HOWELL, Mich. – Gary Gray (search) says he will be offering pieces of history Saturday when he sells seven Ku Klux Klan robes and other KKK paraphernalia at his auction house.
But the uniforms, knives, books and buttons are reminders of a past some people in this nearly all-white Michigan town would rather forget.
"This goes against everything we've tried to accomplish," said Victor Lopez, a Hispanic accountant from Howell and president of Livingston 2001 Diversity Council (search), a group aimed at promoting tolerance.
Howell leaders say the town's racist reputation is undeserved, and they have been trying to shake it for years. They trace it to one man — Robert Miles (search), a KKK leader who lived on a farm outside Howell until his death in 1992.
Miles was convicted of conspiring to burn school buses during an integration fight in Pontiac and was found guilty in the tarring and feathering of an Ypsilanti-area school principal.
Gray, a white man and owner of the Ole' Gray Nash Auction Gallery (search), said the auction is not about promoting racism. He said it is about education and business — a potentially lucrative departure from his more standard auction fare of antiques, coins and books.
"This is just a part of history we're selling," said Gray, 51.
Howell is a growing city of more than 9,000 people 55 miles west of Detroit. It is in Livingston County, one of Michigan's least diverse counties. About 97 percent of the county's 157,000 residents in the 2000 census were white. Only a half-percent — fewer than 800 people — were black. In Howell itself, only 29 blacks were counted.
Howell business groups acknowledge they have had trouble attracting minorities. But community leaders say they are making progress promoting diversity, and they do not want the publicity from the KKK auction to undermine those efforts.
Because of the Miles connection, Howell leaders say their community attracts extra media attention for incidents that may be just as likely to happen in other Midwestern towns of similar size and makeup.
For example, a white man was convicted in a 2001 assault on a black, off-duty state trooper who was dancing with a white woman at a Howell-area bar. In 1988, a cross was burned outside the home of a black Howell-area woman — the incident that led to the creation of the diversity council.
The NAACP branch in neighboring Oakland County and other civil rights groups in Michigan have blasted the auction as insensitive, and protesters plan to be outside on Saturday. The diversity council is raising money to buy a robe at the auction, then ship it out of town to an anti-racism museum exhibit.
The auction was originally scheduled for Jan. 15 but was delayed after Gray learned it was the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday. Since the first robe was consigned for sale in early January, dozens more items have poured into the gallery because of the publicity.
Now, long tables covered in black felt hold books, movies and recordings. Silver pocketknives are engraved "KKK — God, Duty, Honor." Buttons promote George Wallace's 1968 presidential campaign and an old David Duke run for Senate. Fading stickers for the National Socialist White People's Party lie near decades-old cards reading "Join White Power Today or Live Under Jewish Communism Tomorrow."
Earlier this month, Mona Lindsay, co-owner of a New Age shop across the street, noticed a pink-and-white Klan robe in the auction house window. It has since been moved so it cannot be seen from the street.
"We have customers from every ethnicity and walk of life. I don't want them looking out the window and seeing an item of hatred, fear and intimidation," said Lindsay, who is white.