They didn’t think he would come.
He was a Ku Klux Klan organizer, after all, and they were local leaders of the NAACP, historic enemies. They spent months negotiating the terms of his visit to Casper. There were ground rules, topics to be discussed and guarantees of a security team.
They wait in a small, low-ceiling conference room in the Parkway Plaza hotel. Four NAACP leaders. Ten mints, striped red and white, sit clustered on the table. The pitchers of ice water on the table drip sweat.
“Showtime,” a security man says. He’s here.
A security check, swipes with a metal-detecting wand, and he steps into the room.
Here is John Abarr, an organizer for the United Klans of America, carrying a brown briefcase, shaking hands, settling into a high-backed swivel chair, leaning in, ready to talk. This could be the first time representatives of the two groups purposely met in peace.
Keisha Simmons, the secretary of the Casper branch of the NAACP, pours the Klansman a plastic foam cup of water.
A security man locks the wooden conference room door.
* * *
Jimmy Simmons, the president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s branch in Casper, didn’t expect to get a return letter from the KKK.
For months he had been hearing reports that black men in Gillette were being beaten up. Invariably the men were with white women when assaulted. Then Klan literature showed up around town. Simmons considered rallying against the Klan, but then decided to try something different: talking.
“If you want to talk about hate, get a hater,” Simmons said later. “Let him tell you something about hate.”
He looked up some contact information and in June, asked for a meeting with the KKK.
Simmons wouldn’t get specific, but it seems the NAACP headquarters wasn’t pleased he planned to talk to the Klan. He eventually got the go-ahead, provided the meeting took place in Casper, Simmons’ turf. A moderator from Colorado planned to come, but then she broke off contact.
The Casper NAACP would meet with the Klan alone, in the person of John Abarr, on Saturday evening.
Now here was Abarr, not dressed in his Klan regalia – the white hood and robe, the history of hateful violence – but in a dark suit, white shirt and a nondescript tie, his hand extended toward Simmons.
* * *
Abarr makes a point of proving he’s a member of anti-racism groups. Membership: American Civil Liberties Union, the hate-group watchdog Southern Poverty Law Center, and oh, yes — also the United Klans of America, an organization with a website image gallery that includes a target with an Obama campaign symbol bull’s-eye.
Then there’s the desire to secede from the United States of America. The northwest U.S. — Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Washington, Oregon — should secede and form a territory. Blacks can stay there, he supposes, but no more should be allowed in, to keep the region white. States such as Georgia, which are primarily black, should secede from the union and become a black state.
A question from the NAACP: How do you plan to secede from the union?
“Legally, hopefully,” Abarr says.
The meeting was to be a give-and-take on race relations, but the NAACP leaders asked most of the questions.
A certain amount of segregation is a good thing, he says. White police should stay in white neighborhoods and black officers in black neighborhoods. Color-blindness doesn’t even make sense. Interracial marriage? No. It’s better if the races are kept separate. Completely opposed.
“Because we want white babies,” he says.
The line hangs in the air. Next question.
* * *
Beatings of black men in Gillette? Those are hate crimes, Abarr agrees. Something must be done. Talk to the police. His tone is clear: Who would think of doing such a thing? Just terrible.
There are a lot of Klan groups. The movement is fractured, with groups splintering on goals and methods. Yes, the Klan may be distributing flyers in the area, but that’s not illegal, he points out.
He describes how his Klansmen in Montana distribute literature: The paper goes in a baggie weighted with a rock, and is thrown onto people’s driveways.
His group’s flyers let people know the Klan is serving as a neighborhood watch, to let folks know they’re safe in their beds.
“I like it because you wear robes, and get out and light crosses, and have secret handshakes,” he says. “I like being in the Klan — I sort of like it that people think I’m some sort of outlaw.”
His laugh rattles like a slow roll over a highway rumble strip.
* * *
Hate-driven violence may still occur, but those perpetrators are hoodlums, he says. There’s no proof that’s Klan violence, Abarr says. There was certainly violence in the past, but even with the splintered KKK, there’s no proof the Klan is violent any more.
“You’re really confusing me, because I don’t think you understand the seriousness of your group,” says the NAACP’s Mel Hamilton.
The disbelief in the room is palpable.
“I think what Mel is saying, is that based on your history, based on the Klan’s history, it’s hard to shed the skin of your group not being violent, not being killers, murderers, terrorizers,” Simmons says. “It’s hard to imagine that.”
During the Reconstruction, those things did go on, Abarr says. The Reconstruction Era covered the period between the mid-1860s and mid-1870s. But what about the wave of Klan lynchings in the 1920s to 1940s, for example? Well, Abarr doesn’t know much about that.
“I just know what it is today,” he says. “I had relatives in the Klan in the ’20s and they didn’t lynch anybody.”
Hamilton shoots back: “As far as you know.”
His relatives quit the Klan because someone wanted them to kill somebody, Abarr says.
The Klan is a secret society, and Abarr won’t discuss how it’s evolved or what it does. It’s a canned answer. Abarr reads it in a rush, from a piece of paper.
Not good enough.
“You tell us what you want, and you maintain the secrecy of injustice,” Hamilton says. “But you’re here, we’re trying to do something good, and you are half-stepping on us. You’re not serious about this, I don’t think.”
* * *
After he’s pressed, Abarr says he holds the Klan rank of kleagle, an organizer, in Great Falls, Mont. He says he’s seen a rush of recruits due to the presidency of Barack Obama — mostly men in their 20s and 30s, angry, violent and ready for action.
“What I like to do is recruit really radical kids, then calm them down after they join,” he says. Sometimes recruits will decide Abarr’s Klan isn’t hateful enough and go somewhere else.
As long as recruits look white and think white, that’s good enough for Abarr, even though some potential recruits have “confessed” to him they’re quarter Mexican.
He’d like to recruit cops, due to their training and so they could check someone’s identification for him, but he admits he hasn’t had any success. He doesn’t believe there’s any Klan group active in Casper, or none that he’s heard of.
What does he do to get recruits? Hamilton asks. Some kind of slogan? There’s got to be some sort of brainwashing taking place.
“Well, we usually just meet at a restaurant.”
* * *
Abarr was born in Sheridan, graduated high school in Torrington, and lived several other places in Wyoming. “It was just me and two skinheads,” he says of his time as a white supremacist in Casper. He had family in the Klan, and was something of a revolutionary himself when he joined at age 18, and wanted to overthrow the government, he says. His father was a cowboy.
He married a liberal woman, he says, and his kids were raised as liberals. They can choose their own path.
He believes homosexuality is largely genetic, but still a sin. Gay marriage is fine. Polygamy should be legal also. Marriage isn’t the government’s business.
The NAACP leaders laugh lightly — partly surprise, partly dark amusement. But it’s not really funny.
Abarr lost a Republican primary for a local race in 2002, and considered a run for Congress from Montana in 2011, but dropped out when a lack of funding and a lot of outrage pushed him to reconsider his plans. Then, he billed himself as an ex-KKK member.
“There you go again. You’re a chameleon, whatever suits you at the time,” Hamilton says.
“Well, I was between Klans at the time,” Abarr says.
* * *
The United Klans of America imperial wizard, Bradley Jenkins, was excited Abarr was meeting with the NAACP and had to overrule some on his imperial council who were opposed.
“He lives in Alabama, and he told me he would love to sit down with the NAACP in Alabama and talk,” Abarr says.
We believe in treating everyone equally, like the Klan would want others to treat its members, Abarr says. In March, Jenkins worked to stop a massive KKK rally in Memphis, decried hate and called those participating in the rally fake Klan groups. This from the head of a Klan group infamous for the horrific violence and death it rained down on blacks and supporters in prior decades, including the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., in 1963, killing four young girls.
A few days after the news broke about Jenkins working to stop the KKK rally, Abarr defended his leader’s actions via Twitter via his account @Thehoodedone33. Yet with bad grammar, and using a slur the Star-Tribune is masking, he also tweets: “There are way to many N-----s in Montana especially here in Great Falls. Also there are a lot of Indians.”
Says he won’t have a group when he gets back, could face excommunication.
“People are going to call me names for coming down here,” he said. “You know, I might not even have a group when I get back.”
* * *
The meeting’s winding down, and Hamilton’s not buying Abarr’s presentation of his Klan as a non-violent Christian group focused on political issues. He’s not buying that Abarr’s Klan is a kindlier, friendlier KKK, and his disbelief slams into the air like a pounding gavel.
“It’s obvious you don’t know the history of your organization,” he says. “It’s obvious to me that you’re not going out and talking about the good — you’re not talking about inclusion, you’re talking about exclusion. And it’s obvious to me you don’t know what you are.
“So I don’t know what good this dialogue has done tonight.”
It certainly hasn’t resulted in the white supremacist believing his secession idea doesn’t hold merit. Or weakening his position in interracial relationships. Or ignorance of decades of Klan terror.
“It’s obvious we don’t agree on everything,” Abarr says.
Hamilton is disappointed: “I’d love to shake your hand tonight and truly believe that you have good will towards all people, and I can’t seem to come to that point.”
* * *
It seemed like a stunt. Will the Klansman join the NAACP? A white supremacist, a known enemy?
Simmons asks: Would you like to join?
Abarr doesn’t hesitate: “I wouldn’t have a problem with joining the NAACP.”
“Wow,” Simmons says, pulling out an application. Abarr fills it out, checks his watch for the date. Adds a $20 donation to the $30 membership fee. Simmons gives him a receipt.
“We’ll have to do this again sometime,” Abarr says. “Or maybe not. I don’t know. We’ll have to keep in contact for sure, though.”
He snaps his briefcase shut, pumps hands with Simmons to the snap of a camera.
Whisked away by security, he strides down the long motel hall.