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By Tia Lynn Ivey

managing editor

A cross covered in Christmas lights shone in darkness off of Aqua Road in Morgan County last weekend. But the festive lights could not disguise the startling message beneath—a message of hate, racism and white supremacy, according to local law enforcement and concerned neighbors. 

The International Keystone Knights (IKK), a chapter of Ku Klux Klan, gathered at a local private residence on Aqua Lane for a two-day event on October 4-5, advertised as a board meeting, and a barbecue with speeches. According to local law enforcement, the large illuminated cross erected for the event was a substitute for the group’s traditional burning cross, since the IKK could not obtain a permit for it. A large IKK banner hung outside the Aqua Lane residence for the duration of the event.  The Morgan County Citizen reached out to the property owner of record, who would neither confirm nor deny his involvement in the IKK gathering. 

The event prompted local law enforcement to bring in 60 officers from multiple agencies to patrol the area throughout the event. Neighbors and local citizens took to social media to decry the gathering as word spread through distributed recruitment flyers and as pictures of the lighted cross and banner circulated on Facebook. The FBI designates the IKK as a “racially-motivated” group. The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) lists the IKK as a hate group. 

While the public is only just learning of the IKK’s visit to Morgan County, the Morgan County Sheriff’s Office was preparing for weeks to handle the situation. 

“It’s a difficult balance,” said Sheriff Deputy Keith Howard. “Our system is based upon the freedom of speech and providing safety for our citizens.”

To uphold that balance, the sheriff’s office decided to take a low-key approach, quietly stationing officers at three different posts near the planned IKK event on Aqua Lane. The Sheriff’s Office released a statement to the public after the event was over on October 7. 

“The Sheriff had intercepted information that a citizen was hosting a meeting of the International’s Keystone Knights with individuals from other states on the citizen’s private property,” read the statement. “The information suggested that there would be a cross lighting at dark. In speaking with the host of the event, we acknowledged that cross-burning when used as a statement of ideology or symbol of group solidarity is protected by the First Amendment unless it is used as a direct threat. However, Georgia law prohibits the burning of anything after dark and violations were discussed.”

According to Howard, there was only so much law enforcement could do about the IKK event, despite complaints from citizens appalled by the gathering. 

“It was a private event and it is their right under the freedom of expression to have that event, to burn a cross, although the property owner was told they could not burn a cross after dark, since Morgan County does not issue a burn permit for that, but our main objective was not to stop the event or surveil the event, but just to be present nearby should any laws be violated,” explained Howard. 

A blogger for a white supremacist site has accused Morgan County Sheriff Robert Markley of violating the IKK’s constitutional rights, sending an email to the sheriff’s office and local leaders, including the Morgan County Citizen newspaper, in Madison. 

“It has come to my attention that your office is guilty of harassment and intimidation tactics to stifle free speech on private property,” wrote Michael Weaver from the “White Information Network.” “Your office wouldn’t dare treat blacks, Jews or Mexicans this way. We both know that would be a violation of their civil rights. Apparently, the only crime here is meeting while white. Either you can apologize to the white community for racial profiling or I shall organize a bloc vote to remove you from office. The choice is yours.”

According to the Sheriff’s Office press release, law enforcement “could not ignore what attention this gathering could possibly attract and took action to assemble officers to keep the peace by authorizing the multi-agency concentrated patrol. All officers were instructed to stand down their assigned post and only intervene if laws were violated. No one’s privacy rights infringed upon and the event ended peacefully with an illumination of a cross with light and not a fire. No one was arrested and there was only one call for service to conduct a welfare check.”

According to Howard, officers from Greene, Walton and Jasper counties joined the concentrated patrol, as well as  the Georgia State Patrol and an FBI agent.  

According to Howard, the event did not attract a large turn out. He estimated less than 10 people attending Friday’s night meeting and about 30 people, some of whom were children, at Saturday’s event. The slim turnout is reflective of the KKK’s overall dwindling numbers nationwide. According to the SPLC, the KKK once boasted 4 million members at its peak in the 1920s. Throughout the decades the KKK’s membership waxed and waned, with several revival eras after the Civil War and Civil Rights Movement. Today, the SPLC estimates the KKK and all its factions have between 5,000 and 8,000 official members. Despite shrinking over the years, white robes and burning crosses haven’t been cast to the ash heap of history just yet and local law enforcement was determined to take the IKK’s presence seriously.   

The Sheriff’s Office consulted its chaplain, Reverend Robert Terrell, who is also the pastor of Union Springs Baptist Church in Rutledge. Together Terrell and the Sheriff’s Office orchestrated a meeting with local pastors and community leaders to discuss the IKK event and how best to respond. The response recommended was simple but powerful: just love. 

“We will always be faced with hatred like this. We will never get completely away from it, but there is a lot of love in our community and we believe the overabundance of love will always conquer whatever hate is out there,” said Terrell. “We will keep on preaching love and forgiveness. We will move in love and forgiveness, for the Bible tells us that love covers a multitude of sins. That’s what we will continue to do and preach to our congregations, for people to continue to love.”

Madison Mayor Fred Perriman also issued a statement after learning of the IKK’s appearance in Morgan County. 

‘There will always be racism, but I believe this community has worked hard to rise above that,” said Perriman.   “We continue to strive to make things better. Let’s continue to be One Morgan and continue to be better.”

As discussions raged on social media about the IKK meeting, community members are looking for ways to counter the IKK ideology with positive events. 

A local man, Justin Armistead is in the process of organizing a march called “Love Always Wins.” In Madison. 

“Due to the act of hate that was let into our city/county this past weekend, it’s time to put some love back into it,” Armistead wrote on Facebook. 

Lindsay Gregg Peaster is hoping to organize a festival for youth in coming weeks in response to the IKK gathering. 

“I’m disheartened and disgusted, but I can’t stay in that place,” wrote Peaster on Facebook. “Instead, it needs to be a catalyst for action, for positive action. We cannot control the mindset or actions of others, but I can control mine, and I can foster and promote activities for like-minded individuals so that our children and teenagers can see a different way.”

Peaster is hoping to facilitate events to promote racial harmony and collaboration. Minnette Peek is working on scheduling forums to foster peaceful conversations. Peaster also wants to see service projects where people of all races work side by side too toward a common goal. 

The Morgan County Citizen reached out to the alleged event host in Morgan County, as well as to IKK chapters for further comment. No response was given as of press time of Tuesday, Oct. 8. 

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