STANDING behind the counter of the Cohoctah General Store just north of here, Elizabeth Brewer tells a dark secret.
Last spring, flanked by four classmates from Howell High School, she tromped out to a clearing in the woods to watch a handful of Ku Klux Klan members, draped in sheets, set fire to a cross made of two-by-fours. The experience, she says, ``turned my stomach.''
Yet to many Michigan residents, Miss Brewer's admission is not much of a surprise. Howell, seat of rural Livingston County 50 miles west of Detroit, has a reputation for being the kind of place where a person of color wouldn't want to see the sun go down.
But that image is changing. Fed up with their town's depiction as a bigoted backwater, Howell's political, religious, and business leaders have begun to make inroads in a five-year fight for civic redemption.
After two drunken teenagers burned a cross in the yard of one of Howell's only black families in 1989, outraged residents formed Livingston 2001, a countywide group committed to providing children with alternatives to racial prejudice.
While Livingston 2001 brings in speakers and sponsors cultural-diversity programs in county schools, its most visible effort is its peaceful resistance to the Klan. Last July, a Klan contingent based 160 miles away in Waters, Mich., chose Howell as one of two sites for a weekend rally. Livingston 2001 members mobilized, urging residents to stay away and providing transportation to alternative events outside the city.
Wearing rainbow-colored ribbons and anti-Klan T-shirts, the group held a vigil the night before the rally, and a ``cleansing'' ceremony the morning after, scouring the courthouse steps with brooms, mops, and prayers.
In two weeks, Livingston 2001 members will perform the drill all over again, in answer to the Klan's second scheduled appearance of the year in this town of 8,000, where 98 percent of the population is white.
According to David Neumann, imperial wizard of the Michigan Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, the focus on Howell is designed to send a message to ``criminal elements'' in nearby Lansing and Detroit that they are not welcome.
While he denounces both the Klan and the often violent counterdemonstrators who shadow them, Howell Mayor Paul Streng says the upcoming rally, and the media attention it will surely bring, may actually work to the city's advantage.
``We think of this rally as an opportunity for us to state emphatically that racism is not welcome here, that it's not what we're about,'' he says. ``Howell is no more or less tolerant than any other American community, but people have painted us with a very broad brush.''
Rafe Ezekiel, associate professor of sociology at the University of Michigan and a student of extremist groups, says the Klan first took hold in the area in the 1920s. Membership in Livingston County got a boost during the tumult of the civil rights era, he says, when handfuls of disgruntled white city dwellers moved here.
But Howell's racist reputation peaked in the 1970s, Professor Ezekiel says, when legendary Klan activist Robert Miles, a Howell resident, was arrested for bombing school buses in a Detroit suburb following an integration order.
Freed in 1984 from a seven-year term in federal prison, Miles returned to the Howell area where he hosted biannual festivals at his ranch that drew leaders of the white supremacist movement from all over the country, as well as scores of television trucks. By the time of his death in 1992, Miles had made Howell a dubious blip on the national radar.
While most Livingston County residents point to Miles as the source of their reputation, those who followed his story say he was not exactly snubbed.
``Bob Miles was out here talking about genocide and to my recollection, there was never anyone who made him feel uncomfortable,'' says Russ Bellant, a freelance writer from Detroit. ``Howell was the way a lot of America was in the 1950s. There was no presence of any institution or organization that took racism on.''
Newcomers shift attitudes
Since the Klan leader's death, however, Livingston County has made some economic and cultural strides. Unemployment has declined to 5.2 percent, and officials expect population to swell 15 percent by the end of the decade. In addition, several auto-industry suppliers have moved to Howell, including Uniboring, a precision-machining firm owned by Hispanics.
Nelida Bravo of Uniboring says that initially, many minority employees were leery of the company's move from Detroit. But since then, some have grown comfortable enough to settle in Howell.
``As far as we're concerned, Howell's only claim to fame is Robert Miles,'' says Danny Welch, director of Klanwatch, a monitoring group at the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala. ``With Miles gone, I certainly don't think of Howell as a nerve center for Klan activity anymore.''
Challenging children's legacy
Yet nobody here argues that racism has been wholly eradicated. Karen Livingston-Wilson, an assistant vice president at Citizens Insurance in Howell and a board member of Livingston 2001, says racial harassment is still frequent. Ms. Livingston-Wilson, who is black, says she was verbally assaulted by several men in a pickup truck over the summer.
``It's not just a bad reputation, and it's not just the legacy of Bob Miles,'' she says. ``There is a past history with the Klan here, and these people have imparted their beliefs to their children. It won't go away anytime soon, but hopefully growth will dilute it.''
Livingston-Wilson, who commutes to work, says that for most minorities who work in Howell, moving to Livingston County ``is not even an option.''
Eric Brittner, athletic director at Pioneer High School in Ann Arbor, Mich., says in recent years, black members of the school's boys and girls basketball teams have been taunted during games at Howell, and his school has limited the number of games its athletes play there.
Megan McDonald, president of the Diversity Club at Howell High School, says that while cultural sensitivity is improving, ``there's still a lot of ignorance and stupidity in the schools.''
Nevertheless, the consensus among Livingston 2001 members is that because of the county's reputation, outsiders tend to inflate the actions of its racist minority. Those who point their fingers at Howell, they say, are often hypocrites.
``People like to have a bad guy,'' says Lee Reeves, president of the Howell Area Chamber of Commerce. ``If it's us, they don't have to blame themselves. In a way, the world outside doesn't want us to change. That way, they don't have to look at what's going on in their own communities.''