A young guy in a black hooded sweatshirt with a white “Smash the Klan” armband ran past me to two others dressed just like him. “You guys are so fucking stupid!” he screamed at them. “A Klan guy just ran right across here!” The three of them tore off.

I couldn’t see whether they caught their prey. And I couldn’t see how they could tell the difference between a racist in a ski parka and an antiracist in a sweatshirt. The cops didn’t even try. When two pro-Klan guys raced for the safe zone to escape three guys in armbands who were pummeling them, the police pushed them away, apparently figuring it was a ruse to sneak anti-Klan activists into the Klan’s space.

Numerous small brawls erupted. Ten protesters had been hauled off in the white arrest vans by the time the Klan members had filed back into the capitol.

We hung around to watch them being ferried out of the underground parking garage, wanting to get a good look at the people who’d kept us out in the snow all day. We never did. A caravan of police cars drove out with suspicious forms barely visible through the windows. The cops had made the Klan members lie down across the back seats.

Our bus developed an air-pressure problem while we were stopped at the Dixie truck stop to eat dinner. We sat talking over coffee until two in the morning as the temperature outside descended and another bus made its way down from Chicago.

“The Klan is such an obvious target,” Larra said. “I really go back and forth on it. When terrible, racist things happen in the maquiladoras on the Mexican border, no one cares. But when the Klan kills one person, it’s just terrible.”

She and Mel talked about a media blackout as a possible response to the Klan, but they didn’t think it would ever happen. “It’s like with Operation Rescue,” said Mel. “Even if they only have ten people and you have a thousand, they’re still going to get press.”

But they said they were glad they’d gone since it had given the news cameras something to focus on besides the Klan’s racist slogans. They were right–the news that night showed much more footage of antiracist protesters than of Klan members. But I kept picturing the scene if the Klan gave a rally and nobody came: the capitol square deserted, the Klan assembled with their banners and shields, safe behind their barricade, orating at nothing but the blowing snow.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.