A Klan Auction, and a Lesson

Earlier this year, an auctioneer in Howell, Mich., 50 miles outside of Detroit, sold nearly a dozen Ku Klux Klan robes to various buyers. The sale stirred a furor of protests by the residents of the predominantly white community. For commentator Desiree Cooper, the auction provided a chance to give her teenagers an education.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Howell, Michigan, is 50 miles outside Detroit, and earlier this year an auction house there sold nearly a dozen Ku Klux Klan robes to several buyers. The sale caused a local controversy in the community, which is mostly white. Before the robes went on the block, commentator Desiree Cooper took her teen-agers to see one of them.

DESIREE COOPER:

We rarely entered Ole' Gray Nash's Auction Gallery. It's a ramshackle box of a building that's regularly home to old guns, knives, coins and war medals. I was braced for aloofness, maybe even hostility. But the woman at the counter just looked up and chirped, `Let me know if I can show you anything.' I cleared my throat and said as normally as possible (clears throat), `We're interested in the Klan robe.' The woman, now less perky, nodded toward the corner where the robe was hanging. It was as if she pointed the way to a den of wolves.

The kids and I exchanged glances. None of us had ever seen a Klan robe. I took one look and suddenly I had the urge to laugh. It was a surprisingly skimpy and light robe, like a cheap Halloween costume. Hanging there without the block of a bigoted man's shoulders, it seemed unusually small. It's white cape had been lined with a deep red fabric. The color had bled through, and now the cape was tinted pink. It almost looked effeminate, like women's lingerie. But my scoff was stifled by the sight of the badges on each breast: a drop of blood at the center of a white cross on a red background.

`Can we touch it?' asked my son, fascinated. The owner said that we could, and we did. The feeling was electric, like the heat of flaming crosses reflecting in our eyes, like the burn of ropes at our necks, like the gallop of horses pounding in our ears, like the hateful twilight ghosts crowding our front yard. On the ride home, my son said that it was like touching snake skin. `My hand jumped away,' he said. My daughter had been most surprised by its texture. `I thought it would be coarse and long,' she said, `not short and made of silk.'

Why did I take my children on a field trip to see a Klan robe? Maybe it was to comfort them. From the safety of the year 2005, they can see the robe for what it is: a limp, goofy-looking piece of satin as ridiculous as the beliefs it represents.

Or maybe it was to awaken them. The robe may be hanging feebly in a tacky Michigan gallery, but there are countless more where it came from. Some are still being cherished inside old trunks, and some are still being worn proudly by people my family might even know.

NORRIS: Desiree Cooper is a columnist with the Detroit Free Press.

MELISSA BLOCK (Host): This is NPR, National Public Radio.

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