Fighting the Klan in the Military
By Phil Wilayto
Vol. 2, No. 4, 1980, pp. 8-11
An aircraft carrier is really a small city. When it’s out to sea with a full crew and a complement of marines, it’s 5,000 people, almost all of them young men, enclosed in a small place for months at a time. In case of trouble, mechanical or social, there’s no place to go.
On February 9, 1979, a small one-foot wooden cross, covered with some kind of flammable fabric, was found burning in the enlisted dining area of the carrier USS America. In late January, a group of White sailors attacked a group of Blacks on the USS Concord, a 400-man supply ship estimated to have 20 Klan members aboard. The Navy has admitted that it is investigating Klan activity on at least one other East Coast ship, this one based in Charleston, S.C.
And the trouble wasn’t only on ships. Within the past year there have been crosses burned outside Ft. Eustis in nearby Hampton, in rural Chesapeake, there have been incidents of spraypainting of the letters “KKK” on Black people’s property in Norfolk and in Virginia Beach.
It was in this atmosphere of increasing racist incidents in the Tidewater area of Virginia that Bill Wilkinson’, Imperial Wizard of the Invisible Empire of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, announced that he would hold a “recruiting rally” aimed at the military in Virginia Beach on October 5.
Since the 50s, the KKK has been splitting into a number of different factions and organizations. Wilkinson’s group, one of the newer ones, has established for itself a reputation as being one of the most rabidly violent of the Klan groups. This was the gang that held an armed march from Selma to Montgomery last summer, that shot into a crowd of Black demonstrators in Decatur, Alabama earlier this year, and that a few months ago was accused of whipping a White woman said to have committed the crime of eating lunch with some of her Birmingham, Alabama Black co-workers.
When Wilkinson announced his plans for the October 5 rally, a number of organizations in the Tidewater area began to make plans for a counter-demonstration. Two weeks prior to the 5th, a coalition of labor, community, civil rights, gay, and political organizations was formed to sponsor the demonstration. The coalition, called “People United for Human Justice” (PUHJ), grew to include 20 organizations and individuals, including officials from the longshoremen’s ‘union, the Teamsters, Carpenters and Joiners, Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers, the NAACP, Black Vanguard Resource Center; Unitarian-Universalist Gay Alliance, Palestine Solidarity Committee, Norfolk Coalition for Human Rights, and Workers World Party.
As both the Klan and the anti-racist coalition moved forward with their organizing, a number of other forces began to make themselves felt. One of these was the Navy.
Originally, Navy officials took the position that, while of course they deplored the racism of the Klan, they couldn’t legally forbid military personnel from attending the KKK rally. Several laws on the Navy books could apply. In particular a Defense Department directive suggests
that military personnel can be banned from unlawful gatherings and where there is a likelihood of violence.
The coalition contended that this directive applied since the Klan rally did not have a permit, and in Virginia it is against the law to appear in public with a mask or hood. Also, the Klan has a history of violence and given the community’s feeling about the Klan recruiting there was a likelihood of violence. B’nai Brith filed a formal complaint with the Navy noting that membership in the Klan is not compatible with the Navy’s stated goal of equal opportunity and affirmative action.
Besides, the military has never felt hamstrung in outlawing participation in Black or Latin organizations, anti-war groups, or other political organizations. What the Navy’s position really did was to give the go-ahead to racist Whites to attend the rally and get “recruited”. This stand was to change later on in form but not in essence.
The local city governments took a similar approach of back-handed – and sometimes direct – support for the Klan. When the PUHJ spokesperson appeared at a session of the Virginia Beach city council and asked to make a statement, he was refused permission by unanimous vote of the council. Mayor Patrick Standing’s comment was that, “It’d be better to say nothing at all.” However, when the Klan finally announced the site for its rally, where should it be but an oceanfront vacant lot owned by the mayor’s family! The few Black council members in other Tidewater cities all went on record as opposing the Klan’s local organizing efforts, but their White counterparts all refused to follow suit, a development that the Imperial Wizard said he found “encouraging”.
The press, too, played a strong role in the development. Every throat-clearing and pronouncement by Wilkinson was treated with the seriousness and respect given a visiting dignitary, while coalition spokespersons were seldom quoted directly, if at all. And while the coalition members had never mentioned intentions of violence at their
demonstration, it was that subject that seemed to most fascinate the city’s editors and TV news managers, so that by the time October 5 arrived an atmosphere of real tension had developed.
It was partially this tension that gave the Navy, which was under mounting local pressure to change its position on the Klan rally, an excuse to put the rally off-limits to military personnel. However, it also put the anti-Klan demonstrations off-limits. The Navy went even further and announced it would not have investigative agents at the KKK rally while giving the impression that investigative agents would be at the anti-Klan rally. Coalition members charged that the Navy’s new position was in fact trying to discourage anti-Klan activities while assuring racists that they would not be detected if they did go to the Klan rally. Even so, a number of sailors from the surrounding bases did turn out to protest against the Klan.
Wilkinson had set his rally for 7:30 in the evening next to the Virginia Beach Ramada Inn. At 5:30 pm, PUHJ set up a spirited picket line outside the Virginia Beach Civic Center, about a mile down the road. Under the watchful eyes of about 20 riot-equipped state police, the demonstrators carried their banners and signs and chanted, “Ku Klux Klan, Scum of the Land” and “Hey, Hey, Ho, Ho, the KKK has got to go”. The numbers gradually grew with new arrivals until well over a hundred people – Black, White, gay, civilian, military, students, and union members were all declaring their opposition to racism and racists.
About dusk, the group gathered for a rally, hearing representatives from the NAACP, Longshoremen, the Black Vanguard Resource Center, the Unitarian-Universalist Gay Alliance, and Workers World Party.
At 7:00 pm the demonstrators moved out to the Klan rally. CB reports from coalition members stationed at the rally site indicated the Klan was preparing to assemble and that some 200 state and local police had gathered around the rally site. Another group of about 40 anti-Klan demonstrators had also arrived and had set up a picket line across the street.
The police had previously announced that they would forbid anything but a small picket line. But the march proceeded anyway, behind the lead PUHJ banner reading “Organize to Defeat the
Klan”, and the chants resounded off the walls of the resort motels, bars, and cafes.
By the time the marchers reached the Ramada Inn, their numbers had grown to over 200, far more than the dozen or so robed racists and the 40 or so sympathizers they had attracted. The police, however, were another factor. Initially positioned between the Klan rally and the demonstrators, they soon removed themselves to a phalanx position behind the coalition, sandwiching the picket line in between themselves and the screaming, taunting racists. If a fight had broken out – and there was more than one demonstrator who would gladly have thrown the sheeted bigots into the sea – the picket line would have been caught between two groups that had far more in common with each other than with the picketers.
Even so, the coalition members maintained the unity of the line and the volume of their chants until Wilkinson was under the protection of the police.
But as the line proceeded back down the march route toward the Civic Center, it soon became obvious that the night was not yet over. A mob of 40 to 50 White youth tagged along the side of the marchers, screaming racist insults and taunting the picketers. The police, meanwhile, were walking along behind the racists, trying to push them up into the line of march. Again, their actions could have easily provoked a fight and an attack on the picket line.
The line, however, never broke. Coalition members assigned to security formed a defense line along the outside of the marchers, turning back the attempts of the racists to split up the picketers. Finally, about a block from the end of the march, the demonstrators held a final rally, pledging to “continue to organize and build our movement till we can raise an army to wipe out racism and racists like the Klan once and for all, forever!”
Wilkinson left the area soon afterward, and while there has been no visible Klan organizing in Tidewater since then, the atmosphere of racist hatred which he tried to encourage bore some bitter fruit. A few days after the Klan rally, there was a cross-burning in a Virginia Beach trailor park. A week later, a 4 5-year-old Black youth was shot in the face with a shotgun by a group of White teenagers who had been taunting him with racial insults. In mid-November, two White Tidewater men were charged with shooting into a carload of Black students from Chowan College in North Carolina. And recently the local “patriots” have been busy trying to whip up a chauvinist hysteria against Iranians, an hysteria that bears a striking resemblence to the screaming mob at the October 5 Klan rally.
Nica Gobs, a spokesperson for the Workers World Party one of the organizations that played a leading role in building the local anti-Klan demonstration, offered her assessment: “The main thing I think we all learned was that you can’t rely on the government to stop the Klan. The City of Virginia Beach could have stopped the Klan rally, since it required a city permit and one was never issued. The mayor could have refused to allow the Klan to use his family’s property. The White city councilmen in the area could have condemned the rally. The Navy could have banned Klan recruitment and organizing in its ranks. And the cops could have spent their time harassing the racists instead of the anti-racists. But none of that was done. Instead, they all allowed and even encouraged the Klan to be public, visible, and active, and as a result the racist attacks and violence in the area have increased.
“That’s why from the beginning we encouraged the development of a broad-based coalition of labor and community groups to oppose the Klan. We have to rely on ourselves, on poor and working people, because we’re the ones with a real stake in destroying the cancer of racism.”
Phil Wilayto is a shop steward and writer in the Tidewater area.