Betty Joyce Nash was a newspaper reporter when the Klan came to town in Hendersonville, North Carolina 28 years ago. As Charlottesville prepares for its own visit from the KKK, Nash, who now makes her home in central Virginia, remembers covering the Klan in 1989.
When the Klan marched in my small town in 1989, I was new to the North Carolina mountains, new to the paper. My editor assigned me to cover it. “The Klan? Here?” I asked. Our mayor was Jewish. Our police chief was black. I’d just moved back to the South from Chicago, which was racist but less overtly so. I’d grown up South Carolina in the 1960’s and 1970’s and was sure the blatant prejudice of the era had faded and sure the Klan had died out. So I thought. But the Klan had lynched a black man in Alabama only eight years before in 1981. On the day I covered the march, I didn’t know that.
The appointed Saturday trembled with fiery mountain sunshine. Perfect parade weather. On Main Street, a couple dozen Klansmen marched along. They wore shiny robes down to their ankles, not saintly white, but yellowed, maybe by age or disuse. Their workaday trousers and dusty shoes stuck out as they processed facing the sun. They somehow stayed in step like this was a weird sort of ceremony, a graduation or a funeral. I remember their headgear as tall and pointy but maybe that’s just my memory wanting to portray them as a confederacy of dunces wearing caps.
A small crowd of curious townies lined the sidewalk. A few yelled “Go back where you came from.” “Shh. That’s just what they want,” the mayor said quietly threading his way through the onlookers. The police chief also monitored the marchers and the crowd. Both made themselves a visible, watchful presence. Our town’s only undercover detective crouched in doorways, moving among us as unobtrusively as he could, given that we all knew him. Meanwhile, men in dresses marched Main Street in an almost grandfatherly fashion. These men reminded me of many I’d grown up with. Like those men, they’d probably worked long and hard all their lives. That day they seemed a dying breed. The last of the lawless vigilantes who had nothing to do with free speech and everything to do with intimidation and fear. But they weren’t scary. They just seemed like ancient relics, resurrecting themselves for a final, empty show.
In any small town, Main Street is not a long street and soon they reached the end. They marched away.
In 1989, racism and authoritarianism were certainly starting to die. Freedom was certainly spreading all over the world. I wish I could see that world again but in my young, hopeful eyes. Now, almost three decades later, the Klan plans another rally in another mountain town, my town, Charlottesville, Virginia. I’m older now. Old enough to know that young reporter was wrong. Old enough, this time, to be scared.