Singing at an Anti-KKK Protest

Cliff Williams

In the mid-1990s I went to an anti-Ku Klux Klan demonstration in Rockford, Illinois. I went partly out of curiosity and partly to express opposition to the racist views of the Klan.

I arrived at the scene of the rally in time to join a group of demonstrators marching around the streets of Rockford. Just before the Klan was to speak, I passed through the metal detectors that police had set up at the entrance to the area in which anti-Klan demonstrators were allowed. This area was about 200 feet from the steps of the Rockford courthouse, where the Klan was going to appear.

The anti-Klan area was solidly barricaded, and in front of the barricade was a line of forty or fifty stiffly standing police officers, fully equipped with helmets and anti-riot gear. I approached the line and gazed wonderingly into the eyes of one the officers. He remained staring vacantly ahead.

The anti-Klan area soon became filled with a couple of hundred protesters plus roving police with thick wood sticks and large, plastic pepper sprayers. The crowd was noisy. Though the Klan had not arrived, the protesters were swaying and shouting, often with obscenities. The hate exuding from them was palpable. Prior to entering the protest area, I had seen a man walking around with a loudspeaker saying, “Crush their bones. Spill their blood.” The protesters, it occurred to me, needed as much protesting as did the Klan.

When the Klan members arrived, the crowd’s shouting increased dramatically. Someone near me threw a sock, and the police moved vigorously to arrest him, along with a few others. I moved away a bit, and later moved away even further so I could hear what the Klan speakers were saying. They spoke from the middle of the Courthouse stairs, in front of a row of eight to ten fellow Klan members, and between a U. S. flag and a Christian flag, without their customary white hoods. They included both women and men.

One of the speakers appealed to the Bible to support his points. Another gave the Klan salute several times with raised right arm and clenched fist: “White power! White power! White power!” He ended his speech with a prayer.

I returned to the swaying crowd. It was then that I happened upon a group of five or six singers. They were arranged in a circle and were singing “We Shall Overcome,” one of the prominent protest songs during the civil rights movement of the 1960s. I joined them, but they stopped singing and disbanded after only another half minute. Our voices could not be heard more than several feet away, so loud was the yelling of the surging crowd.

I resolved to form a band of singers at the next anti-Klan rally I could attend. That opportunity came when the Klan came to nearby Skokie. I found the verses to “We Shall Overcome” in a hymnal, copied them out, and duplicated them on quarter sheets of paper. I also copied the words to “Peace Is Flowing Like a River” and duplicated them as well. Then I asked a few people to come with me. None could, so I went alone.

The scene was the same in Skokie as it was in Rockford. Angry demonstrators milled about, chanting and yelling. The police had again set up an area requiring people to pass through metal detectors, but most of the demonstrators chose to stay outside that area. I went in. I asked a few people if they wanted to sing. They showed no interest. I asked someone who was carrying a sign that said, “God loves everyone.” He wanted to. So we sang, he holding his sign and me standing beside him.

I waved people over to us as we sang. Another one joined us and a third got close but did not sing. Someone with a tape recorder recorded us. Everyone else, though, ignored us. The noise of the crowd drowned out our singing. We probably could not be heard for more than four or five feet because the angry chanting of the busloads of protesters was so loud.

Many of the protesters were from political groups. Some, perhaps, were Klan sympathizers, but they certainly could not have let on that they were without risking injury. The evening news reported that one such person was badly hurt. Overall about half a dozen or so protesters were arrested.

I had to leave before the Klan was scheduled to arrive in order to go to a wedding. As I walked the mile to my car, I wondered what good it did to sing in a violent crowd if no one could hear.

It occurred to me that if the busloads of angry protestors were matched by busloads of quiet singers, the singers could surround the shouters, then move to the Klan speaking area and sing to the Klan. That, it seemed to me, had more prospect of changing the Klan than enraged clamor. And it would show those who watched the evening news that hate can be resisted with love. In addition, I thought, it seemed right to do even if it did not have any obvious effect.

The KKK has not had any rallies in northern Illinois for some years. It may come back some day, though, for it is still alive.

Home page