Featured image: Members of the Ku Klux Klan at a rally in the 1970s. Pix by Mark Foley for the Associated Press, taken from floridamemory.com
Over the past 23 years the southern state of Georgia in the United States has been running a programme called ‘Adopt A Highway’. It is a great plan that cuts the state’s expenditure on highway maintenance and promotes direct citizen participation.
In an effort to foster public awareness about litter prevention and improve the appearance of the state’s highways, any civic-minded organisation, business, individual, family, city, county, state, or federal agency is welcome to participate. And if you are disinclined enough to pick up trash, you may also contribute wildflower seeds to beautify an adopted site. In return the state will give you official recognition for your efforts—for example, a road sign in your name.
So successful was the scheme that last year alone Georgia saw 173 organisations (4,100 individuals) serving more than 300 kilometres of roadway. But the Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT) in charge of the programme was recently thrown into a conundrum. None other than the White supremacist Ku Klux Klan submitted an application to participate in the noble cause.
Many are convinced this is a rebranding, publicity and recruitment attempt by the formerly vigilante organisation whose membership has dwindled from an estimated “millions” in the 1800s to about 8,000 in recent years.
Although they no longer use lynching and cross burnings as tactics to intimidate non-Whites, their call for White ketuanan remains the same. The Klan’s move to apply for and gain legitimacy through the programme in the post-civil rights movement era warrants a curt response. But according to the “Exalted Cyclops” of the Klan’s state chapter, “We just want to clean up the doggone road”.
The GDOT was forced to review their request as the Klan’s existence and freedom of speech are protected by law, and besides, the application was made properly. To deny the Klan’s application would drag Georgia down the same path as Missouri. In 1997 Missouri rejected a similar request from the Klan but a federal appeals court ruled against the state.
The court said that asking the Klan to alter its membership requirements in order to qualify for the program would “censor its message and inhibit its constitutionally protected conduct”. Unlike Missouri however, Georgia has among the highest and fastest-growing Black populations in the United States. Regarded by some as the Black “Mecca” it is also the home state of Dr Martin Luther King Jr, an icon of the American civil rights movement.
And much has changed since the 1997 Missouri case; the White House is now occupied by a Black family. Tyrone Brooks, head of the Georgia Association of Black Elected Officials, said that the mere consideration of the Klan’s application was itself offensive.
But after weeks of deliberations the GDOT took a bold stand last Tuesday in rejecting the Klan’s application. “The impact of erecting a road sign naming an organisation which has a long rooted history of civil disturbance would cause a significant public concern,” said a GDOT official. Thus the state is prepared go to court against the Klan, which ironically has sought help from the American Civil Liberties Union.
The Klan would present a seemingly sound argument, as did its state chapter secretary: “Would it be any different if it was the Black Panthers or something? Someone always has some kind of race card”.
Can you imagine Malaysia’s federal or state government making the same decisions as Georgia, against its own various supremacist groups? One is suddenly reminded of Dr King’s words, “Never forget that everything Hitler did in Germany was legal”.