I saw Virgil Griffin the other day. I really, really hope I never see him again. Griffin is the Imperial Wizard of the Cleveland Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, one of an alphabet soup of Klan organizations, a secret terror state inaugurated almost as a joke by six bored Confederate veterans in Pulaski, Tenn., on Christmas Eve 1865. www.iupui.edu/~aao/kkk.html One hundred years later, the Boys in the Hoods were anything but a joke, having long ago mutated from a semi-goofy fraternal organization into a nationwide domestic terrorist organization that has murdered thousands in the name of some bloody, horrible God, His victims hung in trees, riddled with bullets and burned. www.americanlynching.com/photos-old.htm
On Aug. 3, 1966, the apogee of the Civil Rights Movement, Dr. Martin Luther King was speaking at Reynolds at N.C. State, so the Klan arranged a welcoming committee in Nash Square. My old man, a bearded, lib'ril know-it-all professah, attended both, along with his small children.
Hundreds of them crowded into the park that day. I remember fear, heat, yelling, black clubs, and some really ugly talk, but mostly what I remember are the clothes: chromed helmets, gray storm-trooper shirts, Sam Brown belts, boots--and one particularly elaborate shiny Klan robe the color of Rose's Lime Juice that I oddly coveted, not fully understanding what this was all about. Some wore U.S. military uniforms--my father, a Navy veteran, was furious.
We got out in one piece, probably because we were kids. In some ways, it was a gentler time.
Ol' Virg, a fresh recruit at that point, was undoubtedly there somewhere. Years of chasing these goons across the South had made him increasingly familiar as he rose through the ranks.
Saturday, he was in Greensboro speaking before a Truth and Reconciliation Commission about the open wound of the 1979 massacre perpetrated by a combined detachment of Klan and Nazis. www.gtcrp.org/
I hoped that time would have dulled some of the hate, but Griffin was defiant and unrepentant: "I think if people here's worried about the citizens of Greensboro and worried about Greensboro, you should forget 1979 and go on with your life." He called the commission, the first held in the United States, "a total waste of time."
He was asked about violence. "I'm against violence," he said.
When asked what good things the Klan did, he was silent for a time, finally stammering, "We help the elderly, cut grass."
Any mistakes that day? "I don't think we made any, I don't guess. We all come out alive."
A commissioner asked why shots struck only Communist Workers' Party leaders.
"Maybe God guided the bullets," Griffin said, once again invoking a deity so awful, so alien that I had a sudden feeling of compassion for one so riddled with hatred. I thought of what an awful, confused existence this man, desiccated and old before his time, had endured--when he looked in the mirror in the morning, what it was he saw.