Invitation to a Cross Burning
 

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Invitation to a Cross Burning

twilight.JPG Inside the KKK. Halloween, 1998. Gainesville and Winder, Ga.
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.

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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 Ga., 1998."
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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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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.