Monday, June 25, 2012

Republican Racism Example #56: Wearing Klan Robes For Halloween

Cherokee County, Ga. Sheriff Roger Garrison once wore a Klan robe at a Halloween party but he wanted the public to trust his integrity during his re-election bid in 2012. (Photo from  

More than 25 years ago, Cherokee County, Ga. Sheriff Roger Garrison, a Republican, thought it would be funny to wear Klan robes with a friend at a Halloween party.  Today he says that he has never been a member of the Klan and that he was just a kid trying to re-enact a funny scene from the Mel Brooks movie Blazing Saddles. Unfortunately for Garrison, photos of the future sheriff in the Klan gear surfaced this past week and have become an issue in his reelection bid this year.

Cherokee County, Ga. Sheriff Roger Garrison is one of the figures in the Klan robes at a Halloween party 25 years ago,  He now writes off his costume choice as a youthful mistake.  (Photo from  

There is a scene in Blazing Saddle, released in 1974, where the villain Hedley Lamar, (played by Harvey Korman) wants to make a Western town unlivable so he can build a railroad through it.  He hires the worst thugs he can find to disrupt the town.  In a hilariously anachronistic moment, the assembled villains include various ragtag miscreants including Nazis, a motorcycle gang, and a couple of Klansmen in full regalia.  To spy on the proceedings, the heroes (Gene Wilder and an African American actor named Cleavon Little) render the Klansmen unconscious and don their robes.  In the context of the movie, the Ku Kluxers are funny.  Not so much in real life 20th century Georgia.

Sheriff for 20 years and a law enforcement officer for more than 30, Garrison came of age after the Civil Rights movement, when the whites-only signs had come down and when African Americans had served as mayor of Atlanta.  Southern white men knew there was nothing funny about wearing Klan sheets, even to a Halloween Party, any more than wearing a Hitler costume to Octoberfest.

As Garrison should have known, Georgia plays an important and tragic part in the history of the Klan terrorist network.  During the Reconstruction Ear (1863-1877) just after the Civil War, the state hosted one of the most active and violent chapters of the KKK.   The Klan made its presence known in the state March 31, 1868 when it assassinated a Republican Party activist, George Ashburn, in Columbus.  (The Democratic Party in that era was the political home of white former slaveowners and the Republicans the party of Lincoln, Emancipation and black voting rights.  The Klan serves as the terrorist wing of the Southern Democratic Party.  For an explanation of this, see my earlier blog post, “How Did African Americans Become Democrats and Republicans The Party of White Supremacy, Part I” at 

As elsewhere, Georgia Klansmen burned down black churches, whipped school teachers who dared educate black students and African American women who failed to act towards whites with sufficient deference, and murdered black men who tried to vote, participate in political parties, or run for office. 

Sheriff Garrison thought his Klan costume would be funny.  Here are some decidedly unfunny Mississippi Klansman in a Reconstruction-era cartoon.  Georgia Klansmen worse similar outfits.  (Image from  

According to the Georgia Freedman’s Bureau, a U.S. Army agency charged with protecting former slaves and pro-Union Southerners, the Georgia Klan recorded 336 murders and assaults with the intent to kill against freedman in the first 11 months of 1868.  The Klan terrorism made freedmen and pro-Republican whites afraid the vote.   In Oglethorpe County, Republican votes dropped from 1,144 in April 1868 to 116 in November of that year. In Columbia County, the Republican votes dropped from 1,222 in April to only 1 GOP vote in November. 

The real Klan murdered black men for voting, for participating in political meetings, for registering other African Americans, and for running for office, as starkly depicted in this 1868 Thomas Nast cartoon for Harper's Weekly(Image from 

On October 21, 1871, the Congress held a hearing on the state’s Klan violence in Atlanta. Maria Carter told the committee about the night that Klansmen came looking for a black man named John Walthall, Carter’s neighbor, who the thugs accused of stealing and sleeping with white women.

Klansmen broke down the Carters’ door, thinking they were at the Walthall residence and then demanded that Maria’s husband Jasper accompany them to the Walthall’s home.  Maria said she could hear Walthall scream as they whipped him. They beat Walthall’s wife on the head with a pistol before they shot John.  Carter said they made Mrs. Walthall put her arms around her bleeding husband and whipped the couple about 300 times.  The Klansmen put a unloaded gun to the head of Maria Carter and pulled the trigger to frighten her.  They whipped Jasper Carter too.  “I was scared nearly to death, and my husband tried to keep it hid from me,” she said. “I asked him if he had been whipped much. He said, ‘No.’ I saw his clothes were bloody, and the next morning they stuck to him, and his shoulder was almost like jelly.” (See

The original Klan faded in Georgia, as elsewhere, by the early 1870s because it achieved its goals of destroying the Southern Republican Party and effectively disenfranchised black voters, restoring hard right Democrats to power.  (For more, see  In the years after the disappearance of the first KKK, Georgia (along with Mississippi and Texas) recorded the third highest number of lynchings.  Then Georgia would serve as the birthplace of the second Ku Klux Klan as a result of the Leo Frank tragedy in 1915.

Someone murdered 13-year-old Mary Phagan, whose body was found on the floor of a pencil factory near Atlanta on April 27, 1913.  Phagan had toiled as a low-wage worker at the factory, which was owned by a Northern Jewish family and managed by the owners’ nephew Leo Frank.  The crime happened at a time when anti-Semitism in the South peaked and when white Southerners began to deeply resent what they saw as the economic exploitation and colonization of the region by Northern capitalists.  Authorities arrested Frank for the crime on dubious evidence and during a trial, in which mobs outside the courthouse chanted, “Hang the Jew or we’ll hang you,” the jury found Frank guilty and sentenced him to death. 

Frank lived two more years during a round of appeals.  Georgia Gov. John Slayton, near the end of his term, never convinced of Frank’s guilt, commuted the shopkeeper’s sentence to life imprisonment, an action that caused such violent voter anger that guards had to escort Slayton out of the state before his time in office had officially ended.  Meanwhile, authorities transferred Frank to another prison ostensibly for his safety, but a prisoner slashed his throat there.  Frank survived but was seized by a mob that lynched him August 17, 1915.

The lynching near Atlanta, Ga of Leo Frank,  a Jewish pencil factory superintendent, inspired the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan in 1915.  (Photo from 

A group that participated in the lynching dubbed itself the “Knights of Mary Phagan” ascended Stone Mountain, which is decorated with a bas relief of leading Confederate generals, and burned a giant cross there on October 16, 1915.  William J. Simmons led a second cross burning on Thanksgiving night that year and announced the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan, a group that for 10 years would achieve major political power across America, even in Northern states like Indiana, and would target not just blacks, but Jews, immigrants, Catholics, and bootleggers.  Like its predecessor, the new Georgia-born Klan, would use intimidation and murder to advance its political objectives including the passage of a Prohibition amendment to the U.S. Constitution and immigration restriction.

William J. Simmons founded what came to be known as the "second" Ku Klux Klan in Georgia in 1915 in the wake of the Leo Frank case.  Unlike the first Klan, the second incarnation would be powerful nationally and would not just persecute African Americans but would add Jews, immigrants, Catholics and bootleggers to its list of enemies.  (Photo from  

No, there’s nothing funny about the Klan in and of itself.  Roger Garrison should have known all of this when he donned his Klan robe for that Halloween party more than 25 years ago.  If not, he’s appallingly ignorant about the history of his state, his region and his country.  He was alive during the civil rights movement of the mid-twentieth century.  Surely, he had to be aware of how unfunny the Klan was to his African American neighbors. His past insensitivity, however, is not surprising since this year Garrison has decided to plunge into the racially charged issue of immigration in his re-election campaign, pledging to crack down on what he called “illegal aliens.”

Sheriff Roger Garrison is too busy running for reelection as Cherokee County Sheriff to don Klan robes.  He pledges to crack down on "illegal aliens."  (Photo from ). 

Garrison writes off the Klan costume as an embarrassing but unimportant mistake of youth. "I don't deny it wasn't stupid, looking back now, but there again, I say what 21 or 22 year old in this world hasn't made some stupid mistakes," he said.  Sorry, Mr. Garrison.  A 21-year-old is not a kid.  He’s an adult.  He can drive a 4,000-pound cage of steel at 50 or more miles an hour on the freeway. He can vote.  He can fight in wars.  And he can know the sad, twisted, bloody history of the Ku Klux Klan.  It’s no laughing matter. (For more, see and and

Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

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