Under heavy security and with a brace of ground rules in place, four representatives of the NAACP and a high-ranking member of the Ku Klux Klan met in Casper, Wyoming on Saturday night. The Wyoming Star-Tribune reported that John Abarr, an organizer for the United Klans of America, sat down with the NAACP team in a conference room at a Parkway Plaza hotel in a meeting that took months to coordinate and at which certain topics were agreed upon as off limits.
Jimmy Simmons, head of the Casper NAACP, contacted the Klan personally after months of local attacks on African-American men who were seen in the company of white women. Klan literature began to circulate in the community and initially, Simmons thought about having an anti-Klan rally. He decided instead on direct diplomacy.
He sent a letter to a contact address for the Ku Klux Klan asking for a meeting, but not expecting a reply. A reply came, however, and plans for a summit began to move forward. The Star-Tribune‘s Jeremy Fugleberg attended the historic meeting, possibly the first time the two organizations have voluntarily and peacefully met.
The KKK’s Abarr arrived in a dark suit and carrying a brown briefcase, wrote Fugleberg, and was quick to assert his non-racist bonafides to Simmons and the other NAACP members. The modern Klan, he told them, is a non-violent Christian group that advocates for conservative political causes. Abarr assured them that he was a paying — and card-carrying — member of the American Civil Liberties Union and the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Current Klan imperial wizard Bradley Jenkins gave the meeting his blessing, Abarr said, in hopes that the groups could come to an understanding.
“He lives in Alabama, and he told me he would love to sit down with the NAACP in Alabama and talk,” Abarr told the group. He argued to them that a certain amount of segregation is good for the races, and that whites and African-Americans shouldn’t mingle.
“We want white babies,” he said. But the beatings in Casper, he insisted, were the work of a splinter group. He called them a hate crime and said they shouldn’t be condoned by anyone.
His group, based in Great Falls, serves as a neighborhood watch group, handing out fliers and pamphlets.
“I like it because you wear robes, and get out and light crosses, and have secret handshakes,” he told his listeners of being in the KKK. “I like being in the Klan — I sort of like it that people think I’m some sort of outlaw.”
The NAACP team was skeptical. Fuglesang wrote that Mel Hamilton told Abarr, “You’re really confusing me, because I don’t think you understand the seriousness of your group.”
“I think what Mel is saying, is that based on your history, based on the Klan’s history, it’s hard to shed the skin of your group not being violent, not being killers, murderers, terrorizers,” Simmons explained. “It’s hard to imagine that.”
Hamilton was particularly skeptical. As the meeting wound down, he said to Abarr, “It’s obvious you don’t know the history of your organization. It’s obvious to me that you’re not going out and talking about the good — you’re not talking about inclusion, you’re talking about exclusion. And it’s obvious to me you don’t know what you are. So I don’t know what good this dialog has done tonight.”
Abarr said, “It’s obvious we don’t agree on everything.”
Simmons invited Abarr to join the NAACP and, surprisingly, the Klan representative accepted, paying the $30 membership fee and including a $20 donation.
“We’ll have to do this again sometime,” Abarr said, shutting his briefcase. “Or maybe not. I don’t know. We’ll have to keep in contact for sure, though.”
Then he left, escorted by a phalanx of security personnel.
Watch video about Jimmy Simmons’ history with racism and discrimination in Wyoming, embedded below via Wyoming PBS: