Local leaders are urging caution in reacting to an online posting of a Ku Klux Klan rally for May 8 on the steps of the Rockdale County Courthouse.
The event, described as an "anniversary celebration," was posted on the website of the Association of Georgia Klans, Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. It listed a march with a talk at the Rockdale County courthouse on illegal immigration and job loss, followed by a barbecue and meeting at the rally grounds and a cross lighting in the evening.
Both county and city officials said there had been no application for the posted rally as of press time on Friday and no contact with any KKK organizers. The deadline to apply for a permit hold a rally by May 8 on county property, such as the Rockdale County Courthouse, had passed last week.
"The correct response is to ignore them. Not to feed the fire. That’s what they want," said Stanley Williams, chair of the Rockdale Democratic Party, at the April 12 meeting of the Progressive Club.
Conyers City Councilman Cleveland Stroud reminded listeners that group had not applied for an event permit yet."Let’s caution people about overreacting to a situation that may or may not happen. As of right now, nothing is official," he said. He also pointed out that even groups such as the KKK have the freedom and right to peacefully assemble as long as they follow the rules and laws. These same rights were used by civil rights protesters, he said.
Williams agreed. "The right to free speech is something we hold dear. If we try to take that away, we hurt us."
Local pastors Eric Lee of Springfield Baptist Church, Dr. Jeff Meyers of First Baptist Church of Conyers, and Tim Hogg of the Father’s House met with city, county and law enforcement heads on Tuesday.
Lee and Meyers said they had heard concerns about the listing not from their congregation as much as from other leaders.
"Well before these rumors became prominent, there was always an interest in racial reconciliation and harmony within our community," said Lee.
"The possibility of this event has been a wake-up call to those outside our community that those types of things are not welcome in our community," Meyers said.
Conyers City Manager Tony Lucas was acting Police Chief in 1992 when a white supremacist rally was last held in Conyers. About 20-30 people had turned out then, with a few donning KKK robes, and were largely outnumbered by law enforcement.
"It doesn’t have the feel it did in the 90s" said Lucas, pointing out there had been regular contact from the rally organizers back then.
A few local residents are organizing a counter rally on May 8 at the Rockdale County Courthouse and are in the process of applying for a permit.
Rockdale resident Lakina Thompson spoke out against the event at the April 13 Board of Commissioners Meeting.
"The KKK are our own homegrown terrorists. We don’t have to stand for that," she said. "This is 2010. No one should have to feel like they have to move."
"It’s time not to be afraid," said resident Josie Dean.
Sheriff Jeff Wigington said, in a previous interview, that the sheriff’s office knew of the event but that there was no known organized activity of this type in the county.
"It’s a quiet community," he said.
Rockdale and Conyers has had a history of relatively smooth racial relations, according to Aubrey Webb, one of the first black students to graduate from Rockdale County High School. He remembered then-Sheriff Wallace’s comments to the lone protester on the first day of "Freedom of Choice," the period when a handful of black students attended white schools and vice versa before Rockdale schools were fully integrated.
"Sheriff JT Wallace stood at that door and basically laid it down. He said, ‘Rockdale is the smallest county in the state of Georgia. It doesn’t make sense to have two school systems here. If you don’t mind, getting back in your raggedy truck and coming back out.’"
Although Klan groups make up a small portion of hate groups and white supremacist groups in general, their numbers have grown steadily, according to Heidi Beirich, director of research at the Southern Poverty Law Center, a non-profit that tracks hate groups.
There were about 155 Klan groups counted in 2007 and 186 in 2008. The center counted 602 hate groups overall in 2000 and 926 in 2008 — a 54 percent increase.
Several Klan rallies are scheduled for May 8 throughout the country, according to the Anti-Defamation League website. A Klan group recently held a rally in Nahunta, Ga. — a small town east of Waycross — in February.
The growth in white supremacist and hate groups has been largely driven by anti-immigration sentiment, said Beirich. "The other two new elements are the recession — the crash since the subprime meltdown — and more than that, the Obama factor; the rise of a black man to the White House," she said. The Web sites of two major white supremacist groups crashed the day after the election because of the number of viewers, she said.
She pointed out historically the resurgence of the Klan was not always tied to a recession — the resurgence seen in the 1920s while the economy was relatively strong was largely driven by anti-Catholic sentiment.