YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio (WKBN) – The Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups, says the Ku Klux Klan has active members in and around Youngstown, though the group is currently underground.
For the past year, stories have emerged from across the country about Klan recruiting efforts, including several in Ohio and Pennsylvania.
This isn’t the first time the Valley has seen Klan activity.
HISTORY OF THE KKK IN THE VALLEY: NOVEMBER 1, 1924 RIOT
If you stand in the intersection of North Main and East Federal streets in Niles, you’re on the grounds of one of the largest riots in state history.
In Niles, the years 1923 and 1924 were characterized by extreme political success from the Ohio Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.
“They could make or break an election for any official. From mayor, to school board, to judge,” said Ralph Tolbert, with the Niles Historical Society.
The Klan wanted the over 10,000 Italian and Irish immigrants out of the city. They hated Catholicism and thought the immigrants were taking their jobs.
In 1924, Klan advocate Harvey Kistler was elected mayor. He allowed Klansmen to fill several of the law enforcement positions in the city, leading the Italians and Irish to create an organization to fight back.
“They called it the Knights of the Flaming Circle because, like the KKK had their flaming cross, they had tires that they would burn,” Tolbert said.
The Flaming Circle fought against the Klan’s parades and would attack the old Rummel’s Sports Shop on Main Street where the Klan met.
That site has since changed. The bridge going over the railroad tracks now extends over the land where Rummel’s once sat.
Most of the confrontations in 1924 led to violence and destruction. Eventually, Mayor Kistler briefly banned parades but that ended when he approved a Klan march for November 1.
“He felt anyone who applied with that request had the constitutional right to March,” Tolbert said.
The Flaming Circle applied for their own parade permit for the same day.
“They felt that the law should apply and be fairly treated,” Tolbert said. “So they felt if they could stop the parade, they would have won.”
Kistler denied their request.
Then on October 29, Kistler’s home was bombed. Still, the Klan planned to March on November 1.
When that day came, 25,000 Ku Klux Klan members met strong resistance from the 10,000 members of the Flaming Circle. A riot broke out and 18 hours later, the governor finally declared Marshall Law and sent in the militia.
“It was considered a victory for the Irish and Italian community,” Tolbert said. “That was, I would think, the end to the lack of [the KKK’s] political power.”
There were an estimated 400,000 Klansmen in the country in 1924. They gained strength again nationally in response to the civil rights movement, and then again in the late 70s when David Duke attempted to professionalize the organization.
The Valley saw some action in 1998 when the Klan held rallies in Mercer County and Warren.
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THE MODERN KKK: INTERVIEW WITH A KLAN MEMBER
The modern Ku Klux Klan isn’t as big as it may seem. Recruiting efforts, like fliers popping up in people’s yards across the U.S., have made the organization appear larger.
Some Klans remain closed and secretive. Others hold frequent public demonstrations.
While it took weeks of phone calls, emails and posts to their forums for WKBN 27 First News to find someone from an Ohio or Pennsylvania chapter to talk, someone came through.
An email to the Loyal White Knights, considered one of the nation’s largest Klans, led to a Skype interview with John Roberts, also known as the chapter’s Exalted Cyclops.
“Being willing to march and demonstrate peacefully, by the way, is something that inclined me to join them.”
The Georgia resident says he chose his Klan because of their level of activity. He wanted to march in public and be seen. Roberts says there other Klans you might be able to find on the internet, but they don’t do anything in person.
Roberts says a lot of the country thinks the Klan completely died, but he thinks it’s about to go through its third big boom.
When asked what his modern Klan wants to see in the U.S., Roberts says they hate no one.
“We’re not against immigrants, we’re not against other races…I don’t care if you’re black, I don’t care what your culture and your religion is. Just keep it to yourself.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center has the KKK listed as a hate group, but Roberts says they’re not.
He says to be in the Klan, you absolutely have to be a Christian. His Klan also runs background checks on their members to make sure they haven’t committed any wrongdoing.
They just don’t like to mix with other cultures, Roberts says.
WKBN asked him about the Black Lives Matter Movement.
“When we march, and we rally and we recruit, we are saying, ‘Hey, just stop shoving your belief down my throat and trying to make me accept it. If you’re unwilling to accept mine, why should I accept yours?’”
Roberts says they get into screaming contests at rallies with people of other cultures and ethnicities because he thinks they aren’t willing to hear what they have to say. He says there’s no need for violence and that his Klan doesn’t want to hurt anyone. They just wish people would listen to their ideas like Roberts says they do for others.
He thinks President Barack Obama had a good deal in instigating Black Lives Matter.
As far as recruiting, Roberts says they’re trying to talk to anyone that will listen. He can’t say how many members are in certain areas of the country, but says it could be several members or even a single person passing out recruitment fliers.
Recruitment isn’t planned specifically – it’s random based on the person or Klan.
Following a contested presidential campaign, Roberts says most of his Klan actually voted for Hillary Clinton even though the official KKK newspaper endorsed Donald Trump. He says everyone has their own political beliefs, though there is a core set of principles Klansmen are asked to follow.
LIVING THE HISTORY: INTERVIEW WITH WOMAN WHO LIVED THROUGH THE CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT
Alice Washington grew up in Virgina when the Klan was prominent. She later moved to Youngstown when she was in her 20s to become a teacher.
She still has memories of the Klan.
“You heard about it, you knew and you were always taught there were certain things you do, and certain things that you don’t do….Now they hide it. There’s a lot of racial interactions that shouldn’t be, but they hide it. They don’t let it be known, whereas it used to be just out in the open.”
Washington remembers life as an African American teenager during the Civil Rights Movement. She has memories of family coming to visit from Northern states and not understanding why they couldn’t sit on certain areas of the bus.
Looking at the Black Lives Matter movement and the Ku Klux Klan trying to make a comeback, she says everyone is entitled to their own thoughts but shouldn’t resort to rioting to get their points across.
However, she doesn’t think the Klan will ever reach the size they once were. If they do, she’ll be afraid because of how violent the riots in the country have become.
“With all of the guns and how everyone can buy guns if they choose to, there will be a war. I have found, with anything that comes up, there’s always somebody that will take it to the extreme.”
Washington feels that as long as people discuss their beliefs in a peaceful way, they should be able to express their ideals.
“As long as it’s done in a peaceful way so that everyone understands the meaning and the point that they’re trying to get across, that I’m important, too. Just because I’m black does not mean that I’m not important. As long as they’re getting that point across, I think it’s alright.”