In which a black man hires a member of the KKK as his lawyer

Tabatha Leggett speaks to Willie Brown, of Harrison, Arkansas, who did just that.

It’s 2008 and Willie Brown, a retired police officer from California, is moving to Harrison, Arkansas. As he unpacks boxes into his new home, he notices some damage to the house’s interior. A few days later, he mentions the problem to a neighbour, who advises him to hire a lawyer. That evening, Willie leafs through the phone book and finds the number of a local attorney: Jason Robb. Willie and Jason set up a meeting, discuss Willie’s problem and decide that the project is too big for Jason to take on right now. Jason politely refers Willie to one of his colleagues, who promptly sorts out the issue.

A year later, Willie’s neighbour mentions that the Knights Party, the most prominent branch of the Klu Klux Klan, is based in Zinc, a small town just north of Harrison. Willie looks it up. He learns that the Klan is a large, racist organisation famed for advocating white supremacy, white nationalism and anti-immigration, traditionally through terrorism. He also finds out that the Klan’s leader is called Thomas Robb. The name "Robb" rings a bell. Willie remembers Jason, the attorney he met last year. Further research confirms that Jason is Thomas’s son, as well as an active Klan member and the group’s lawyer.

Oh, I forgot to mention: Willie is black.

So what was it like to meet Jason, one of the most powerful men within one of America’s biggest hate groups? “I went into his office,” Willie says, “I sat down and filled out the necessary paperwork. He wasn’t nasty and he didn’t refuse to speak to me; I would never have known he was a Klan member.”

But didn't Willie feel uncomfortable when he later found out about Jason’s involvement with the Klan? No. “If you’re good at what you do, what does it matter?” he insists.

What’s more, Willie wouldn’t think twice about hiring Jason again. “If I had a legal issue and he was the best attorney around, of course I’d hire him. He never told me he doesn’t like blacks.”

But he actively hates blacks, I reply, determined to stir Willie's nonchalance.

“If he doesn’t like blacks, that’s on him,” Willie says. “But I’m not going to go in there, harass him and not hire him because I’m black. That’s not the way it’s supposed to be. If you know someone has a racial bias, why would you want to agitate that person? I’m not a troublemaker. As long as you don’t assault me, I couldn’t care less. You’re entitled to speak your opinion. That’s your right.

“I have a friend who hates Israel. Does that make me feel uncomfortable? No. I know blacks who hate whites. Does that make me feel uncomfortable? No. It’s their issue, not mine.”

The Klan’s headquarters consist of a few buildings and a chapel on a farm in Zinc. It’s a 13-mile drive from Harrison. Although the Klan has never caused any trouble in Harrison, their mayor, Jeff Crockett, has previously spoken about the Klan’s proximity to his town having a negative effect on its economy. A Google search of Harrison brings up countless results related to the Klan, which naturally deters people from travelling there. However, Willie insists that although the Klan’s members often visit Harrison, they never cause any trouble. “There’s no robe or hood wearing here,” he explains. “Anyone could be a Klan member; there’s no way you can tell.”

I can’t help but wonder whether Harrison is a safe place to live. Although the Klan’s membership has rapidly declined in recent years – due partially to their incompetent Internet use – the group has a longstanding history of violence. In the last sixty years they’ve bombed the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People; shot, lynched, firebombed and assassinated countless black people; bombed Baptist churches; and massacred Communist Workers’ parties.

But Willie insists that things have changed. “The Klan has been sued a lot recently and they’ve lost a lot of property. They’re more underground now. It’s not the same as how it used to be because this country doesn’t allow that. Harrison is part of the United States, and the law’s not going to allow that kind of thing to happen. Fifty years ago, they got away with more. But they couldn’t do that now.”

In an effort to spread this message and prove that Harrison is a welcoming town, it hosted the Martin Luther Commission, a non-violent youth summit, last year. Although a lot of parents were sceptical about sending their children to Harrison, no incidents of racism were reported, and the summit served to demonstrate that the Klan’s members really don’t bother the people who live in Harrison.

In fact, Willie insists that, given the opportunity, he wouldn’t drive the Klan out of town. “Everyone has a right to live where they want,” he says. “Everyone has the right to speak freely.”

“I don’t have to listen to what they have to say, but they’re entitled to say it.”

Downtown Harrison, Arkansas. Photograph via WikiCommons

Tabatha Leggett is a freelance journalist who has been published in GQ and VICE and on the London Review of Books blog and Buzzfeed.com.

Hamzah al Zobi
Show Hide image

Meet the Syrians using education to escape the refugee camps

On the bus to university with Syrian refugees in Jordan. 

The bus to Zarqa University leaves Jordan’s largest refugee camp at 7am sharp. The journey is one of the day’s highlights for the Syrian students who ride this route - a chance to plan weekend get-togethers, bemoan heavy course loads and even enjoy the occasional school-bus style sing-along. It’s also their daily ticket out of Za’atari camp and a means of escaping the dreary realities of refugee life.

“We are the lucky ones. Most had to give up their dreams of higher education” says 19-year-old Reema Nasser Al Hamad, whose family fled to Jordan five years ago when bombs destroyed her home in Dara’a, Syria. She shudders to think of the alternatives: aimless days spent sitting in a crowded caravan, or early marriage. “After the war, students in Syria lost their cities, their opportunities and their futures, so many of the girls just married when they got here. There’s a huge difference between the lives of those who study and those who don’t.”

Despite missing two years of school, Reema (pictured below) was able to pass her exams before securing a Saudi-funded scholarship to study Pharmacy at Zaraq’ University. “In Syria, I’d planned to do medicine and be a doctor because I always had high grades. There are fewer choices for us here but I’m happy to be studying at all,” she says. Hamza al Zobi, who’s studying Pharmacy on an the EU-funded EDU-Syria programnme, says young Syrians are hungry to learn. “We all have friends and relatives who didn’t get this chance and we feel so upset for them. If they’re not well educated, how can they go back and do the right thing for our country?”

More than a quarter of 18-24 year olds in Syria were enrolled in higher education when the war broke out. “Based on data provided by UNHCR we assess that around 20,000 young Syrians in Jordan would qualify for vocational education and higher education,” says Job Arts, Programme Manager Education and Youth, EU Delegation to Jordan, which is supporting some 1800 Syrians and disadvantaged Jordanians on degree courses in Jordan.

“While the number of places for Syrian students to pursue their education has increased dramatically over the past few years, there are still many more interested students than spaces available for study,” says Sarah Dryden-Peterson, non-resident Fellow at the Center for Universal Education at the Brookings Institution. “Without these possibilities, young Syrians will lose the kind of hope that is essential to productive futures.”

According to the Jordan Response Platform for the Syria Crisis, 1,250 Syrian youth were in higher education in Jordan in 2016. Building on commitments made by the international community at the London Conference on Syria last year, the Jordanian government hopes to secure funding to increase access to tertiary education and vocational training at the upcoming conference in Brussels this April.

“Jordan views higher education from a strategic point of view, specifically in terms of providing the Syrian youth with the education, skill and knowledge that will allow the opportunity to be part of rebuilding their country once the current situation comes to an end,” says Feda Gharaibeh, Director, Humanitarian Relief Coordination Unit at the Jordanian Ministry of Planning & International Cooperation.

Reema plans to return to Syria when the war is over. “After graduation a lot of students want to go to Europe. That would be fine for me too if it’s just to do a masters or doctorate, but then I want to go back to Syria and use what I’ve learnt to help my people.” Now four semesters into her course, she is making good progress but says adapting to the Jordanian education system was a challenge. “It’s really difficult for us. Classes are taught in English and the teaching style is different. They also have a lot more exams here.”

Only the brightest stand a chance of securing a scholarship but many young Syrians have seen their grades plummet after missing years of schooling. For, some, it’s too late to catch up. Accountancy student Ibrahim Mohammed, 23, came to Jordan in 2013 with his younger brother Khalil, now 19, who works in a print shop. “He stopped studying when he was 14. He didn’t even have a chance to get his high school certificate,” says Ibrahim.

Attempts to bridge the gap through open and distance learning programmes aren’t always effective. “It’s not a tool that is frequently used in the education environment in the Middle East,” explains Arts. Refugee students' access to electricity, internet connections, computers and space to study can be in short supply. Moreover, many students seek the escapism that a university education offers. “In our dialogue with parents and students, we often hear the phrase ‘being normal again’,” Arts adds.

Hamzah tries to help fellow students achieve this in his role as representative for the Syrian community at Zarqa University. He and Reema are part of a team that offers advice to new students and support for those from poorer families living in the camps. “There are 900 Syrian students here and each one has a different story of suffering,” says Hamzah, who organises group trips to restaurants and fairgrounds, helping to create a sense of regular student life. “It makes us forget what we are,” explains Reema.

During term time, she prefers to stay with her uncle in Mafraq, a city nearby. It’s hard to study in Za’atari. As soon as the power comes on at 5pm, her brothers switch on the TV, making it difficult to concentrate in the cramped caravan they share. There’s nowhere else to go; the camp is dangerous at night, particularly for young women. It’s even more crowded since the arrival of her baby sister. Reema remembers how her mother sobbed when she learned of the pregnancy, worried about bringing another child into the makeshift world of the camp.

But in five years a lot has changed. “In Syria, I had never left my village; now I feel there is another world to know,” says Reema. Like many Syrian students, she worries about life after university, particularly if they stay in Jordan where employment opportunities remain restricted for Syrian refugees. “It seems like work is forbidden to us Syrians and without a job we can’t take control of our lives. We’re studying hard but with no prospects,” says Hamzah. Few can see beyond graduation. “The future is opaque for us,” he adds, “We’re just living day by day.”

To date, the Jordanian government has issued some 39,000 works permits out of the 200,000 it pledged to make available for Syrians during the London Conference last February. However, with these opportunities built around low-income roles, primarily in the construction, agriculture, and textile manufacture sectors, the way for Syrian university graduates in Jordan still seems barred.

“Jordan is a small country with limited job opportunities,” says Ghaith Rababah Head of Projects & International Cooperation Unit (PICU) at the Ministry of Higher Education & Scientific Research. “Maybe the market will be better able to absorb educated Syrians at a later stage.”

In the meantime, higher education offers young Syrians a semblance of the security and stability their lives otherwise lack, Rababah continues. Given the opportunity to “use their talents for something good”, he adds, young people placed in difficult situations are less likely to fall prey to extremist ideologies and be “tricked into committing terrorist acts".