SILICON LOUNGE: KKK -- A Legacy Revised

I happened to be in Selma, Alabama, just after a statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest was quietly erected on the grounds of a public museum on October 7. The statue of the Civil War hero -- who also happens to be the first Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan (hey, everyone needs a hobby) -- went up without permission of the local city council or the newly elected black mayor, Selma's first. The statue occupies prime real estate two blocks from the National Voting Rights Museum and near the Pettus Bridge, the sight of a bloody attack on civil rights marchers in 1965. It borders an African American neighborhood to one side, and a mixed, peaceful neighborhood to the other.

The bronze bust tops a marble pedestal adorned by a colorful reproduction of a Confederate flag and engraved with a not-very-cleverly disguised statement that Bedford was a "wizard" of the Civil War. Ingenuis wit, I smirked to myself as I circled the statue, while hot Alabama sun pounded me. I looked around lush flowerbeds under cover of huge, shady oak trees. Few people were around. I could see a black security guard milling at a distance. A car filled with an African American family with New York plates was parked a few hundred yards a way, but I never saw them get out of their car. Finally, they drove away.

Soon, I saw an elderly black man amble by. We chatted, although he didn't wish to be named. He had only recently learned of Forrest's "hobby" and seemed genuinely puzzled that such a statue, with a flag today symbolizing racism, would be erected near so many black homes in his community. "Looks to me like they just want to start something," he said, shaking his head. He also pointed to five shiny, white flagpoles behind the statue, adding that until the Forrest statue went up, there were only three. Although it hadn't happened, yet, he suspected he would see the Confederate flag waving up there soon.

After he left, a preppy, white TV cameraman appeared to take some footage, explaining that the mayor and City Council were demanding an explanation for how such a controversial statue was approved. In his light drawl, he filled me in on the "other side," explaining that this was no different than a civil-rights statue being erected in front of another public museum, the Old Depot, near the Pettus Bridge. I asked him if that was in a white neighborhood. "No, it's black," he answered, looking at me as if it was an irrelevant question.

He then educated me about the Klan, explaining that it didn't form to harm black people in any way. It was seen as necessary to help "protect" the South from Northern carpetbaggers who were trying to come down and take advantage of a weakened South during Reconstruction. The Klan wasn't violent when Forrest was Wizard, he assured me. In fact, Forrest ordered the Klan disbanded once it became violent (an action some historians say was a ruse by Forrest to deflect criticism).

What he left out, however, was how the Klan was trying to "protect" the South. According to the history books I've read -- liberal propaganda, the Confederates would say -- the Klan's immediate goal was to terrorize blacks into not paying attention to the "damned Yankees," or certainly not to try to register to vote, despite the 15th Amendment's passage in 1870. So Klansmen donned those silly, ghost-like robes and conehead hoods and showed up outside the homes of freed slaves in the middle of the night. They believed blacks were superstitious enough to think that ghosts would haunt them if they helped challenge that grand, old "southern way of life" we hear so much about from the Confederate sympathizers. I'm sure blacks probably realized that the apparitions were white bigots in sheets -- and could hurt them. Either way, the result was the same: the Klan terrorized black people then, and again in the 1920s, and again in the 1960s --- and want to today, if their Web sites and marches are any indication.

Hate.com is a documentary premiering on HBO Monday, October 23 (10 p.m., EST), that will provide insight into Klan and other white-supremacist movements of today, and how they're using the Internet to recruit and fire up "lone wolves" who then go on killing sprees. This film, co-produced by the Southern Poverty Law Center, is chilling. It contains interviews with white, "racialist" leaders such as Matt Hale of the World Church of the Creator, Don Black of Stormfront.org (and his 11-year-old son, Derek, of Stormfront for Kids), William Pierce (who wrote "The Turner Diaries," considered the blueprint for the Oklahoma City bombing), Richard Butler of the Aryan Nations. It even has footage from an interview with Benjamin Smith, the white college boy who shot black coach Ricky Birdsong and six Orthodox Jews last year, before killing himself last year.

The film shows actual comments from racist sites -- "Why do women fuck niggers?" one asks (this is HBO, remember) -- and is a telling glimpse inside the goals of white supremacy. My only caution: The content may create censorship urges; be sure to resist them. As Matt Hale says in the film: "When free speech ends, violence often begins." I reluctantly agree with him on that point.

While you're watching the film, note one detail. While there are predictably plenty of Swastikas floating around, note how many of the bigots -- many not Southerners -- are interviewed in front of a Confederate flag, and how many Klan images incorporate the Stars and Bars. Then ask yourself why an elderly black man in Selma might be offended by this symbol of southern heritage showing up in his neighborhood.

E-mail comments to donna@shutup101.com.

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