Confronting racism in the birthplace of the KKK

June 2nd, 2020

About a block away from my house is a small, unassuming law firm. On its wall is a plaque, mounted backward, making the inscription unreadable. In that building, on Christmas Eve, 1865, six Confederate veterans gathered in a room to form the Ku Klux Klan. 

In 1917, the plaque was donated by United Daughters of the Confederacy to commemorate the birthplace of the Klan. At the time, there was a proposal to create a “Ku-Klux Avenue” that would run to the top of a nearby hill where Klan meetings were held. Fortunately, none of this came to pass. 

The town has had a complicated relationship with its history. In the 1980s, groups of white supremacists began coming to Pulaski as a sort of pilgrimage, which the town fought through a variety of measures, including a massive boycott, where businesses in the town square completely shut down, even as members of the Aryan Nation threatened their property and lives. Eventually, the owner of the law firm unbolted the dedication plaque and mounted it so that the inscription faced the wall, unable to be read from any would-be white supremacist pilgrims. 

The legacy of the KKK lingers. Today, that might-have-been “Ku-Klux Avenue” runs through the center of our college’s campus; my office window faces that street. On top of that hill you’ll find our gym and student apartments. When I get coffee at my favorite local café, I park within spitting distance of the backward-facing plaque. When I walk home from church with my toddler, I find myself glancing at the plaque. I wonder how I will talk about the legacy of this town that we have come to love. 

When we moved here almost two years ago, people weren’t shy about discussing this history with us. They still aren’t. After all, it’s hard to avoid since it’s the first thing you learn about the town when you Google us. It’s a sore point of conversation, a lingering and visible wound that necessarily gets addressed again and again. 

I’ve been thinking a lot about that legacy over the days and weeks following our most recent racialized violence in the United States. The South African anti-apartheid leader Peter Storey calls race a hidden wound that carves “the erosion of conscience, the devaluing of human life, the reckless resort to violence, the evasion of truth.” 

The wound stays hidden and invisible because we, as a nation, prefer tidy and neat endings. We like to imagine the end of the civil rights movement as something that happened 50 years ago. It’s uncomfortable to stare into the eyes of the legacy of racism that continues to haunt us. So, we keep ignoring the wound, and we see the Storey was correct in his diagnosis. 

But when wounds stay hidden, we devalue voices and lives. When we devalue lives, violence doesn’t seem so egregious. When faced with tragedy, we divert our attention away to avoid seeing this gaping and bleeding wound. 

But as any doctor will tell you, a serious wound that’s ignored doesn’t heal on its own. It festers, becomes infected and continues to worsen. To heal the wound, you must first confront the wound. 

Too often, my experience in churches and communities, both as a pastor and a participant, is a deep unwillingness to even engage in the idea that there’s a deep legacy of racism in our country, a festering wound that we haven’t addressed. In Sunday school rooms and Bible studies, we offer tepid responses about how awful racism is, giving ourselves permission to move on from the subject without ever acknowledging the pain of people of color in our communities. 

I live in a town where that isn’t possible. We have to confront that legacy of racism that emanates from a small room in a nondescript office. When I park to get coffee, when I walk to church with my daughter, when I look out of my office window, the persisting wound of my town and my nation’s history stare back. 

And, our town is better for it. We are forced to contend, to talk, to gather, to see and to listen. We are forced to remember and mourn. This isn’t to say my town is a utopia of racial equality; I can’t imagine such a place exists in our nation. But, by virtue of wanting to be a better community, we are forced to grapple with how racism still pervades our community, our state, and our nation today. Because we face that reality, we can catch glimpses of healing, like the way Pulaski unified to stand against white supremacists who wanted to gather on our square year after year. 

We choose not to avoid the wound, but to look at it, because that’s the only way that we can learn to heal. We still have much healing to do, and we owe it to the lives of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Amaud Arbery, Alton Sterling, Philando Castille, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, and so many others to embark on that journey.

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