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.”