One of my most enduring, indeed, ironically humorous memories from years of reporting for the AJC, especially if you have a twisted fancy for the absurd (and bizarre) like me, occurred on a Labor Day weekend at Stone Mountain a generation ago.
I had been in Atlanta for about a year, and was assigned to work a Saturday evening and night, like many newcomers, for the Sunday paper. My assignment: to watch an annual Ku Klux Klan rally at the foot of the iconic mountain.
Not to write anything, the night city editor instructed, unless “something happens.”
And boy, something sure as hell did. No casualties, fortunately. But it was a sight to watch a biracial handful of “researchers” escorted by Klan leaders in colorful robes with grandiose titles safely from the rage of their angry flock.
As I recall, an outfit from some city in upstate New York with a racially neutral name and headed by a Dr. Pritchard, (Ph.D) — I don’t remember his first name — had written to James Venable, an aged Stone Mountain attorney who was also Imperial Wizard of the National Knights of the KKK. His organization was doing research on the Klan, Pritchard wrote, and asked to witness the rally on land owned by Venable at the mountain’s base.
Venable, known locally as “Mr. Jimmy”, wrote back, offering his agreement. His National Knights, as he frequently said, was founded at a Stone Mountain rally in 1915 as the only “real” KKK of several white supremacist outfits using the name, and the direct descendant of the hooded night riders of Reconstruction.
“Come on down,” Venable wrote back. Pritchard sent a letter to the AJC that he and his associates would be at the Klan gathering.
It was close to dusk that Saturday evening — with something over 100 men clad in casual work clothes, some with their wives and kids, siting on the ground, a few with blankets, as Venable and lesser Klan leaders spouted racist rhetoric from loudspeakers on a wooden platform.
A couple TV crews, way off to the side near a fence, were filming (taping? hell, I don’t know. I scribbled on a notepad until I retired five years ago). I was standing in back, not bothering to take notes, when here came Pritchard and his party, walking toward the platform. Somebody shouted, “What’s that (N-word) doing here?”
“Let’s find out” another voice shouted.
They rushed the “visitors”, some with fists swinging, as their “Imperial Wizard” pleaded for peace calm.
“Conduct yourselves as Klansmen!”, Venable shouted, his voice quavering.
And I’m thinking, “Well, goddamn, Mr. Jimmy! That’s what they’re doing!”
“There are reporters here! They don’t like us! The want us to look bad!” Venable added. I made sure my notebook was in my pocket, out of sight. Fortunately this was in an era long after reporters wore hats with a card labeled PRESS in the band, and more than a decade before plastic media passes with our color photos labeled AJC and “reporter” dangling around our necks.
The TV crews were easy targets. I watched one skinny, aging, coot with thin arms swing his bony fists at a camera man, who blocked the blows with his camera. This was well before minicams; the old guy kept slugging away at something large and heavy that looked like a movie camera to me. To this day I wonder if he broke anything — on him.
The confrontation soon faded as robed Klan lesser officials or whatever highfaluting title they called themselves, escorted Pritchard and his followers to their cars and safety.
I was headed for mine when a fellow wearing a short sleeved shirt and tie stepped alongside me and asked me if I was reporter, offered his hand and said: “My card.”
He was from somewhere in Indiana, and a PIO (a Klonsul I believe) for Venable’s National Knights, KKK.
He could tell me, he said, who the uninvited “researchers” were.
“We checked on who they are: three (N-word)s, two Jews, and a white man.”
You cannot make this shit up.