I have edited this story for grammatical errors and added a few more words to help clarify meaning. If you like what you read and agree with what I have said, that "Hate is not the answer" feel free and please do, share this story with friends.
The Truth about the KKK
Let me begin this tale by posing two true or false questions for consideration:
Is every Southerner a member of the Ku Klux Klan?
Does every Southerner believe that the KKK is really out to do good, and is simply misunderstood?
When I was 13 years old in 1966 I needed to know what the real story was in regards to the "Invisible Empire.” The two questions stated above were two of many that were going through my mind far too frequently for a young boy.
In light of the events of the 1960s with riots, abductions, and murders happening all over the country (not just in the South like some people seem to remember it) it really wasn't strange for a young person to be trying to figure out what was true, and what was false.
South Florida was not the hotbed of racial tension that other areas were at that time. Not like Montgomery, Birmingham, Cleveland, or just about any large city with sufficient media coverage to make national news.
I still think that political advantage and profiteering had more to do with the riots than we knew. It wasn’t just about anyone’s civil or human rights. Injustices were happening, and change was coming slowly, but there was too much violence. Violence wasn't the way that the church going, God fearing people that I grew up with would even think of behaving. It certainly wasn’t what Martin Luther King, Jr. was preaching.
I grew up with kids of every color, nationality, religion, and income level that you could imagine. If you know South Florida, you know that is not an exaggeration of the society found there. Black, white, brown, red, yellow... only meant colors from a Crayola Crayon box to us.
I knew three boys named Larry, and we had to call them something slightly different to tell who we were yelling at to throw us the ball, etc. One was called "Lawrence", one was called "Larry", and one was called "LT". OK, you got that?
Now add to the mix; one was Catholic, one was Jewish, and one was Baptist. To further confuse the issue; one was black, one was white, and one was Seminole. Can you tell by the names, which was which? Does it matter anyway? It didn't to us; they were just three guys named Larry.
If curiosity is killing you; Lawrence was black and Catholic, Larry was white and Jewish, which made LT a Seminole of the Baptist persuasion... and none of this mattered, and it shouldn't.
Why did these people (the KKK) gather together and hold rallies; and what's with the burning cross?
These questions are what prompted four of us to go out into an orange grove in Davie, Florida, one Friday night when we were supposed to be at a school dance at the Junior High School.
It was a foolish thing to do and a much greater risk for my three Seminole Indian "brothers" than it was for me. Seminole Indians have "mixed" with slaves at times in their history and the KKK has a special hatred for those of mixed ancestry.
At least that was what we had heard and that was a big part of the problem. We didn't have any first-hand knowledge and the opposing sides were extremely opinionated in their own behalf. So who should we believe? What was the Gospel in this matter?
“Friday night in “X's” orange grove, ceremonies to start at 8:00 PM, sharp. Come early and bring your own supplies. The Exalted Grand Dragon will Honor us with a speech and sermon.”
There was more to the flier, but you get the tone of the message. That was how we found out where and when the rally was being held. We were determined to find out the “why.”
Larry, Ralph, Sam and I really did start out at the dance. We didn't lie (to our parents) about going to it, we just didn't stay long. One of their cousins had agreed to give us a ride out to the orange grove for a half-pint bottle of Vodka.
They had already taken care of the payment, and obtained his promise not to drink it until we were safely back at the dance and he had driven home. The “no drinking” restriction was necessary because we had to be back at the school before 11:00 PM when the dance got over and we didn't want this cousin getting into a wreck or getting arrested (or leaving us out there with the Klan.)
The rally location was a big shock to me. It was in a grove owned by a prominent family of church going folks with a very good reputation. I recall saying that “Maybe they didn't know that it was being held there.” “And maybe pigs fly,” was the response and general consensus of opinion about that idea. I knew that the guys were right…I just didn’t want them to be.
We knew that the main road into the grove would be watched and they weren't likely to let us in to satisfy our curiosity. They might have let me in by myself, if one of their number would speak up for me. But, I wasn't interested in being alone with the Knights of the KKK, betting on them being understanding "Good Ole Boys." So that approach was out. There was another road which connected this grove to the next, but it was a long way to the other end where you "might" have been able to enter, and it could have been padlocked too.
The only logical choice for us was to cross the big canal next to the paved county road that bordered the grove. Then hike in through the trees in the dark without flashlights, and hope that we didn't encounter snakes, etc. There were also the man made obstructions like barbed wire and irrigation hardware. Yep. It was the best way, they would have to figure that nobody would be crazy enough to do that and not worry about posting guards or lookouts on that side.
We found a place for the cousin to park the car and go to sleep. He promised to wait and not drink the Vodka until the agreed upon time and if we weren't out by 11:00 PM he was to go get the entire tribe to rescue us. We didn't think that the cops would be of much use for some reason... a hunch that proved to have merit later.
The water was deep and cold, and there were alligators and Water Moccasins in those ditches, especially big canals like that one. Those minor details made it even more comical that we had to get naked and wade across with our clothes held over our heads to keep them dry. The running joke was about where you might get snake bit; and that nobody was going to suck the poison out, etc. We were very loony, that much is obvious now, but at the time it was just another thing that we did. We could see an alligator farther up the canal, but we were too large for it to bother with.
We found a good spot to get out and quickly got dressed again. There was a minor planning problem; we had to use our underwear to dry off with. Not wanting to put wet underwear back on, we left them hanging on the bushes to dry. I wondered for a long time if they were still there. We didn't go back for them, that's for sure!
We actually made good time through the trees and were being very careful where we put our feet, both to avoid hazards and to prevent making unnecessary noise that might alert the Klansmen. We wanted this to be a "private" viewing of their rally and not for us to be "part" of it. The thought of what would happen to my Seminole brothers if we were caught made me very careful. The idea that I would be the reason for harm coming to them suddenly terrified me.
It was 7:45 p.m. when we got to the edge of the clearing where there was a bonfire and a lot of "White Robes" moving around. That meant it took us 30 minutes to cross the canal and hike in to that spot. We moved along the trees, keeping them between the crowd and us until we found a likely site to watch from.
The four of us then climbed a tree almost all the way to the top. Orange trees were not my choice for climbing with their thorns sticking out everywhere. I was scratched and bleeding from several places by the time I reached my perch.
If we had hesitated at all, we would have been history. We had no more stopped moving than two guards in white robes and hoods, carrying shotguns, walked right up to where we were and stopped. I was afraid to even breathe!
The rally was called to order and the ceremonies began at 8:00 p.m. on the dot. Those boys were punctual, I'll give them that much.
The head guy of all of them, the “Exalted Grand Dragon,” was sitting in a lawn chair behind the stage, out of sight. He didn't get up or even appear to pay any attention when the "Wizard" was on stage working the crowd into a frenzy. I supposed that it was much like what the opening act did for the headliner at a concert or a Las Vegas show.
This hooded bozo (the Wizard) had already answered a lot of our questions concerning the attitudes and intentions of the Invisible Empire of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. If you weren't just like them you were wrong for their future and a danger to their children; and you had to be eliminated. Peacefully if possible, but however was necessary, if that was what it took.
The speaker professed to be a God fearing man on a mission to save his race from contamination and extinction. He said that he was doing it all for his children and their children. Using children and God were his main hooks to work the crowd, and work them he did! These robed figures were agitated, animated, and aggressive (just to use the "A's".) However you wanted to describe it, they were pumped up and ready to receive the message from their "main man!”
As good as the Wizard was at stirring the crowd up, he was nothing compared to the Exalted Grand Dragon! That man had people crying, shouting, and dumping money into a barrel. The donations were to keep up the fight against the government and all the others who would deny them their God given right. Of course, maybe a little of it would have to be used to pay for the stretch limousine that the big guy had arrived in; and would go on to the next rally in, riding in comfort.
I got the feeling that I was witnessing Adolph Hitler working on the plan for the Aryan race. There was no longer any doubt in my mind that genocide was too singular for what these crazies had in store for the rest of us.
When I was able to take my eyes off of the stage and look around us, I just about spoke out loud. Damn! The rally with all those fanatics was in front of us and their cars were parked behind us, with armed guards patrolling all around them. There was no "sideways,” the bonfire was so large that it illuminated everything around us. We were in an ugly fix, but still safe in the tree top for now.
The ceremony of lighting the cross would usually have begun the rally I was told later on in life. On that night it had special significance and had been delayed until that critical point. I had never seen so large of a cross before; it was made from telephone poles and was at least 40 feet high.
The Grand Dragon said a prayer that got a lot of “amens” all through it and had everyone focused on him. At a wave of the hand signal from him, one of the attendants lit the cross with a forty foot burst of liquid fire (like napalm) from a flame thrower. The screams, squeals and applause of the masses gathered there were thunderous!
The KKK will tell you that the lighting of the cross is a sacred religious tradition honoring the Light of God and Jesus for dying for our sins. All completely Christian and only meant as a good example of their faith.
So why then did their leader say, "All of the unclean, and the mixed curs had better take warning from this cross burning brightly in the night. We will take what is our right by any means necessary and they can perish in its flames if they get in the way."
The crowd again responded with riotous and righteous clamor, not unlike a hound pack hitting a strong scent trail. I feared that the Dragon was going to send them out to harm people right then. In their present state of mind I believed that they would do anything that he ordered.
The man with the flame thrower was so moved that he unleashed another burst of fire on the already burning cross, causing more screams yet.
That “re-lighting” of the cross served a better purpose for us. It brought the guards in from the parking area to witness the burning and increasing level of excitement. Their movement drew them in far enough that we felt that it was our best chance to get out of the tree and slip out through the cars. Again we went with the logic of doing the least expected. No one would expect us to come out through the cars and down the main road of the grove.
Those trees ate us alive with scratches and cuts, but not a sound was made, at least not out loud. I was truly screaming inside my head from all of the pain. I almost fell out of the tree, but a hand reached out and grabbed me. Larry was looking out for his "brother," as always.
We made it to the ground and staying low, moved as quickly as possible to get to the cover of the vehicles and darkness. Fear was a great motivator and we had plenty to be afraid of from those nuts, especially in the frenzy that they were riding on right at that moment.
As shocking as the words had been, and as disheartening as the supposed "moral conviction" of these robed figures was; the real pain and hurt lie ahead.
When these Knights of the Klan were just anonymous figures in robes, it was bad enough. But, when we got among the cars and recognized the vehicle of our Sheriff, the personalized plates of the Mayor's car, the car of a banker who was the father of one of our friends, the truck belonging to the owner of the local hardware store (complete with the sign on the side), and other vehicles of people that we knew by the car or license plate... it went past bad, it was gut wrenchingly painful. How could they act this way here at this rally, and then smile to our faces when they met us on the street?
And then came the real crusher. The unmistakable car of the preacher whose church we had been attending! It serves no purpose to identify what religion he represented; none of them would condone what he had done here tonight.
The sinking realization that we now knew why the Wizard who "opened" for the main speaker sounded so familiar, and why he could talk for an hour and a half without letting up. We never set foot in his church again after that night.
We moved quietly through the cars and down the road towards freedom and fresh air. It smelled like sulfur and brimstone where we just were.
There was a checkpoint to pass and even though it was dark, we could smell their cigarettes and hear what they probably considered a whisper, a long way from them. We just slipped off to the side and went through the trees until we were clear of them and then got back on the sand two-track road and in no time we had reached pavement.
Upon gaining that asphalt pavement, we allowed ourselves (for the first time) to run, and run we did, all the way to the car about a mile down that county two-lane. We ran like the Devil himself was behind us, and I’m not so sure that he wasn’t.
When we woke the cousin up from a sound sleep in the back seat of his car, scaring him with our emotional insistence to hurry up, he no doubt thought that the Klan was after us. It was worse, it was demons in our minds, screaming about what we had seen and heard!
The clock showed 10:30 p.m. when we walked back into the dance; we had been gone a lifetime. It was a sad, hard lesson to learn that things are seldom what they seem and people are capable of unbelievable extremes and such hatred that I couldn't yet comprehend.
It would take many years and experiencing war to make me know the depths of the human soul.
Right then, at thirteen years old, I was in shock. If this was what it meant to be white, then I was glad to be a "brother" to the Seminole People, maybe they would claim me and I wouldn't have to be white anymore.
I was sure embarrassed by what we had experienced on this night and apologized to my brothers for the color of my skin. They were wiser than I was, and told me not to worry, that I had a good heart and would always know the right path to take. I don't know if I lived up to that, but I was glad that they were still my brothers.
Whatever color, nationality, or religion that you may be... whatever differences that you may have... whatever problems may arise in your life... we learned that night that: HATE IS NOT THE ANSWER.