Flames licked the summer sky like devils’ tongues ravishing the innocent, the vulnerable and the unprotected. Hooded robed men and women circled the burning cross that hot July 4 night outside Jim Thorpe to pledge allegiance to a ferocious hatred that divides the country and to this day keeps freedom from ringing throughout our land.
In front of the cross, a long-haired bearded man squared broad shoulders as fire warmed his face. With combat boots digging into the soft earth and looking like a outlaw biker in a cut-off denim jacket and faded blue jeans, he clenched and unclenched his fists, staring back into the eyes of what looked like hot coals burning behind the Klan members’ hoods.
That wild man was me.
Undercover at the holiday cross-burning, I made my way through the crowd of aging Ku Klux Klan members and wiry young skinheads dressed in their chains, jackboots and white pride regalia.
Then I stopped dead.
A Klan baby toddled by.
Dressed in a baby robe and hood, the child held the hands of two hooded and robed KKK members as they made their way to the stage where a Neo-Nazi band thrashed raw chords and heavy metal screams of white power.
When a television reporter recognized me and gave me a big smile then started making his way to my side – a friendly face in an unfriendly crowd – I quickly turned away. I saw the surprised look on his face but I worried that he might blow my cover and put me in danger.
No matter how tough you are, it’s easy to get stomped at a KKK/skinhead cross burning in the summertime.
I picked up my pace and headed toward the massive wooden cross wrapped in burlap and doused in gasoline that stood high on the hill. Standing alone, I watched as Klan members held high their flaming torches and a few stepped forward to add fire to the explosive fuel, an immediately blazing symbol that would soon be visible across the mountain ridges from many miles away.
A grand dragon stepped forward and asked who among us would come with him to take the oath to join the Klan. Joined by a few other big men, I started forward, moving toward a farm house where the induction ceremony would take place behind closed doors
Heading into the darkness from the light, I suddenly stopped.
I was indeed alone. Maybe somebody did see the TV reporter acknowledge me. Maybe one of the skinheads I had talked with earlier had spotted the exchange. If so, I might be in trouble. Some of the men wore guns on their hips. So I turned into the shadows that danced like demons against the night sky, and walked a long, lonely walk across a corn field to my car.
About a mile away I pulled off the road. Stepping from my car I stood in the soft air and watched the burning cross in the distance. I must have stood there for ten minutes, watching g and thinking and locking the sight into my mind.
To this day I remember that ominous sight from 20 years ago as if it were yesterday. I actually thought about that burning cross yesterday and the long heartfelt column I wrote about my risky undercover adventure when I got back to the Wilkes-Bare newspaper where I worked.
A woman had called the show identifying herself as “an African-American woman” with a “Ph.D.” She called to attack me for criticizing Barack Obama. I had commented about the president dramatically chewing gum on TV while digging his inaugural parade and how undignified he looked.
I also had offered strong support for every proposal he had put forward in his inaugural address which I labeled a good but not great speech. But I wished him well in putting forward his plans for immigration reform, gun control and human rights for women and gay people, positions with which I heartily agree.
The professor, who said she taught part-time at Luzerne County Community College, called me “anti-black.” And when she told me to “shut up,” my mind drifted back to that huge cross ablaze on a hill not far from where she and I live today. I started to tell her that she was welcome to come along the next time I went undercover to a Klan rally. But I stopped in mid-word because I realized that as a black woman she could likely not come along with me without putting herself in danger.
I felt bad, though, that she seemingly had no idea that I, as a white person, sometimes could and would step risk my safety on behalf of the humanity we share. I was willing to do that then. I’m willing to do that now. Yet, in her eyes, I’m anti-black because I dare criticize America’s first black president.
I would rather be a loving critic of my country – and my president – than an uncritical lover. Cheerleaders impede progress and the dangerous stories must still be told. I doubt that Obama or the professor ever saw what I saw the way I saw it. Hopefully I’ll never see such real racism again.