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The main achievement of Klan rallies is to speed the demise of the Klan

May 07, 2006|By TIM ROWLAND

John Howard, superintendent of Antietam National Battlefield, probably felt that he had little choice but to allow the Ku Klux Klan to soil what many consider to be sacred ground. But he's too sharp a guy not to understand and at some level appreciate the myriad of ironies.

In granting the Klan's request for a rally at Antietam, Howard did the right thing, and not just because the Constitution says he had little choice. Free speech is a federal foundation so nowhere can this be more undeniable than on federal property.

But it goes well beyond that. There are two reasons for maintaining a public battlefield. It's a commemoration to those who sacrificed themselves for the benefit of the rest of us. And it's also an instrument of teaching.

Out of battles come lessons, not just in military tactics, but in culture and society. Battles say to us, society made a mistake and this is the price of that mistake - so let's remember, so as not to repeat.

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Although they are too angry and politically tone deaf to know it, Klan members have actually done us a tremendous favor by choosing Antietam as the site for their little shindig.

Some have made the point that the Klan's appearance on this ground sullies the memories of those who fought and died there.

The reality is quite the opposite. The Klan's appearance accentuates the importance of the struggle. Lincoln may not have gone into the Civil War with the idea of freeing the slaves, but the South sure went into the war with the idea of keeping them. This "states rights" issue that honorable southern sympathizers - understandably wishing to associate their cause with glory instead of shame - use as the cause of the war is essentially correct.

And one of the chief rights the South wished to protect was - you guessed it.

The Klan, of course, misreads history too far in the opposite direction. It has co-opted the southern flag and would have you believe the war was fought in the name of racial purity. Truth be told, it wouldn't surprise me if it's the southern partisans who take greater offense at the Klan's arrival than those of the North.

But what the Klan does is remind us that these battles are still being waged, in hearts instead of on hillsides.

Obviously, in a community that is still trying to heal some recent racial bruises, the Klan isn't doing us any favors from a state and national image standpoint. We are going to look suspect in the eyes of the world when we say "We are not racist! Oh, and by the way, those attending next month's Klan rally are urged to take Md. 65 to avoid congestion in Sharpsburg."

But there is a half-full side to this glass. It hasn't been so very long ago that news of a Klan get-together would have had people in the region planning picnics and pressing their pillowcases. It would have been a big deal, with big crowds.

Today in Washington County, the overriding sentiment has been one of taking shots at Howard for not putting up a fight against the Klan's appearance. No one wants them here. Their presence is viewed with overwhelming disgust and embarrassment.

Just think about that for a moment from an historical perspective. Eighty years is a staggeringly short period of time for a cultural foundation to experience a 180 degree course correction. What other rock-solid, fundamental belief, dearly held by a majority of people, has been so universally overturned in such short order? Anywhere? Ever?

The Klan has gone from tens of thousands of members to a comedy act. They say they didn't have more supporters at the last rally because a lot of them "missed the bus." And I'm pretty sure a majority of us are not going to entrust our belief system to a group that can't even learned to tell time.

I know that to blacks, racial progress in this country seems glacially slow - and so it does too to whites who see the truth of equality and tolerance as so very obvious.

We have tried to undo four centuries of slavery in four decades of civil rights awareness. That's a lot to ask. And conversely, 400 years is a hefty debt to repay.

When the Klan raises its pointy head, we understand that not all the rust of an archaic institution has been sanded away. That's a useful lesson, and a reminder that a glass that's half full isn't half full enough.

If these outdated attitudes exist, we're better off knowing it. A Klan rally takes us out of our comfort zones. It agitates the water and makes us think about things we would rather not think about.

A Klan rally is a rip in the quilt of warm complacency, but a complacent people will see no reason for change.

The crowning irony is that a Klan rally, ugly as it may appear, does more for racial equality than a rally of people agitating for social justice - precisely because it is ugly. If all is calm and pretty, why would we want change?

The Battle of Antietam itself was ugly, but it needed to happen in order for us to set ourselves straight. One could make the same argument about the Klan.

Those disturbed by the event can take perhaps a small degree of comfort with this thought: The main achievement of each Klan rally is to speed the day when the organization no longer exists at all.

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