Invitation to a Cross Burning
||Inside the KKK. Halloween, 1998. Gainesville and Winder,
Photography by Kathleen Cole.
Halloween 1998 started out as any ordinary crisp fall
morning as I headed to Gainesville, Ga., for the Ku
Klux Klan rally. As I drove, I was unaware of the events
that would unfold before my eyes.
When I arrived in Gainesville the atmosphere was filled
with tension. The police were an overwhelming presence
on the main square. I watched other officers patrol
rooftops and side streets as they searched my camera
bag for contraband. There were barricades everywhere,
the main purpose being to separate the Klan from the
protesters, led by Atlanta activist Hosea Williams.
Frank Hooper, the Gainesville police chief, estimated
after the event that it cost the city's taxpayers $9,000.
Around noon, there was a break in the eerie silence
as the protesters began their march to the square,
singing and chanting songs of peace and survival. Many
carried signs reading "KKK Not In Our Town, Gainesville
Local churches were conducting prayer vigils at the
square when the protesters joined them. Together, the
entire group sang "We Shall Overcome" as
they waited for the Klan's arrival.
Standing at the bottom of that hill, I held my breath
for what I expected to be an overwhelming display of
unified white hoods and robes. The branch sponsoring
this event, the American Knights of the KKK, is relatively
new, though its leader, 71-year-old Hall County resident
Gordon Parks, has been involved with various Klan organizations
for years, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center,
an organization that tracks Klan activity. Instead
of the 500-700 Klansmen that were expected, 17 members
appeared on the steps of the Hall County Courthouse.
Their number was small, but not their message. They
screamed their disapproval of the recent Hispanic influx
into the Gainesville community, preaching against illegal
immigrants' taking of the white man's jobs.
The Klan stayed for only one hour and then left Gainesville
for a private rally in Winder, Ga. After asking the
right people the right questions, I was also on my
way to the double-wide trailer home of Mr. McAndrews,
the Grand Dragon of the Winder Knights of the KKK.
As I pulled into the driveway, the Klan's armed security
appeared immediately, asking, "Who are you and
what do you want?"
I then turned and saw Gordon Parks, the Imperial Wizard.
He took my hand and accepted my arrival with no questions,
but a warm welcome. I told the guards that I was a
student photojournalist, finding no suitable answer
to give them why I was there. At the time I suppose
I was there to appease a curiosity of the unknown,
but looking back, I am unsure if I was prepared for
the extraordinary sights.
Right away I was included by the members they kept
inviting me to eat a hotdog and have a Mountain Dew.
I declined, and watched everyone else line up at the
grill for seconds. There were about 50 people there;
about half of these would later don robes. One young
member fixed a plate for Parks, his mentor and father
figure. The Imperial Wizard talked to me about being
a guest on Jerry Springer. Other Klansmen openly answered
any and all of the questions I had and were especially
proud that Springer had called them personally, inviting
them back and congratulating them on selling more of
his tapes with their appearance than any other guests.
Parks said his upcoming trip to the Springer show will
be his 22nd appearance.
Throughout the afternoon, I listened to stories and
was shown pictures of other rallies and cross lightings,
but none prepared me for the actual event. I walked
around to the back yard. While the Imperial Wizard
was finishing dinner, other members prepared for the
burning. While one poured kerosene onto the carpet-wrapped
cross, another had a set of post-hole diggers working
to make sure the cross would be secure. While they
were working, the owner of the property, McAndrews,
cracked a bullwhip jokingly over the tedious preparations.
After the cross had been fully saturated with kerosene
and all of the torches had been doused, everyone disappeared
only to return fully robed, hooded, and masked.
As the sun went down, the cross went up, and members
of the Klan began to speak. The talk was brief but
the audience sitting on those makeshift benches of
two by fours and cinder blocks was ready.
While they may have been from different parts of Georgia
and the South, as one member explained, the philosophy
of a cross lighting is universal to the Klan everywhere.
It is supposed to symbolize the burning of the bad
and evil in order to arrive at the truth. It is also
meant to symbolize their reverence of Christianity.
I was overwhelmed by the hooded ghosts forming a circle
around the cross in the darkness. I have never felt
so far removed from my own personal reality as I did
that night. They began with a prayer. One by one the
members lit their torches, dripping with Kerosene.
They raised their arms, the scene silent but for the
crackle of flame, and swooped on the cross in what
seemed to be one movement of 25 men and women. The
flames leapt up and filled the carpet covered cross
with white-hot fire. The carpet melted and dripped
off of the cross. The fumes were thick enough to taste.
I felt I might pass out from inhaling the smoke, but
the Klan remained in the stoic position around the
burning symbol with their robed arms stretched and
their awe-filled faces fixed on the cross.
It did not take long to burn. Soon it was slowly cracking
as the flames penetrated the core of the wood. As it
was burning it began to fall, yet not a member moved.
They remained still until the last flame died out.