Three days after the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s iconic "I Have a Dream" speech, a meeting took place that the civil rights leader probably never would have envisioned: A Ku Klux Klan member and officials for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People held a meeting to discuss race relations.
Last Saturday, KKK organizer John Abarr walked into a conference room at the Parkway Plaza Hotel in Casper, Wyo., went through a security check, and then greeted four local NAACP leaders.
For several months Jimmy Simmons, president of the Casper NAACP, had heard reports about black men getting beat up – usually when they were with white women – in Gillette, Wyo. Klan pamphlets began circulating there around the same time. A frustrated Mr. Simmons considered holding a rally against the Klan.
After all, the NAACP was founded to empower groups that the KKK sought to intimidate into submission.
But Simmons decided to do something different: He reached out to Klan leaders.
“If you want to talk about hate, get a hater,” he said. “Let him tell you something about hate,” he said, according to the Casper Star-Tribune, which had exclusive coverage of Saturday's meeting.
Rosemary Lytle, president of the Colorado, Montana and Wyoming State Area Conference for the NAACP, said she had told Simmons not to arrange the meeting, according to the Star-Tribune. Bradley Jenkins, the UKA's imperial wizard, said he sanctioned the event, AP reported.
On Saturday, Mr. Abarr tried to disassociate the Klan from its violent past, painting the organization as a cultural entity, rather than a white supremacist group.
“I just know what it is today,” he said during the meeting. “I had relatives in the Klan in the ’20s, and they didn’t lynch anybody.” Hate-driven violence may still occur, but those perpetrators are hoodlums, and there's no proof it is Klan violence, Abarr explained, according to the Star-Tribune.
“You’re really confusing me, because I don’t think you understand the seriousness of your group,” said Mel Hamilton, another representative of the NAACP who was present.
Abarr said he knew nothing about the reported occurrences in Gillette, AP reported.
Abarr would not discuss how the Klan evolved or what exactly it does, according to the Star-Tribune. He did say that he holds the Klan rank of kleagle, or an organizer, in Great Falls, Mont.
“What I like to do is recruit really radical kids, then calm them down after they join,” Abarr said in response to questions about the Klan encouraging racial tensions.
He also listed his own credentials as a member of antiracist groups including the American Civil Liberties Union and the Southern Poverty Law Center. (A lawsuit from the Southern Poverty Law Center led to the dismantling of the original UKA in the 1980s, according to AP.)
But Abarr’s Twitter account – @TheHoodedone33 – tells a different story. “We must unite as a race and take back our country,” is part of a milder tweet from earlier this year.
During the meeting, Abarr also espoused ideas about secession. He said the northwestern United States – Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Washington, and Oregon – should legally secede from the Union and form a white territory. Primarily black states should also secede, he said.
In an odd finale to the meeting, Abarr became a member of the NAACP at Simmons’s invitation. The membership cost $30, and Abarr added a $20 donation before he snapped his briefcase shut, shook hands with Simmons, and left the hotel.
"I don't know if we accomplished too much," Abarr said, according to AP.
Simmons took a measured view. "It's about opening dialogue with a group that claims they're trying to reform themselves from violence," he said, according to AP. "They're trying to shed that violent skin, but it seems like they're just changing the packaging."