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)

Saturday, September 12, 2015

President Ford’s Exeter Visit, 1975

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column was published in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, September 11, 2015

Somewhere in the United States there must be a place that isn’t concerned with politics. New Hampshire is not that place. This is where you move if you LOVE being part of the insanity that is American politics but you’re not willing to move to D.C. In 1974, the New Hampshire Senate race took center stage at a time when the political scene had left most Americans disillusioned and cynical. Richard Nixon had resigned the presidency in August leaving Gerald Ford – an appointed Vice-President – to finish the term. All manner of subterfuge and skullduggery had tarnished the presidential campaign and Ford sought to move on from the “long national nightmare” by pardoning the former president.

When November arrived, New Hampshire’s open Senate seat was contested by Republican Louis Wyman, a seasoned four-term congressman; Democrat John Durkin, a newcomer to political office, having served only as State Assistant Attorney General and insurance commissioner; and Carmen Chimento, a 3rd party candidate running for the American Independent Party. When the votes were tallied after Election Day, Wyman had won the election by a slim 355 votes. As was to be expected, Durkin requested a recount, which resulted in his winning the election by four votes. Governor Meldrin Thompson issued a provisional certificate of election for Durkin. Not wanting the election to slip away, Wyman then requested a second recount, which again gave him the election – this time by two votes. The Governor retracted his certificate of election for Durkin and, after the sitting Senator Cotton resigned the seat early on December 31st, appointed Wyman to the Senate to serve out the remaining week of his term. But once that week was over in early January of 1975, it became obvious that the election had never really been decided.

Who actually won the election in November 1974? Our optical scanning method of voting today would make the recount tiresome, but accurate. Back in 1974, many municipalities used mechanical lever voting machines that were confusing to use and difficult to re-tabulate. The whole mess was tossed to the U.S. Senate, but they also could not decide on a winner and declared the seat vacant. With the August vacation looming, it was suggested that the two candidates come up with their own solution. Wyman suggested a run-off election in September, and Durkin agreed. A brief second campaign began in anticipation of the September 16th ballot.

Into the fray came the new President. Wyman was thought to be the stronger candidate – he had more experience and New Hampshire generally voted Republican. In the first week of September, it was announced that Gerald Ford would be making a one day visit to the state to support Louis Wyman. Exeter was chosen as one of the stops where the president would speak. With only a week to prepare, Exeter got busy. The town hall flagpole was painted, bunting was hung throughout the downtown and town officials were occupied with the insistent demands of the secret service, because the day after the visit was announced Manson family member Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme pulled a gun on the president in Sacramento. Taking no chances, secret service agents visited every shop on Water Street. The shops could remain opened on the day of the President’s visit, but no upstairs windows could be opened. All personnel had to be cleared. Even the pewter tankard that would be given to the president as a gift had to be checked and x-rayed before the big event.

On Thursday, September 11th, the town was abuzz with excitement. Although we have a steady stream of presidential candidates visiting during election years, this was the first time a sitting president had made a visit since Harry Truman arrived in 1952. He arrived a bit before 7pm accompanied by the Governor and candidate Louis Wyman. The speech at the bandstand was brief, but well received by the townsfolk who attended. Regardless of political leaning, the crowd seemed pleased to be chosen for a presidential visit. Of the thousands who attended the speech, most remember the secret service more than the president’s speech. Most of the memories gleaned from a recent Facebook post were about the intense security:

“I remember his motorcade traveling past West Side Drive and Ford waving to all. The secret service guys were jogging alongside and ‘politely’ moving anyone who got too close.”

“I was standing along the road in front of what is now Serendipity. A SS agent grabbed a guy behind us because it looked like he was going for a gun in his back pocket. It was his huge ‘Goody’ comb.” 

“Just before Ford arrived downtown a bird flew through an upstairs window of the building on Water Street across from Town hall. My father was called in to replace the glass as the Secret Service would not allow any open windows on the street.”

“I was in Bob Shaw’s lawyer office watching through the big picture window, then went down to the street and tried to shake his hand as the motorcade drove off and got pushed down by a secret service man!”

The town, as a whole, was pleased with Ford’s visit, even if it didn’t help Louis Wyman. He lost the run-off election in Exeter by 90 votes, and statewide he lost by 27,000. Jay Childs remembered, “Ford got a better reaction than Wyman as I recall.” We don’t know what the president’s thoughts were on his New Hampshire visit. A week later he was again in California when Sara Jane Moore fired shots at him in San Francisco. If nothing else, at least no one in New Hampshire tried to kill him.

Images: Two young people hold a sign to welcome the President, and President Ford addresses the crowd from the Swasey Pavilion – or the Bandstand – on September 11, 1975.

Many thanks to the Facebook group “You Know You’re From Exeter, NH.” Those quoted include, David Butler, Michael Perry, Paul Titus and Jay Childs.