by Bob Simpson
Cross-posted at The Daily Kos
I don’t mind telling you how scared I was that morning of June 20, 1971. That was the day we were going to Rising Sun, Maryland to picket the Klan at a picnic they were sponsoring. The fear was deep and profound. Butterflies in the stomach? Well, I had a gang of scorpions brawling down there.
Sure, this was Maryland, not Mississippi. It was 1971, not a few years before when the Klan was still leaving a trail of bodies all over the South. But part of the Klan’s power was its ability to install fear in people. It was sure working on me.
So why was I going to travel through rural Maryland to picket a Klan picnic? Well, a few weeks earlier the little Maryland radical collective I belonged to had received a call. It came from a socialist group based in Wilmington, Delaware. They were members of an organization called Youth Against War and Fascism (YAWF).
They told us that the Klan had been causing trouble in a workplace where YAWF had connections, pitting workers against one another along racial lines. People were afraid and YAWF wanted to cut through that fear by standing up to the Klan. The Klan was also blanketing the tri-state area of Maryland, Pennsylvania and Delaware with hate literature.
In 1967, the KKK had launched an arson attack on Laurel, Maryland’s small black community, sparking 3 nights of racial violence. Laurel African Americans organized armed patrols in the community until the Klansmen were arrested. The small Maryland Klan was still a potential threat and was showing signs of life again. YAWF wanted us to bring as many people as we could to Rising Sun, where the Maryland Klan traditionally had their gatherings.
Based out of Prince Georges County, Maryland our little group called ourselves the Mother Bloor Collective, after an early 20th century American radical. Most of us had been associated with University of Maryland Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in our student days. Early in its history, around 1964-1965, University of Maryland SDS had confronted the Klan in Prince Georges County at open housing protests, so we were part of a tradition.
Several of us (including me) were also union activists. I belonged to the Washington Teacher Union (AFT) and we had several people in AFSCME. We also had friends and allies all over the DC area. We knew that the greater our numbers, the better our chance to confront the Klan successfully.
Maryland, My Maryland: A legacy of white supremacy
Although now considered a generally blue liberal state, Maryland was not always like that. Just check out the state song with its pro-Confederate, anti-Lincoln lyrics. Located south of the Mason-Dixon Line but north of the Old Confederacy, Maryland has been contested racial terrain since it was founded as one of the 13 original colonies.
Maryland’s racial nightmares began in the 17th century when European colonists defeated the Piscataway and the other Native American nations of the Chesapeake region with guns and disease. Maryland soon turned to chattel slavery to develop an economy heavily dependent on the drug trade, i.e. tobacco. This was racialized slavery based on naked white supremacy.
Enslaved Marylanders resisted whenever they could, the most famous being Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman who both joined the abolitionist movement. Harriet Tubman supported armed revolution against slavery and was one of the conspirators involved in supporting John Brown’s raid. By the time of Lincoln’s election in 1860, half of Maryland’s black population was already free because of opposition to slavery and the decline of the tobacco-based economy.
As the outbreak of Civil War approached in 1861, Maryland’s loyalty teetered between Union and Confederate. Lincoln resorted to preventive detention of Confederate sympathizers to keep the state in the Union. Marylanders fought on both sides, with the bloodiest battle of the war fought along the quiet ripples of Antietam Creek near Sharpsburg, Maryland. John Wilkes Booth, who assassinated President Lincoln, was a pro-slavery Marylander.
Slavery was abolished in the state in 1864, but was replaced by Jim Crow segregation, although that was applied unevenly because of the state’s economic diversity. Maryland also had its raging white mobs and lynchings. In the 1920s the KKK could assemble crowds in the thousands but also faced strong opposition. Baltimore citizens rioted when a Klanswoman tried to speak at a Baptist church in the city, and arsonists tried to burn down the offices of the Thomas Dixon Branch of the Klan.
The civil rights movement finally put an end to formal segregation, sometimes against violent resistance, as in the long and difficult struggle in Cambridge, Maryland. Sometimes however, resistance to segregation took a more comical turn. In 1966 the Klan was holding a small rally in Mt Rainier Maryland when two women grabbed the Klan bullhorn and started singing “We Shall Overcome”. The stunned Klansmen called the cops claiming that the women had slapped them and torn their robes.The Klan was always more “courageous” away from the light of day. There’s a reason why they were called night riders.
George Wallace, the Alabama segregationist who stood in the schoolhouse door, always did well in Maryland presidential primaries between 1964-1972, but was also met by militant anti-racist demonstrations. In 1972, there was an assassination attempt against Wallace while he was speaking at a Laurel, Maryland shopping center.
Maryland was far from being another Mississippi, but believe me, Dixie-style racism was still very much alive in the state in 1971.
You don’t just walk into a confrontation with the KKK
The great thing about fear is that it focuses your attention. We had made careful preparations for our protest against the Klan picnic. I knew YAWF mostly as the group with the most colorful taffeta banners at antiwar protests as well as by their combative style if right-wingers or police physically attacked them. They fought back.
I soon learned that they were also meticulous planners. The parent group of Youth Against War and Fascism was the NYC based Workers World Party (WWP). The descendent of many splits in the Marxist left, the WWP had some experienced people among its leaders.
Our collective had a meeting with some of the NYC leadership to plan for the picnic confrontation. They came with maps of the Rising Sun area and had already worked out escape routes if things got too ugly. The Klan picnic was not in the town of Rising Sun, but at a nearby farm on an isolated two-lane rural road.
The idea was that we would park our vehicles and picket alongside the road next to the farm. The KKK also promised a cross burning that evening, but we had no intention of being around for that. At night on a lonely country road with revved up racists in sheets? No thank you.
The issue of firearms came up. Eventually it was decided that one car would have weapons in the trunk and people would be assigned to armed self-defense if it came to that. To my great relief, I was not chosen to be one of those people. I could hit a paper target with the .38 caliber revolver that I owned, but I had never pointed a gun at another human being. I was unsure how I would I react in the fear and confusion of an actual shootout.
Our collective organized some friends and allies who agreed to come. We estimated a turnout of maybe 50. That was when the local authorities pulled a fast one on us. Somebody scouting out the location a couple of days before noticed that there were now “No Parking” signs all up and down the road near the site of the picnic. Since the Klan could park on the farm property, the signs were clearly aimed at us. You may have heard the chant, “Cops and Klan work hand in hand!” This was a concrete example of that.
No problem. We would just assign one person per vehicle to drive up and down the road and just trade off drivers periodically. I wish we had thought to attach signs to the side of the vehicles, though. That would have been more dramatic.
Demonstration Day Arrives
The morning of the demonstration I placed an old axe handle in the back of the Ford van I owned. It was intended for self-defense. Segregationist Lester Maddox had used an axe handle to stop black civil rights demonstrators from entering his Georgia chicken restaurant in 1964. Maddox and his axe handle became a symbol of die-hard Jim Crow. The irony of taking an axe handle to an anti-Klan protest appealed to me.
We assembled at a house shared by three of our Mother Bloor members to caravan to Rising Sun, about an hour’s drive away. One of our members tearfully announced that she had lost her nerve and was going to stay back. I tried to console her because she agreed to sit by the phone until people returned safely. In the days before cell phones and Skype, that was an important job.
When we arrived at our destination near Rising Sun, we met up with the people from Delaware and NYC, and began picketing next to the farm where the KKK picnic was scheduled. We were soon joined by state police and some plainclothes cops that I assumed were FBI. They kept their distance.
We numbered between 50-60 as we chanted, marched, and switched off with the drivers. We really couldn’t see the picnic, but periodically Klan members would approach us on their side of the fence and exchange jibes.
My personal fear had largely evaporated in the warm Maryland sun and the anti-Klan energy we were generating. Nothing really threatening had happened yet and we had no intention of invading the picnic. The presence of the cops nearby was another factor in keeping Klan members from acts of blatant violence.
Then a large blond Klansman sauntered slowly over with a broad grin on his face. Resting his elbows on his side of the fence, still with that silly smile, he looked us over. He really did resemble the Nazi Aryan ideal. I kept my eye on him as we marched around when suddenly he spat directly in the face of a short skinny YAWF member. Without hesitation, the YAWF member spat back directly back into the Klansman’s face. Adrenaline surged through me as I stood my ground and thought, “Oh shit, this is it!” I was expecting the worst.
The Klansman stepped back looking shocked and bewildered. The dumb bastard had no idea what to do. Turning slowly, he walked away accompanied by some rude verbal encouragement from us. A small victory for our side. Shortly afterward the owner of the farm approached the fence and assured us that he didn’t want any trouble and hoped we didn’t either. I don’t recall what we told him, but we were planning to leave soon anyway.
We stayed a while longer and then packed up and left. I felt we had made our point. That night Klan honcho Tony LaRicci charged in on a horse to lead a good old fashioned cross burning. It was ironic that the Maryland Klan had a leader with an Italian name. The KKK was once fiercely anti-Italian when Italians were not yet considered white people. Go figure.
Days later Wilmington YAWF contacted us and said the demonstration had helped ease the grip of Klan fear as they had hoped. They considered the protest a success.
Damn, that news felt good.
Special thanks to Craig Simpson and Ron Jacobs for research help. “Resistance to the Klan in Maryland” by Craig Simpson, “Cecil County Klan Rally draws nearly 400” — the Baltimore Sun June 21, 1971, “No incidents reported at Klan rally”— the Washington Post June 21, 1971, Ku Klux Klan: An Encyclopedia by Michael Newton & Judy Ann Newton.
Robert “Bob” Simpson is a former University of Maryland and Washington, DC area social justice activist who moved to Chicago, Illinois in the mid-1970s. He is one half of the Carol Simpson labor cartoon team. Bob remains active in greater Chicago and is a regular contributor to the Daily Kos, Counter Punch and has his own blog The Bobbosphere.
See more related photos from the Washington Area Spark Flickr set: Resistance to the Klan in Maryland