By: Mike Givens*/TRT Assistant Editor—
It was 1968, and the six of them lived in a small house in southeastern Virginia. Tom, 31, and Elizabeth, 28, lived with their four young children on a plot of family land several acres long and wide. The children—two boys and two girls—were each a year apart; the oldest, Beverly, was 11, the youngest, Sharon, was 8.
The news was scandalous and scary. A white man who lived nearby, also a landowner, had nefarious plans. He’d walked around the neighborhood putting flyers in the mailboxes of his neighbors about a meeting he was hosting.
“He let [the Ku Klux Klan] come on to this land to start something,” said Elizabeth, reflecting on the incident.
By “start something,” she meant burn crosses, harass—and possibly murder— innocent black families who lived in the community.
Race relations weren’t tense in that area back then, according to Elizabeth. White’s had their own enclaves in the community and blacks had the same. There were no hostilities or fights and Elizabeth recalled the community being relatively benign. Sharon’s recollection of the time was colored by her parents’ sense of duty to their children.
“I don’t remember that much about it because I was a kid and the adults protected us from a lot of things,” she said, recalling the event.
What she did remember was that she was so afraid she couldn’t go to the bathroom by herself. According to Elizabeth, 10-15 black men who lived in the community armed themselves and stood watch over their own houses waiting for the KKK to strike. Women and children were sequestered in their own homes in case the “start something” actually happened.
“The blacks were ready for them,” she said quite proudly with a slight grin on her face.
Elizabeth said that the entire evening she was not afraid, though.
“Tom was out there with his gun,” she said of the night she watched over her four children while black men patrolled their property and, not too far away, white men with evil on their minds congregated.
The evening was uneventful.
She doesn’t recall when the KKK left; it could have been late at night or early the next morning. The important thing was that they were gone.
Rumor has it that the man who owned the land had to answer to an angry wife. Apparently, she was so infuriated that she left him.
It’s not known what happened to that property owner who invited the KKK to live on his land or whether he’s even still alive today.
I like to think that people of his ilk die off with little fanfare. Think of a it: a community where blacks and whites co-exist together peacefully and without incident is unsettled by one man’s ignorance and prejudice. I don’t know what his intentions were in allowing these Klansmen to camp out on his land that evening, and I don’t care.
I listened to the first-hand accounts of this night from Elizabeth and Sharon. Of course, I call them “Gram” and “Mom,” respectively. I grew up in that house, in that community. I took school bus rides past the land where those Klansmen once camped out. And who knows? Maybe I even went to school with their grandchildren.
I guess that’s the scary thing about evil. It can hide in plain sight, under a mask. We all have a small bit of it in us and it can be nurtured and stoked. It can be fed by sheer hatred, delusion, or the stifling narrowness of ignorance.
It’s a lot like carbon monoxide: odorless, colorless, tasteless, but fatal when consumed in large amounts.
The day before listening to my grandmother and mother recount that night back in the late 60s, I was sitting in my mother’s dining room while my sister sat in the next room watching a CNN documentary on North Korea. To say the least, the country scares me. Between the terrifying case of Otto Warmbier, the unadulterated propaganda and brainwashing that go into convincing North Koreans that Americans are maniacal, and the mental instability of our nation’s current president, I fear we could very well be on our way to another war.
And let’s not forget that Austria, the birthplace of Adolf Hitler, recently voted into office a far-right nationalist party that could have a frightening impact on European politics (note: Austria is the first European nation to elect a far-right leader since World War II).
And then there’s the United States. We’re one year into a disastrous presidency that has not —and will not—pass federal policies that benefit those who need it the most. The nation’s president rules by ego, not intelligence. Racial divisiveness and regressive sentiment are at an all-time high and I have little hope in our national leadership to help us. Civil rights are on the chopping block and none of us (at least none of us who are members of an oppressed class) are safe.
Evil is around us every day. Maybe not the kind of evil my grandmother and mother saw back in 1968, but evil nonetheless—an evil that prizes power over prosperity, money over human life. An evil that divides based on wealth, skin color, nationality, religion, and so much more.
But, I keep my head up. In times and circumstances like this, victimhood is a state of mind and rather than choose to be a victim, I choose to be a fighter.
In the same way my grandfather protected his family from the KKK that night with a gun, I’ll be doing the same to protect my rights and the rights of others. Instead of a gun, however, I’ll use the truth.
*A graduate of the Boston University College of Communication, Mike Givens has been a social justice advocate for 10 years. During that time he’s worked on a range of initiatives aimed at uplifting marginalized populations. An experienced media strategist and communications professional, Mike currently devotes his spare time to a number of vital issues including racial justice and socioeconomic equity.