On April 19, 1980, three members of the Justice Knights in Chattanooga burned two crosses in the middle of the black community and then went on a shotgun shooting spree that wounded five women—four standing in a crowd on the sidewalk and another who was sitting in a car. No one was charged with the crossburning, which should have at least elicited an arson charge. The three Klansmen were charged with attempted murder and acquitted by an all-white jury. Two of the Kluxers walked free of an assault charge, and one served four months in a workhouse and then was let go. After the verdicts, there were three days of rebellion in the black community.
The National Anti-Klan Network, which later changed its name to the Center for Democratic Renewal, pressed the Reagan administration to charge all the Klansmen with civil rights violations. The head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division William Bradford Reynolds sent a letter to the Network which read in part, “there is insufficient evidence on which to prosecute pursuant to the federal civil rights statutes.” Later, in 1987, when a white mob of 400 throw rocks, bottles and other materials at a multi-racial “Brotherhood” march in Forsyth County, Georgia, Reynolds regarded the action as “childish prattle.” By contrast, as I wrote in my book, Blood and Politics, “when the Reagan administration perceived that the rights of white people were compromised, the Justice Department leaped into action.
The story does not end with the Justice Department’s refusal to seek justice, however. The Anti-Klan Network, working with the Center for Constitutional Rights (who served as attorneys), sued the Chattanooga Justice Knights for damages and won the first contemporary lawsuit against the Klan in 1981. The women who were shot won monetary damages and the Klan was brought under an injunction to forbid violence in the black community. Later, the Southern Poverty Law Center won multiple cases against white supremacists. In an era where indictments of law breaking white supremacists are scarce, the need intensifies for organizations that focus on stopping the white nationalist movement in its tracks.
Consider the present. Former Alabama Senator Jeffrey Beauregard Sessions was just confirmed as Attorney General. He has a long and awful record of opposition to voting rights and civil rights, as noted by both the NAACP and the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. His past includes a letter and memo opposing Sessions appointment to the federal judiciary written by Mrs. Coretta Scott King in 1986. The Alabama Senator had “used the awesome powers of his office in a shabby attempt to intimidate and frighten elderly black voters.”
More, Reuters and other news sources have reported that administration officials are currently considering renaming the Department of Homeland Security’s Countering Violent Extremism task force into “Countering Radical Islamic Extremism.” If they did so, according to the news chatter, they would elide concern with violence stemming from white supremacists.
One thing we can all be sure of: in the next period we will still be fighting for voting rights, public education, labor union rights, and for basic justice. The current administration cannot be counted on, period. Large mass protests like the women’s marches, the immigrant rights protests, and the fight for a living wage and a union by fast food workers, COMBINED with smart, savvy organizations that expose, report on and counter the white supremacists can ultimately lead to justice and human rights. The Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights is one such smart savvy organization. Count on it!