Sunday, January 10, 2016

The Twentieth-Century Klan (second edition!)

A day or so ago, I posted over on "Roundheads and Ramblings" a description of the original Klan -- the one that appears in my books. But doing so reminded me of my experiences with the more modern version of that organization. Thought some of you would enjoy seeing the differences. In 1964 my husband's military career took us to the Panhandle of Florida. I had no trouble finding a teaching job in the local high school, but I was something of an innocent about what I was getting into. In 1964, this particular school system was completely segregated, but they were already under court order to desegregate. The change came about in the 1965-1966 school year. In the school board's short-sighted wisdom, they decided to simple close all the black schools and send their students to whatever school was closest. No thought was given to numbers, transportation, faculty needs, or even desk space and books for the newcomers. So in September, the student body of my school doubled, and classrooms that held 25 desks now had 40 or more students assigned. It was, as you can imagine a total disaster.

The faculty spent most of the summer trying to sort out records, reschedule all classes, scrounge around for books, etc. The thing that shocked me most, however, was the presence of the Ku Klux Klan, who decided that the teachers were to blame for all of this. On the first day of actual classes, we arrived to find the building surrounded by white-robed, masked, cone-headed Klansmen bearing various picket signs and blocking the entrance to the parking lot and the building. Eventually the sheriff showed up and made them unblock the entrances. Instructions given to school bus drivers and those trying to part private cars was to gun the engine and run straight for the picketers. If they didn't get out of the way, the sheriff would not blame anyone who hit them. That was scary, but after a few days we all got used to playing the game. Drivers stepped on the gas and the Klansmen jumped. No one was injured; no threats materialized; no violence of any kind -- just taunting words.

Once everyone was safely inside the school, classes went on as scheduled. The picketers did not try to come inside because they would not risk getting arrested, but they continued to parade around the grounds and wave the signs at our classroom windows. This went on for weeks, but petered out when the weather turned cold and rainy. White robes look really silly when they get wet.

Still, there was one more chapter to come. The Klan turned its attacks even more sharply against faculty members for going about their business of teaching all comers. One by one we became the recipients of burning crosses. I still remember my turn vividly. It was a Saturday morning, and a neighbor woke us by pounding on the door and telling us that our yard was on fire. Sure enough, someone had planted a burning cross in front of our house, and the flames had started a grass fire. Now, you have to understand the nature of yards like ours. We had coarse grass growing, but the lot was dotted with 32 tall white pine trees that dropped prodigious amounts of pine straw on top of the grass, straw that was nearly impossible to rake up because it was sticky and overgrown by the spreading grass. The result? A really ugly lawn. But now the pine straw burned, and the neighbors who had come to watch advised that we let it burn.

They arranged hoses from neighboring yards to play on the foundation of the house to protect it, but the grass fire was allowed to burn itself out. The result this time? Within a few weeks, we had the healthiest, greenest lawn in the neighborhood. A good cross-burning turned out to be a great landscaping move. And that's how I learned to laugh at the Ku Klux Klan.

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