Did The NAACP Learn Anything From Meeting With The Klan?
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Switching gears now, we'd like to talk about what may have been a first of its kind meeting between two groups that have traditionally been at odds. Representatives of the Casper, Wyoming branch of the NAACP, the venerable civil rights advocacy group, recently sat down to talk with an organizer from the Ku Klux Klan, a group that most human rights advocates consider a hate group, whose members have a documented history of domestic terrorism aimed at racial and religious minorities in this country. The meeting took months to set up and it does appear that this was the first time an organized discussion of this type has taken place between representatives of the two groups. Jeremy Fugleberg was there. He's an assistant managing editor of the Casper Star Tribune and he joins us now to tell us more about it. Thanks so much for joining us.
JEREMY FUGLEBERG: Hi, pleasure to be here.
MARTIN: So who called whom and what was the purpose of the meeting?
FUGLEBERG: Well, from what I understand, the NAACP reached out several months ago. They sent a letter to the United Klans of America, which is a KKK group. And they had been hearing calls from black men in a town named Gillette, which is about 130 miles north of here, which is about spitting distance in Wyoming. What he heard - what Jimmy Simmons, whose the name of the Casper branch president - was that they had been assaulted when in the company of white women. There had also been reports of Klan literature being distributed around town, which led Jimmy Simmons to believe that there was some Klan activity that was starting to grow in that part of the state.
MARTIN: So Jimmy Simmons was the representative of the NAACP. He issued the invitation. Who came from the Klan?
FUGLEBERG: From the Klan, it was a man named John Abarr. He identified himself later as a kleagle, an organizer for the Klan based out of Great Falls, Montana.
MARTIN: Tell us - so just tell us about the meeting. I mean, you said it took a long time to set up, set the scene. What happened?
FUGLEBERG: Well, it's a small - it happened in a small meeting room in a hotel here. A table kind of in the center of it, but very cramped space around it, florescent lighting, wood paneled walls. And a security team was there. They were paid by the NAACP, but they were there to screen both the NAACP and the Klansmen. So it was - the idea was to try to build a safe place of trust for both sides.
MARTIN: So then what happened? You said - I understand the meeting went on for about two hours. What was it like, like awkward first date?
FUGLEBERG: Oh, awkward first date. I think all my first dates were probably less awkward than this, which doesn't say anything about me, but it was quite a room. You had the NAACP on one side of the table. You had the one Klansman on another and they swung right into it. There were certainly some pleasantries at the beginning. And the next moment, we were talking about interracial marriage. And he would come out and say, of course, things that were completely consistent with his position as a Klansmen, but just odd to hear said out in the air, much less in front of leaders of the NAACP.
MARTIN: Like we don't believe in interracial marriage because we want white babies.
FUGLEBERG: Yeah. We want white babies. Just flat-out said straight and then he'd just look around at all of them. But they piled on, they kept pushing forward and asking questions. It was very much the NAACP questioning him, trying to find out what he believes, asking questions about the Klan's formation and how fractured it was, what sort of involvement they had in Wyoming. And trying to get down to how he justified the positions that he personally was claiming.
MARTIN: Did they ever get to the question of whether the Klan was somehow involved in these assaults? Did they ever shed any light on these incidents?
FUGLEBERG: The NAACP believes that there has been that pattern. We've tried independently to confirm that and it's been difficult. But suffice it to say, they didn't get an answer from the KKK on whether there was any KKK involvement there or not. In fact, John Abarr said, oh, he didn't know anything about that. He didn't have anything to do with that. I don't know whether that was true or not. There was other things he said that I would question so I'm not sure.
MARTIN: Well, he said that - but he did say in your article - he said that they agreed that Abarr - John Abarr - the Klan representative agreed that if there had been such assaults that those were hate crimes and not acceptable. Did that surprise you? Did that surprise members of the NAACP that he said that - that he agreed that that was not acceptable?
FUGLEBERG: I think it did. I think it caught them off guard. But I also think, just from having been there, it felt so odd to hear that and it felt very flip. It seemed like he was sort of putting a fresh coat of paint on something and saying that's what it was.
MARTIN: Did the NAACP folks challenge him on his opinions? Or were they more interviewing him? Were they more kind of doing your job, interviewing him about his point of view?
FUGLEBERG: No. They certainly challenged him. Jimmy Simmons, the branch president - he definitely took a lead in, almost moderating it, trying to draw out saying, OK, well, tell me more about that. Other members there were much, much harsher on him saying, look, how can you say that? How do you know that you're not black?
MARTIN: Really? They asked him how does he know he's not black? Interesting question.
FUGLEBERG: Right. Right. Well, because they were talking about Klan recruiting. And he was insisting, oh, I wouldn't let anybody who is black join. And they said, well, OK, so how do you know? They said, do you subscribe to this one drop of blood process? And he says, oh yeah, that's definitely how we do it. And then he said, then again, of course the question is - how do you know? Oh, I would know. I would know if somebody was black, he said. And they all laughed at that because, under his standards, that's not necessarily an easy thing to just be able to claim.
MARTIN: I was curious about what else struck you. I know one of the things that struck me from your interview is where he talked about why he liked being in the Klan. He liked - he said because you wear robes and you get out and light crosses and have secret handshakes. That he kind of liked the fraternal aspect of it - if I can - am I capturing it accurately?
FUGLEBERG: Yeah. He definitely seemed excited about the sense of belonging that you get from an organization like that, I suppose. He even mentioned, at one point - I didn't mention this in the article but - he even mentioned at one point, he almost equated being a member of the KKK to being a historical reenactor almost. And they pushed him on that - the NAACP members pushed him on that and said, how do you do that without realizing that you're taking on the form and the character of an organization with the history that it has. And every time he was pushed on that he would admit that, sure, there had been some things during reconstruction, but other than that, he wasn't aware of anything.
MARTIN: How did the whole meeting end up? You said they talked for about two hours and then what - did they - everybody just kind of feel all-talked-out? How did it end up?
FUGLEBERG: Well, it started winding down. One of the members, Mel Hamilton, took the stance of trying to sum it up and say, you know, I'm really not happy with what I'm hearing. I don't think you're aware of your own history and I don't feel like you're coming here seriously. I don't think you're taking this seriously. Then he was asked, near the end, well, so what do you think of the NAACP now after this meeting? And he said, oh, I think I really have more respect for the NAACP for having this meeting happen. I think it was awesome.
And then, Mr. Simmons, out of the blues, says, well, would you like to join up? Would you like to become a member? And he said, sure, yeah. I'd have no problem doing that. And the next thing you know, he was signing the application form to become a member of the NAACP.
MARTIN: And wrote a check.
FUGLEBERG: And wrote a check with a donation built in for $20 above the membership fee, with almost a smile on his face. And very quickly and looked like he was just shaking hands and doing business.
MARTIN: So how do people feel about it in the NAACP branch who initiated this invitation and this sit down? How did they feel about it?
FUGLEBERG: So he goes out of the room with security immediately after that. And I walked up to Jimmy Simmons and said, what the hell just happened? I think he was trying to piece it together, too. I think he was genuinely caught off guard by John Abarr's willingness to sign up for the NAACP. And he said, you know, I think it's an organization that's trying to shed its skin. But that's, of course, something that doesn't change what you are. And I don't know that they were ultimately happy with what they heard. They got maybe a better understanding of this man's beliefs, but as far as changing something, I'm not sure that happened.
MARTIN: Jeremy Fugleberg is an assistant managing editor for news at the Casper Star Tribune. And we reached him at his office there. Jeremy Fugleberg, thanks so much for speaking with us.
FUGLEBERG: Thank you so much.
MARTIN: If you would like to read Jeremy Fugleberg's articles about the meeting between the NAACP and the Ku Klux Klan in Casper, Wyoming, go to our website. Go to NPR.org/TELLMEMORE.