The Day the KKK Came To Town

I started taking pictures voraciously in high school, and took many of the pictures in the school newspaper and the yearbook. However, the day after graduation was the first time I photographed what could be called a news event.

I have no visceral memories from that day. I can’t tell you what it felt like, and I can’t really remember snapping the pictures. Perhaps this is one of the reasons that I have always been drawn to taking pictures. They stop time in ways that my brain is not so adept at doing.

Yesterday I found a couple of faded prints from that Klan march, and I posted them to facebook. Then I stumbled onto the negatives in the same box, prompting me to fix my iPhone scanner and go through the images. The more I looked at them, the more I began to remember that day.

Just this afternoon, I realized that tomorrow is the 60th anniversary of Brown vs. Board of Education so I decided to post them to our blog.

I grew up in Chapel Hill, North Carolina and went to public school shortly after desegregation. Despite the fact that my parents were North East transplants who were involved in civil rights issues, I wasn’t acutely aware of race until I entered Jr. High School. At that point, there was a good deal of social separation, but I don’t recall a great deal of direct racism. That is to say, I wasn’t aware that the Klan even still existed until they decided to march in Chapel Hill the day after my high school graduation in 1987.

I found out it was the day after graduation by googling the event, which led me to a New York Times article. Then another friend commented on my post to tell me that he had been angry that I went to the parade because many people felt that protesting the Klan was giving them the attention they desired. I imagine that I wanted to see it for myself, and I was excited to have something “real” to photograph.

The first time I connected to a memory that stirred up emotions from that day was when I found this image of a noose hanging from a mirror. I recall feeling shocked, and nervous. It felt dangerous enough that I stayed back and shot it with my telephoto lens. I felt as if I drew attention to it with my camera, that I would somehow be putting myself in danger.

I recall only a handful of Klan members, but the Times put the number near 40. I do know that many more than that came out to protest the event despite local religious leaders request that the Klan be greeted by an empty street to walk down. Too many people wanted to fight back about this incursion of overt racism in the liberal bastion that Jesse Helms famously suggested they should put a fence around.

Having recently moved back to North Carolina from Brooklyn, New York, I have been a bit surprised to see how entrenched social segregation is in Chapel Hill. Our town is not alone. Many studies show that school segregation is increasing at a rapid pace. We can all look back and be proud of what we have achieved in terms of limiting overt discrimination. However, if we look around and see that there is a lot of work to be done to bring true equality and justice to our country, we can’t sit around and expect others to do it for us. Let’s let this day be a reminder that we still have a long way to go.

UPDATE (due to this post – someone sent me sound from that day. We cut a short film that I don’t want to make public yet but here it is – the password is: klan )
Here’s a gallery of most the images I shot that day.

  • Chuck
    Posted at 23:58h, 16 May Reply

    The klan made a theatrical appearance at my high school (W.G. Enloe in Raleigh) during my freshman year in 1984. They didn’t march or wear the robes, but rather ominously circled the campus in trucks and cars flying their flags.

  • Augusta Palmer
    Posted at 21:30h, 17 May Reply

    Though I grew up in Little Rock, Arkansas and now live in Brooklyn, NY, I’ve only seen the KKK in photos. I wish I could say the same about racism, classism, and segregation.

    These are powerful images, important to see today and other days in order to think about the indelible imprint of racism in our country as a whole.

  • Eric McClure
    Posted at 03:45h, 18 May Reply

    Nice photos, Michael. My favorite is that of the teenage boy on the bike, surreptitiously giving the marching Klan members the finger.

    And mostly, I’m struck by how clownish and pathetic the Klan people seem. All that effort wasted on hate must wear one down, and rot a person from the inside out.

  • Jeffrey Jensen
    Posted at 19:31h, 18 May Reply

    Really great/provocative stuff here MG. Aside from all the loaded sociological stuff, the photos really capture something about that moment in American history that I could viscerally feel when looking through these.

  • Josh Kosman
    Posted at 23:09h, 19 May Reply

    It’s prejudice, not pride (despite what they claim)

  • Missy Rotchford
    Posted at 21:56h, 13 November Reply

    Great pictures. Thank you for posting. I was in Chapel Hill that day & attended the protest. Most of the shops on Franklin Street closed that day. It was a crazy day all around. I often tell folks about it, but they can’t really believe that it was real.

  • Lilia
    Posted at 20:40h, 07 November Reply

    Michael I was at Duke Nesher Art museum yesterday and your pictures and movie shocked me the most. This is an eye opener for me as I receintly moves to chapel hill. Pictures are memories. Bad or good. And memories are priceless. Thank you for capturing scary and ashamed pages of chapel hill history. If you are still in town please drop me a private note please.

    Posted at 22:35h, 22 February Reply

    This was my second Klan rally. I was ten and went with my granddad, the constable, to our high school in 1963. They tied two phone-pole-size posts together in a cross and set it afire in the schoolyard. Over 150 white sheet-wearing Klan members stood on the lawn. I never knew who they were, if the grocer or the insurance agent was amongst them. Then the Baptist Church filled in the de-segrated public pool. We tried to film the rally in Raleigh a decade later, but the police presence surrounding the state Capital building prevented it. I told my class about this today, and found these pictures when I got home. We have to know our history so we can improve.

  • Today’s Klan is more pathetic than threatening | PoliticsNC
    Posted at 14:36h, 27 August Reply

    […] The Klan marched in Chapel Hill in 1987 when I was struggling to finish my sixth year as an undergraduate. According a New York Times article, there were 63 Ku Klux Klan members. My recollection is vague but I seem to remember far more protestors and hecklers than Klan. Photos show people from little kids to old men.  […]

  • Steve
    Posted at 20:56h, 19 February Reply

    Do you know who the grand dragon guy (wearing the yellow outfit with the mustache) is/was? That’s Virgil L. Griffin in the blue-green outfit; he was the grand dragon of the NC KKKK prior to the guy in yellow and had a major part in the “Greensboro massacre” in 1979.

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