Guess who’s coming to dinner? The Ku Klux Klan
What began as a local hot topic in Memphis, Tennessee has become a national news story of hidden history, shock value, and flat out gall. Last week, during my morning ritual, I tuned in to the news to hear the recording of a phone call from a member of the Ku Klux Klan vowing to bring the largest KKK rally the city has ever seen. Exalted Cyclops only gave a first name, Edward, for anonymity; as if a sheet for a head covering with two small cutouts for eyes isn’t enough.
A little back story first: In downtown Memphis, there’s a park named in honor of Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate lieutenant and founder of the KKK, which also serves as his gravesite. There, stands a statue of Forrest in Confederate uniform on a horse. I admit that though I’ve never been pleased with a park named after him, after a while, I didn’t pay it any attention. The park was near my former job, and I would drive past it often for lunch.
There have been crowded meetings at City Hall to defend or support Forrest in his death. Was he a decent man simply involved in the business of that time—slavery, or was he a hateful man who taunted and also burned crosses and killed African Americans? Ida B. Wells Park and Forrest-Wells Park were suggested, but didn’t pan out. To remain neutral, I suppose, the city council voted 9-0 to rename the park “Health Sciences Park.”
Enter the KKK. Le sigh.
“Edward,” the state area leader says, “It’s not going to be 20 or 30. It’s going to be thousands of Klansmen from the whole United States coming to Memphis, Tennessee.”
The rally is set for May or June, so there’s plenty of time to round up the gang. In the meantime, they’ve sent derogatory emails to the City Council, saying, “You have once again under estimated the will and devotion of the true white patriot.”
I wonder just what they’re hoping to accomplish here besides exercising their right to protest peacefully. The vote is in, and it’s settled. If the park was so precious, why hadn’t I seen any of them hanging out on the green landscaped grass in all of these years?
Could this be what Malcolm X once described as chickens coming home to roost? Have we—not just Memphis, but America, pushed race issues so far in the back of our minds that it takes something like a name change for a small park to bring out radicals?
As a native Memphian, I’ve also wondered why this place I call home was the place ordained to end the Civil Rights Movement with gunshots to the balcony of the Lorraine Hotel. I’ve listened to my mother recount that fateful night in April 1968 when Dr. King was killed. Sure, riots broke out all over the country out of hurt, anger and sadness, but it was nothing like the experience here, she said. Maybe the city was cursed, or maybe, like so many other southern cities, it was built on racism and the “old way.” After all, even parks, which should be places for individuals and families to enjoy outdoors peacefully, are still named in Klansmen’s honor.
Come what may, we will have to face our demons and make peace with them, or get rid of them for good. That’s the only way they won’t return.