The Supreme Court is tackling the tricky question of whether states can ban cross burning - a potent symbol of hate - without violating the First Amendment.
Justice Clarence Thomas said a burning cross symbolizes only the Ku Klux Klan's century-long "reign of terror" against black communities. As an expression that's intended only to cause fear, he reasoned, it's a form of speech that deserves no Constitutional protection. How did a religious symbol become the ultimate form of hate-speech?
University of Alabama professor Diane Roberts English claims that Klan cross burning emerged from Scottish influences. In an article she wrote for the Oxford American, English says the Klan, "founded in 1866 in Tennessee, may have been patterned after the mysterious Society of the Horseman's Word from eastern Scotland, as well as the Knight's Templar." Scots used burning crosses as rallying symbols on their way to war, and, according to Joe Roy, a director at the Southern Poverty Law Center, crosses were set afire on Scottish hilltops to warn of enemy invasion. Thomas Dixon's 1905 best-seller "The Clansman" called cross burning the "ancient symbol of an unconquered race of men."
Barry Black, a Klan leader who is appealing his Virginia cross burning conviction has described cross burning as "a very sacred ritual.
"We don't light [the cross] to desecrate it," he told the Roanoke Times in 1999. "We light it to show that Christ is still alive." The burning symbolizes the "burning away of evil."
The American Knights of the Ku Klux Klan website also emphasizes a distinction between Klan-sanctioned cross lighting and illegal cross burning.
Though the difference may carry legal significance, both spectacles remain a powerful expression of Klan values and a disturbing reminder of bigotry against blacks.
But is the Klan responsible for cross burning? Mr. Roy says while nearly 1,700 acts of cross burning were reported in the last 15 years, few were committed by card-carrying members of the KKK.
Now the Supreme Court must decide upon the proper balance between freedom of speech and freedom from fear.
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