Reporter's Notebook: Charlottesville unrest echoes past KKK clashes

I didn’t cover the Ku Klux Klan and white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va., last weekend.

But I did cover one in 1990.

I was a student at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, in the fall of 1989. I worked for several years as a reporter and news anchor while in high school and college at WKRC-AM in Cincinnati. Our listening area pulsed with multiple, national news stories at the time. Major League Baseball expelled Pete Rose. A bridge collapsed on a holiday weekend, killing several motorists. The local prosecutor indicted the director of a downtown Cincinnati art gallery on obscenity charges for showing a bawdy exhibit by the late photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, in a seminal First Amendment case. Rep. Buz Lukens found himself in a teenage sex scandal, and an upstart named John Boehner dispatched him in the Republican primary.

Then there was the day the Ku Klux Klan rallied in the bucolic, college town of Oxford.

In October 1989, two Talawanda High School students in Oxford wore KKK robes to school for Halloween and barked racial epithets. Some students egged on their classmates decked out in the garb. This sparked outrage from the nearby university community. Activists and local clergy quickly organized a racial unity march. About 500 high schoolers, Miami students, professors and pastors marched without incident on a crisp November day to preach racial harmony.

And a few days later, a small band of KKK members drove to Oxford City Hall and took out a permit for their own parade.

This move shocked Oxford. Miami University students characterize their environment as a “bubble.” The school is located in a quintessential college town nestled between rolling hills and cornfields, far from an urban center like Cincinnati. Poet Robert Frost described Miami as “the most beautiful campus there ever was.” Miami’s signature, red brick, Georgian academic buildings line lush, green quadrangles. Stone bridges and ponds dolloped with water lilies embroider the edge of the school.

Oxford and Miami are a lot like Charlottesville and the University of Virginia. Both Miami and UVA are among the eight “public Ivies” – state schools where you can earn an Ivy League education. Alumni Hall on Miami’s campus even bears a striking resemblance to UVA’s Rotunda.

The Klan’s protest announcement pierced Miami’s bubble. The Klansman planned a December 1989 walk directly up Main Street and then a rally in the center of town. Miamians organized a counter-protest.

I found and interviewed a few of the Klansman in the weeks prior. They called for segregation of the races and spoke about “natural law.” Most held blue-collar jobs as machinists and house painters.

The December parade never happened. The weather forecast called for six inches of snow and temperatures in the teens. The Klan told the city they were cancelling due to “safety reasons.” But the KKK promised to be back when spring broke.

Few thought they would.

In early March, 1990 I called the city of Oxford on a hunch just to see if the Klan ever re-filed their protest permit. I nearly dropped the phone when I got the answer.

“They’re here now,” said the woman at the city building.

It was dumb luck that I stumbled onto the story again. I asked the clerk at city hall if she could put the Klansman on the phone with me. She did and I interviewed them right there, breaking the story for WKRC that the Klan was indeed coming to Oxford in a few weeks.

The rally was slated for April 7, 1990. A sunny but chilly spring Saturday. The university took special precautions to lock doors and advise students to stay away from the parade route due to the potential for violence. Many students headed home for the weekend. No one knew what to expect. As a precaution, I brought along a drugstore-bought surgical mask and a baseball helmet with earflaps.

In all, about 15 Klansman showed up. They didn’t wear robes and hoods. Mostly jeans and leather jackets. The KKK festooned pickup trucks with Confederate flags and jerry-rigged a cross against the cab. They rented a sound system and microphone to spew their message from the floor bed of the truck.

I interviewed one of the parade organizers. He told me they were misunderstood. I will never forget the Klansman’s sound bite I used.

“People think that we go out and horsewhip n--roes and rape colored women and that is just nonsense,” the Klansman said.

Most students stayed away. But a few showed up just out of curiosity. A band of 150 counter-demonstrators assembled along the parade route. They would hector and jeer at the Klansman as they processed toward the center of town where they planned a rally. The Oxford and Miami University Police brought in state troopers and law enforcement from other agencies to help keep the peace. There were less than a handful of arrests. The cops busted a few counter protesters who hurled rocks and large branches at the Klansman. The activists were noisy and drowned out the KKK sound system.

Butler County Sheriff Dick Holzberger cancelled the subsequent rally scheduled for the town square after the parade. Holzberger told me he couldn’t guarantee the safety of everyone.

The Miami campus was deserted that evening. The scrums of students who usually drifted across the quads in search of Saturday night parties or uptown bars were nowhere to be found. It was surreal seeing the town dip briefly to the edge of pandemonium and then revert to calm.

The rally briefly punctured the Miami bubble. But the bubble was again sealed.

The irony is that the KKK rally wasn’t even the lead story on our hourly newscasts that day. Nobody got hurt. There were only a few arrests. The crowds weren’t that big. My reports were second in the lineup all day long. Meantime in downtown Cincinnati, a secret grand jury indicted art gallery director Dennis Barrie on obscenity charges in connection with the aforementioned Mapplethorpe exhibit.

As a result, I learned that day there are indeed limits on the First Amendment – when one First Amendment news story outweighs another First Amendment news story.