KKK comes to town - on highway signs

The Klan's recent battle to adopt a Missouri road may foreshadow

Bordered by rocky outcroppings, the anonymous 12-lane stretch of highway in suburban St. Louis doesn't look much like a battle zone. Indeed, the only evidence of a struggle is a waist-high wooden signpost planted along the shoulder, its upper portion chain-sawed off and carted away by vandals.

The missing sign - and its also-stolen counterpart in the northbound direction - had proclaimed that the knights of the Ku Klux Klan had adopted a mile of road for litter control.

The signs were posted last week, after the Klan won a five-year legal battle against the Missouri Department of Transportation (MODOT) - which sponsors the program and opposes KKK involvement. They disappeared less than 24 hours later.

Around town, the skirmish has provoked no small amount of anguish and outrage, but it also may presage similar moves by the Klan nationwide to enhance its image. The Klan has already clashed with highway departments in Texas, Arkansas, and Maryland.

Now, with the KKK trying to offset a drop in membership levels, it is seeking new ways to raise its profile without breaking its legendary secrecy.

"The Klan seeks ways to be both invisible as individuals but visible as an organization," says Leslie Brown, an assistant professor of history and African-American studies at Washington University in St. Louis. "The strategy deemphasizes such things as TV in favor of options ranging from highway signs to Internet sites."

Yet, in the minds of many, the Klan's legacy of hatred and violence - stretching back to Reconstruction - has created a mountain of historical baggage that bulging litter bags can't overcome. MODOT offices were flooded with calls opposing placement of the signs.

The department listened with a sympathetic ear. "We are ... adamantly opposed to the KKK's participation in this program, because the KKK is known to unlawfully discriminate and has a history of violent criminal activity," says Henry Hungerbeeler, the transportation department's director. "We are very concerned that this would appear that we are providing a forum for the KKK, which is not the intention of the Adopt-A-Highway program."

For supporters of the Klan's effort, though, this is about more than the past. "It's a victory for the First Amendment," says Bob Herman, the lawyer representing the KKK on behalf of the American Civil Liberties Union. "This case has never been about spreading the message of the Klan, it's about abuse of government power."

Adopt-A-Highway programs came into vogue in the 1980s. Typically, companies or fraternal organizations in a locality assume responsibility for keeping a mile of roadway clean and tidy. In exchange, a highway sign acknowledges their participation.

In Missouri, there have been calls to eliminate highway adoption entirely as the ultimate way to exclude Klan participation. So far, MODOT has resisted the idea, arguing that the program as a whole - with more than 4,500 sponsoring organizations - has been highly successful.

When Missouri Klansmen originally applied to the Adopt-A-Highway program in 1994, they selected a stretch of roadway within St. Louis. The bid was rejected - the first rejection in the 10-year history of the program, which includes 700 organizations - and a moratorium imposed on new participants. A federal judge eventually ruled that the moratorium reflected "legitimate safety concerns."

Elsewhere around the country, attempts to combat the Klan's antilitter crusade have taken various forms. In Texas, as in Missouri, the state went to court, greeting a local Klan's Adopt-A-Highway application with a federal lawsuit claiming the proposed sign was intended to intimidate minorities. The Klan backed down.

At least one locality has taken the ultimate step of canceling an Adopt-A-Highway program as a means of denying Klan participation. Officials in Anne Arundel County in Maryland abolished a program there earlier this year rather than face a court challenge by the KKK. That program, however, was relatively small, with only 23 volunteer groups.

Arkansas is the only other state where the issue has resulted in a court decision favoring the Klan. But KKK signs along a highway in the northern part of the state have been spray-painted or stolen so frequently - a dozen signs in four years - that the state eventually gave up replacing them. The Klan neglected to renew its application.

As for litter control, nearby residents report that outraged motorists responded to the sign by giving the Klan additional work - dumping their garbage on the spot.

Such a pattern may repeat itself in Missouri. MODOT estimates it will take six to eight weeks to replace the KKK signs stolen last week. In addition, the state highway patrol says it doesn't have the staff or inclination to guard the signs 24 hours a day.

In January the two sides will argue the case once more in a US appeals court. State transportation officials have said that, if they win on appeal, the signs will be removed immediately.

That is, if they're still there.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.