Archived Story

The day my mother defined the Klan

Published 8:18pm Saturday, June 29, 2013

By Dennis Edwards
Columnist

We were driving home after school one day in 1963 or 1964, when the most famous symbol of racism in the South took center stage.

The Ku Klux Klan was holding a service, in all its hooded glory, at I.O. Hill Funeral Home (now the First Lady). Members, standing at military attention, lined up on the porch, all the way down the walkway and onto the sidewalk. I thought this had to be the funeral of a Grand Wizard.

I was 7 or 8 years old, and the assembly was a little frightening, but the people were fascinating. They obviously thought highly of the deceased. But why make such a public statement in support of something so wrong? Why conceal themselves beneath hoods and robes?

I knew about the Klan and its violent reign. In a strange way the funeral was a reassuring reminder that all of us, even those whose thoughts and actions are wrong and destructive, come to an end.

As I’ve reflected on the moment through the years, I’ve concluded it was an effort to intimidate while honoring the death of a symbol of that intimidation. What a strange kind of evangelism!

And what of the evangelists themselves? Who were these people? Where did they come from? Were they from out of town? “No son”, said my mother. “Most of them live around here. You’d be surprised who some of them are.”

Maybe that’s when she sensed a hint of worry developing. Lorraine Reid Edwards Hardie would have none of that. She spoke firmly, quickly and with a reassurance that cut short any alarm I had. She said, “There’s no need to worry about them, son. They’re just a bunch of confused people.”

It matters what our parents say to us about the realities of life. They can define perspectives with their words. My mother had a way of endorsing or dismissing the issues of life and the people who represented them. She could kill an idea or my desire to pursue a girlfriend by what she didn’t say as much as what she said. She could use her enthusiasm, or the lack thereof, to move us away from people and obstacles.

During the traffic-delayed drive by the funeral home that day, she defined an entire movement of people without saying a negative word about any of them personally. From that day on, whenever I saw the Klan or read about its violent nature, fear never entered my mind. But sadness swept my spirit for those “confused people.”

The irony now is that descendants of those hooded mourners probably have children who married blacks. Their grandchildren and great-grandchildren look like them, except for skin color and tone. They love children of another color, while struggling with the lingering feelings symbolized by our friends at the funeral.

But they weren’t alone then and they aren’t alone now. Our country has always struggled with the family nature of racism.

It strikes me that my mother, like many black folks back then, knew who was in the Klan as much as they knew the members of the NAACP. Maybe that’s why she wasn’t hostile toward those mourners, not troubled by the display.

She defined the Klan for me. With that definition came the possibility that one day this kind of confusion would clear up, get redefined, evolve and then transform into a clarity of love and mutual respect for people who now look like their grandchildren.

Dennis Edwards is an Emmy Award-winning television news reporter and anchor, He is a 1974 graduate of Suffolk High School. Email him at dennisredwards@verizon.net.

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