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Not long ago, Ku Klux Klan still active in Ohio and Athens
Editor’s Note: This is the third in a three-part weekly series for the month of February exploring black history in Athens County.
As little as 25 years ago, the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, disguised by the white hoods of their robes and bearing a symbol of white supremacy over their hearts, paraded through Athens carrying crosses and a centuries-long grudge.
But Ohio’s history with the Klan dates back to the 19th century, when a group of Civil War vets from the South founded the group to spread their theories about racial segregation to all corners of the country.
The Klan quickly decayed, but it reemerged soon after.
“All of those groups collapsed because the shelf life of most extremist groups are not very long,” said Mark Pitcavage, director of investigative research for Ohio’s Anti-Defamation League.
The group rose again at the start of the 20th century, this time targeting not only blacks but also foreigners and non-Protestants.
The second surge of the KKK hit Ohio hard, with 50,000 members in the Akron chapter in the 1920s, according to the Ohio Historical Society. School-board members, judges, county commissioners and the Akron mayor all belonged to the chapter, which was the nation’s largest.
It was during their second stint that the Ohio Knights of the Klan mailed catalogs of membership throughout Ohio, offering membership for a $20 national fee.
“We believe that all citizens were the result of the creativity of the white race and that the fall of civilizations in the past resulted because of the decline of the racial purity of the culture creating race,” said one sent to Hamilton, Ohio, titled “Introduction to the Klan.”
Statewide konklaves — Klan conventions — were held in 1923 and 1925 at Buckeye Lake, near Columbus, each bringing in more than 70,000 Ohio Knights.
After their second demise, the rise of yet another Civil Rights movement in the 1960s sparked fury in the Klan yet again. And though their presence in the ’80s is unmarked by history books, Bill Kimok of Ohio University Archives and Special Collections calls it the unofficial fourth and so-far final resurrection of the Klan.
In the late ’70s, the white supremacist group permanently etched itself into the memory of a 5-year-old Morgan County boy.
“I remember looking outside and seeing a cross burning in the yard,” said Tony Mayle, a half black doctoral student at Ohio University and a board member of the Multicultural Genealogical Center in Chesterhill. “My mom had to explain to me that we were different from everyone else. It made me who I am today.”
A decade later, faces of Athens farmers pleading for financial aid from the Klan were featured on front pages of newspapers state- and nationwide. Suffering farm owners started leasing their land to the Knights — who used it for rallies — to relieve their financial burdens.
In 1987, Joe and Rita Ray rented part of their farm in Greenville, Ohio, to the Klan, who, on June 26, held a five-hour rally on the land, dousing a 15-foot-high cross in kerosene and setting it on fire. The ritual gained Greenville national attention.
By the time of the incident, the Ohio Knights had already staged four rallies at Southeast Ohio farms within just four months.
Six years later, Athens County caught word of another visit from the mysterious masked men and women of the Klan. Vincent Pinette, the 28-year-old Grand Titan of the Knights of the Klan Realm of Ohio from Cleveland, was planning a rally in Athens for Sept. 24, 1994.
When the Knights asked city and county officials for permission to assemble at the courthouse steps, they were denied only because of an already-scheduled event. City Council later revealed to The Post that it also had concerns about media exploitation and security.
“I won’t be changing the date because, under the First Amendment, there is not legal right to say we cannot assemble,” Pinette told The Post April 15, 1994.
Athens was just one stop on the Klan’s 1994 fall tour. The group was planning appearances in Bowling Green, Lancaster, Toledo, Kenton and Findlay during the year.
The reason for the sudden surge in the ’90s, Pitcavage said, was that most Klan groups who were still active late in the century resided in Ohio. Klanfolk from out of state flocked to where they had most support.
Authorities constantly used the press to remind Athenians to ignore the KKK’s company and avoid violence.
On June 1, students and community members united in support of a counter-rally against the Klan. Forty people brainstormed positive ways, such as a reggae festival, to distract others from the anti-black rally. After its initial meeting, the group assembled regularly.
In the midst of preparing, Pinette was arrested in Franklin County July 10 for allegedly beating his girlfriend unconscious. The Klan’s plan began to crumble.
But the anti-Klan’s “Unity Fair” was still underway. Groups such as Ohio University’s Democratic Socialists, the Progressive Student Alliance, Phi Beta Sigma fraternity, Asian American Student Association and Student Senate invited North Carolina State University professor J.D. Smith to speak about the Klan’s “Legacy of Hatred.”
They also planned community-building workshops, including one with Hedda Sharapan, associate director of Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood.
On Saturday, Sept. 24, 1994, the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan did not show up in Athens with fiery crosses. Instead, the community held a harmonious bonfire and potluck at Stroud’s Run State Park.
Mayle thinks the Klan still lingers in the area today and has had threatening phone calls to prove it.
“Athens is becoming more and more diverse, so I don’t think they’re going to rise to power,” Mayle said. “But I think they still have an influence.”
In 1998, Mayle protested the verdict of a white man who was set free by an all-white jury after shooting one of Mayle’s family members. It wasn’t long before he received a call from NAACP leadership warning him about a rumor that he could be next on the Klan’s hit list.
The number of Klan members in Ohio has dwindled down to about 200 from the thousands of members present in the ’20s, Pitcavage said.
“Some people argue that KKK doesn’t exist,” Mayle said. “But we know what time of the night we can’t go out and which restaurants we can’t go to.”