A look be­hind the hoods of Klans­men

The Dallas Morning News - - Metro & state - Twit­ter: @DaveLieber

Anew paint­ing in Austin at­tacks racism while high­light­ing it. I’m look­ing at a 30-foot­long paint­ing at an Austin art mu­seum de­pict­ing a mod­ern­day Ku Klux Klan meet­ing — and my heart is rac­ing. Pow­er­ful art stirs pow­er­ful emo­tions and mem­o­ries.

The hooded mis­fits star­ing at me from the mu­ral by Hous­ton artist Vin­cent Valdez look like past Klans­men I’ve known.

Forty years ago, when I was a young reporter, I some­how ended up in­ter­view­ing Im­pe­rial Wizard James Ven­able, head of the national KKK.

It was good train­ing to be­come a watch­dog reporter later on. Lis­ten­ing to men who hate helped me learn how to pur­sue crooks, bad guys and evil­do­ers.

We met in his law of­fice in Stone Moun­tain, Ga., home of a mon­u­ment to Con­fed­er­ate gen­er­als built into the side of a moun­tain and also the birth­place of the 20th-cen­tury Klan.

At the end of my visit, the wizard, as was his cus­tom, gave me an hon­orary KKK mem­ber­ship card.

Sev­eral years later, for an­other news­pa­per story, I used the card as an en­try to meet lead­ers of the West Vir­ginia KKK. When I ar­rived with my pho­tog­ra­pher, Bill Tier­nan, two hooded men waited on the front porch.

They asked for ID. You know which card I gave them.

They took it in­side to show the grand dragon, who called the wizard in Georgia. But Ven­able, then in his early 80s,

didn’t re­mem­ber me. That’s when my prob­lems started.

I went to see the Klan be­cause I shouldn’t have. I’m a Jewish boy from Man­hat­tan, the op­po­site of a sus­pi­cious West Vir­ginia grand dragon or a Con­fed­er­ate-lov­ing im­pe­rial wizard. Yet from these two, and their hang­ers-on, I heard enough racist bile to last a life­time.

I was given the high honor of hold­ing a press card rep­re­sent­ing a news­pa­per. That al­lowed me to in­vite my­self into peo­ple’s lives and ask ques­tions. I adopted “go­ing where I’m not sup­posed to go” as one of my work mantras.

Spike Lee’s won­der­ful new movie, BlacKkKlansman, is about a black de­tec­tive and a Jewish de­tec­tive who in­fil­trate the Klan. The same mantra.

Nasty con­tra­dic­tions

I was off to see the wizard (not many can say that) be­cause, as a 21-year-old sum­mer in­tern in 1978, I was as­signed to write a story in the old At­lanta Jour­nal about the Klan’s for­mer head­quar­ters. It was then a bland apart­ment com­plex. My job was to tell its story.

Ven­able, the wizard, helped me do it. He re­mem­bered the build­ing, where work­ers churned out robes and hoods by the thou­sands.

He was a con­fused man of many con­tra­dic­tions.

As a lawyer, he told me, he de­fended African-Amer­i­can clients, even mem­bers of the Black Mus­lims group “be­cause they were will­ing to pay.”

When I asked what he thought of peo­ple like me, he an­swered, “My daugh­ter mar­ried a Jew” — and then went on a rant (”Money is power”) about my tribe.

When he put on his robe

for a pho­to­graph, I no­ticed that his ti­tle was spelled wrong on the back. Wiz­zard.

“I know it’s spelled wrong, but I couldn’t do noth­ing ’cause it was too late when I no­ticed,” he told me.

He gave me the hon­orary card.

I re­mem­ber tak­ing it home and where it asked for an ex­pi­ra­tion date, I wrote “Dooms­day.”

Five years later, the guys from the West Vir­ginia KKK didn’t think that was so funny.

Hooded con­fronta­tion

“Mr. Ven­able doesn’t re­mem­ber you,” one of the West Vir­ginia Klans­men told me.

“Of course, he doesn’t,” I replied, in as strong a voice as I could muster. “He’s like 80 some­thing years old. I met him in Stone Moun­tain.”

I sensed my pho­tog­ra­pher, Bill, was un­com­fort­able. Sud­denly, the harsh New Yorker in me took over. I started

or­der­ing them around.

“Take off your hoods!” I de­manded.

“What?”

“I said, ‘Ev­ery­body take off your hoods.’ Let’s look each other in the eye and talk. And then Bill can do his job.”

No­body moved ex­cept Bill, who was inch­ing closer to our car.

I re­peated: “Come on, guys. Take them off and let’s do this in­ter­view.”

To my sur­prise, they took them off.

But for Bill’s pic­ture, some put them back on.

A KKK-style evic­tion

In the in­ter­view I asked if it were true that they had donned their robes and hoods to drive to a coal mine where they or­dered a po­lit­i­cal can­di­date from the So­cial­ist Work­ers Party to stop campaigning at shift change.

“This is Klan coun­try,” they sup­pos­edly said. The cam­paign­ers fled.

Grand Dragon Ed­ward Richards con­firmed the story. “The mem­bers wore their robes down there so peo­ple would know,” he said.

But to show their heart, he ex­plained that one flee­ing cam­paigner couldn’t get his car started.

“The rest of them ran off, but the Klan helped one so he could get out of the hol­low.”

A ma­jor Texas art­work

Valdez’s paint­ing, The City I, is de­but­ing at the Blan­ton Mu­seum of Art in Austin. It shows 13 hooded Klans­men, 14 if you count the hooded baby. They’re look­ing at you — me — as if we’ve stum­bled upon some­thing we shouldn’t be see­ing.

An in­duc­tion cer­e­mony? A cross-burn­ing? A lynch­ing? Hard to tell, but from their an­gry, fear­ful eyes pok­ing through their hoods, you can see this is not a place to be.

The artist says in a video play­ing near the paint­ing that his theme is that “racism and dis­crim­i­na­tion are part of or­di­nary life.”

From the days when the Klan ruled, a cen­tury ago, he in­sists, “We re­ally haven’t changed that much.”

“Un­der­neath those hoods are com­mon, or­di­nary Amer­i­cans.”

The mu­seum posts a warn­ing about the paint­ing by the en­try­way: “The KKK has a long his­tory of vi­o­lent acts and in­tim­i­da­tion tar­get­ing African Amer­i­cans as well as Mex­i­can Amer­i­cans, im­mi­grants, gays and les­bians, Jews, and Catholics.

“The artist, Vin­cent Valdez, con­ceived the work to condemn racism, both now and as part of our his­tory.”

The paint­ing, it adds, “may elicit strong emo­tions.”

I’ll say. Pow­er­ful art stirs pow­er­ful emo­tions and mem­o­ries.

Michael Stra­vato/Blan­ton Mu­seum of Art

Vin­cent Valdez’s mu­ral de­pict­ing mod­ern-day Klans­men, The City I, is on dis­play at the Blan­ton Mu­seum of Art in Austin. From the days when the Klan ruled a cen­tury ago, Valdez says, “We re­ally haven’t changed that much.”

Watch­dog@dal­las­news.com

DAVE LIEBER

Blan­ton Mu­seum of Art

A 30-foot-long mu­ral by Vin­cent Valdez evokes strong mem­o­ries and emo­tions for Dal­las Morn­ing News Watch­dog Dave Lieber.

1983 File Photo/Bill Tier­nan

Mem­bers of the Ku Klux Klan in Kanawha County, out­side of Charleston, W.Va.

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