Saturday, September 26, 2015

That Time the Klan Turned Up at Exeter’s Race Unity Day

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column was published in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, September 25, 2015.

You wouldn’t hold a pie eating contest to raise money for diabetes research, would you? Of course not. So in hindsight, it seems a bit ridiculous to try to drum up membership in your segregationist group outside a public gathering dedicated to race unity – but that was exactly what happened in Exeter in June of 1990.

June 11, 1991 See caption below.
Members of the Baha’i community in Exeter had been holding Race Unity Day annually for five years. Baha’i is a faith that holds racial equality and unity as one of its central teachings. The event was always peaceful and lightly attended. Jonathan Ring, the organizer of the event, recently told me that actually 1990 was the best attended Race Unity Day event held in Exeter – most likely because of the Klan presence. But let’s not give them credit. The Klan, after all, is a hateful group no matter how much they try to claim otherwise.

People hadn’t thought much about the Ku Klux Klan in Exeter. True, the Ioka Theater had famously opened its doors in 1915 with a showing of “Birth of a Nation” – a film based on the book “The Clansmen” – with costumed Klansmen riding around town on horseback. During that decade, the Klan saw a resurgence in membership and Klan rallies were held on Hampton Beach. In the following years of economic depression and wartime deprivation, the Klan seemed to retreat from the minds of New Englanders, relegated to the shadowy world of the segregated South. The civil rights movement of the 1960s was a reminder that it had never really disappeared.

But the arrival in town of Tom Herman, a KKK recruiter originally from Maine, was a startling revelation to most Exeter residents. He’d been living in town for a number of years, working as a radio technician with the Rockingham County Sheriff’s office and occasionally working as a part time police officer in Newfields. In the summer of 1989, people began finding flyers on their cars from the KKK. The phone number linked to an answering machine which intoned, in Herman’s voice, “White patriots, wake up. The media wants you to think that we are evil. The truth is they are terrified of us because we dare to stand up for decency.” Yes, the recording used the word ‘decency’ shortly after this bit: “Whites are a civilization. Blacks have yet to develop their own civilization. The best thing that we can do for them is to return them to the land of their ancestors. That way our civilization can remain pure and continue to grow.” That makes sense, let’s all return to the land of our ancestors. I’m sure Lithuania would love to have me, although I’d miss my husband who would have to somehow split himself between Scotland, Denmark and England.

How do you sweep a hate group from your midst? How do you ensure the constitutional right to free speech when that speech is hateful? This was the problem facing town officials and the population. New Hampshire was still dithering about whether to join the rest of the nation in making Martin Luther King Jr Day a state holiday in 1990. In spite of its unofficial status, events were still held and, true to their mission, Klansmen in robes and pointy hats turned up outside an Exeter MLK event. This type of activity – even though it was peaceful on the part of the Klan – didn’t sit well. Local ministers published a letter decrying the Klan’s stance. The Exeter High School branch of Amnesty International did the same. A new group formed, called the Seacoast Coalition for Justice and Unity, and it joined together with the Baha’i community to organize the June Race Unity Day.

On hearing of the event, the Klan asked if they could set up a booth to hand out educational materials. To the surprise of no one, the organizers of the event denied the request. The Klan came anyway, although after some legal wrangling, they had to move to the sidewalk. The organizers of the event ignored them, but people outside on Front Street honked horns, shouted obscenities and flashed disrespectful hand gestures. Really, what would it take to get these clowns out of town?

August 28, 1990 See caption below.
What if the Klan staged a rally and no one showed up? That’s the final chapter in this story. Herman applied for a permit to hold his own a rally on Swasey Parkway in August, but the parkway trustees turned him down. He held a ‘walk’ anyway with his usual sidekicks. The downtown merchants decided to festoon the town with yellow – yellow ribbons, yellow balloons, yellow everything to signify unity. While Herman mounted the Swasey parkway stage shouting about his constitutional right to be there, town officials and the police annoyingly refused to violate any of his constitutional rights. There were only “four juveniles and media personnel” in attendance, so they decided there was no reason to worry about crowd control. The Klansmen left after 45 minutes of not antagonizing anyone. They moved to a spot in front of the town office on Front Street, where they managed to attract a few onlookers until Exeter businessman John Ulery, dressed in a clown costume, drew their attention away by yelling, “I have the best costume! I have the best costume!” Herman and the Klan quietly left town the following summer.

Exeter hasn’t always led the way in race relations. It’s still a town where racism expresses itself in both casual lazy conversation and even more alarmingly in occasional drive-by outbursts. We’re not a very diverse community. For this reason alone, we need to be reminded that racism exists and should not be tolerated.

Images: 08-28-1990: “Exeter Police Lt. Joseph Bernstien, left, Sgt. Russell Charleston, Board of Selectmen Chairman Paul Binette and Town Manager George Olson discuss Saturday’s appearance of five Ku Klux Klan members on the stage at Swasey Parkway (staff photos/Matt Palmer)

06-11-1991: “youngsters attending Sunday’s Race Unity day festivities pay little attention to the Klansmen marching in the background.” (staff photo/Timothy Donovan)

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