This Saturday, Memphis, Tenn., is set to see one of the Ku Klux Klan's "biggest rallies of all time," as the Klan is advertising.
The KKK’s announced its plan to protest here a week after the Memphis City Council voted to rename three local parks that had Confederate ties—Confederate Park, Jefferson Davis Park, and Nathan Bedford Forrest Park. Nathan Bedford Forrest remains a controversial figure who is often recognized as the first “Grand Wizard” of the Ku Klux Klan—until he allegedly called for the disbandment of the group in 1869.
The city council decided to make the changes effective immediately after hearing that the Tennessee state legislature was considering a bill that would prohibit name changes to any monuments, memorials, parks or streets that were dedicated to military figures.
"I hope…that our citizens and residents will act as they always do and celebrate our diversity and our tolerance and just regard this as a nonevent," Memphis Mayor A. C. Wharton said. "I’m begging them to do that and let these folks show up and do their thing and get out of town."
The mayor brought up an important issue that has been hotly debated in Memphis since the city issued a permit to the KKK last month: What is the proper response to the KKK? Is ignoring them the best option—as many have advocated—or does silence equate to acquiescence? Would a counter-rally be effective, or could that provoke violence?
One group, Memphis United, decided neither of these options are the solution. Instead, despite very short notice, they planned the People’s Conference on Race and Equality. The event, which will take place on Saturday during the KKK rally, seeks to confront the message of the Klan without direct interaction. The event will engage community members through workshops and panels on issues of racism and discrimination. Speakers include Mayor Wharton, Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), and other community leaders.
"What we want to do is not have an event that focuses on the Klan, that plays into the hands of racists," said Brad Watkins, the organizing director at the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center and workshop organizer. "The next day, they’re gone and so all of this focus on the Klan, what does it really accomplish the next day here in the city of Memphis? What’s really changed? Have we gotten any closer to having a community where we’ve eliminated racism? No. I’m more worried about the racists wearing suits or uniforms in our city than people dressing up as ghosts," he told Campus Progress.
Organizers of the Memphis United event said the response from community members has been so overwhelming that they're running out of tasks for volunteers.
The conference is intended to be family-friendly. It is important that families can attend so youth can be involved in these important conversations, Watkins said. "We can’t have a serious conversation about this without engaging our youth and preparing them to lead this movement not just be a part of it…We need to be preparing the youth to lead this movement."
Watkins also emphasized that this event should be seen as a time for citizens to address discrimination against other communities within Memphis as well, including discrimination against the LGBT, immigrant and disabled populations.
The Klan's last rally in Memphis in January 1998 ended in violence—Memphis police used tear gas against rowdy anti-Klan protestors and several people were arrested. Memphis Police Director Toney Armstrong said his team is preparing for an even bigger crowd this time around, but is confident that the police are prepared. Members of the Klan will not be allowed to carry guns or wear masks at the protest.
The KKK will come and go, but "if we want to be serious about attacking and confronting racism," Watkins said, "then what we’ve got to do is use this as an opportunity to rebuild an ongoing and sustained grassroots campaign and anti-racist movement in our city, and I think this gives us the best chance of doing that."