Guest commentary: Ending racism still an uphill battle

Guest commentary: Ending racism still an uphill battle

By Keith Hays

In 1923, a crowd of more than 3,000 gathered in Urbana's Crystal Lake Park for a Ku Klux Klan rally. The crowd was too big to be accommodated in the Klan-owned Illinois Theatre on Urbana's Main Street.

Then in East Central Illinois, as across the Wabash in Indiana, the Ku Klux Klan was a political force to be reckoned with. Membership in the Invisible Empire was a prerequisite to positions of influence in the Republican Party of the day.

My grandfather, who had been the personal secretary of Sen. William B. McKinley, was among those who were counted as the politically ambitious young men of the local Republican Party.

He was present for the rally and, according to my father, presided over the ignition of the flaming cross.

What office he held I do not know, but after his death his Klan robe and hood were found carefully folded and preserved in the attic.

For my grandfather, membership in the Klan had not been a disgrace. It was a political necessity. He was a married man with five sons to support.

If he hoped to follow his mentor into public office, and he did, he had to do what was necessary to remain an influential man in local Republican circles. In that time, membership in the Klan was one of those essentials.

I was born in Champaign's Burnham City Hospital, at about the place where County Market's meat department is now.

I attended Champaign's segregated elementary schools, ate at the town's segregated restaurants, went to the movies at its segregated theaters and attended a segregated church on Sunday.

I first got to know Negro children at Champaign Junior High School, where we played together in the school orchestra and went home to our segregated neighborhoods when school let out.

It was during my senior year that Rosa Parks was arrested. That year a mildly racist joke circulated among my class had it that the Montgomery bus boycott was like a washing machine because it was powered by a black agitator.

On the day that I graduated, a three-judge panel of the U.S. District Court in Montgomery held the Alabama statute requiring segregated buses was unconstitutional.

When I entered the University of Illinois in 1956, in the freshman class of 4,000 there were but seven black students who were not athletes. J.C. Caroline could play for the Illini but could not get a haircut at a campus barbershop.

There were no black clerks in downtown stores; no black bag boys at the local Piggly Wiggly. Middle-aged Black shoeshine boys could work in the white barbershops and double as cleaning men for downtown offices — after hours of course.

George Wallace stood in the schoolhouse door. The Freedom Riders courted death to register voters in Mississippi. The Civil Rights Act passed and Lester Maddox handed out ax handles.

A cross burned on Billy Morrow Jackson's lawn on Prospect Avenue. He was a nationally known artist and a member of the UI faculty. His wife was black.

We lived through the season of assassination in the spring of 1968. We saw the desegregation of Champaign's elementary schools through a program combining voluntary busing of white kids to a magnet school, Booker T. Washington, with required transportation of Negro kids to the city's all-white neighborhood schools.

We hoped to see racism end in our generation but saw only a faint glimmer against the darkness.

A half-century has passed. We still see only a glimmer in my hometown.

The reality is that we did not vanquish the darkness 50 years ago, we only lit a candle.

This year, in this new century, a quasi-public agency, the Champaign County Fair Association, brought outright racism to my hometown in the guise of entertainment.

Some condemned the performance, but far too many laughed, and most simply did not think it important: only a molehill — not a mountain. We have for the last half-century been climbing that mountain, holding a candle high against the darkness.

We will, as a people, reach the mountaintop — not in my lifetime and perhaps not in the lifetimes of my children, but surely my grandchildren will reach America's Promised Land where all men are created equal, where people are judged by their quality and not their complexion nor the language that their parents speak at home, where the darkness gives way to the promise of light.

All it takes is a few more candles!

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dutch wrote on August 13, 2014 at 11:08 pm

It is clear this fella composed his story only in an attempt to indict Republicans as racists. I trust this guy's grandfather was a klan member, but then he defends his actions by stating he had five sons. So it's ok to be a member of a racist, murdering organization just so long as you have children to support. He could not find another job, the only position available was as a racist? He supposedly despised klan members, but then tries to explain how his grandfather (the one he so proudly boasts about presiding over the ignition of the flaming cross) was one of the good ones? His depiction of the klan and the Republicans as one in the same was not historically accurate either. What he fails to tell you is that the overwhelming majority of klan members were Democrats. The klan was the muscle of the Democratic party and was used to attack Republicans, many times killing them. 

Keith Hays wrote on August 14, 2014 at 11:08 am

"This fella", who by the way does not hide behand a psuedonym, told the story of my grandfather and his 1920s involvement with both the Klan and the local Republican Party to illustrate the history and evolution of relations between the Black and White populations of my hometown.  It is an historical fact that in the period about which I wrote - the 1920s - the Republican Party in Indiana and in most of Downstate Illinois including Champaign County was dominated by the Ku Klux Klan.  "Dutch" would do well to study the history of that peiod in Illinois.  He would also do well to appreciate that understanding the context of the era in which our ancestors acted is not the same as justifying their actions.   Nowhere did I try to justify my grandfathers membership in the Klan but only put it in context.  "Dutch" obviously missed the whole point of the article, the progress of my home town, the miles we have traveled, and to lament over the distance that lies before us on the journey to achieve realization of my country's founding principle.  

The day my essay appeared a young man was slain in Ferguson, Missouri.  The aftermath of that shooting has filled the newspapers and television news since illustrated by images of snarling police dogs and police officers masking their identities behind balaclava hoods. Nothing gives stronger emphasis to the essay than those events.   

BruckJr wrote on August 14, 2014 at 8:08 pm

"iIllustrated by images of snarling police dogs and police officers masking their identities behind balaclava hoods"  This is what you came away with after watching the events in Missouri?  Did you happen to miss the mob attacking the police officers, looting stores and hurling firebombs?

Keith Hays wrote on August 15, 2014 at 9:08 am

No, I certainly did not miss the events of the second day of the aftermath.  Nor did I miss the images of the police officer dressed in military garb manning a tripod mounted machinegun perched on the top of an armoured vehicle.   I did not miss the news of the Washington Post reporter arrested for doing his job, did you?  Do you believe that the lawless acts of a minority of the crowd justifies the shooting of the young man two days before?  Do  you want to light a candle or fan the fire?