Friday, March 15, 2013

Because I Said So: History lesson for kids to include what Klan does not stand for

I remember being petrified of the Ku Klux Klan when I was a kid. I would read about it in history books or watch documentaries and the nighttime scenes of hooded figures with burning crosses and ropes were the stuff of nightmares. What they did and represented to African Americans was atrocious enough, but there was something personal to it as well: as students in Catholic school we were told they hated Catholics, and I'm Catholic.

J.P. Alley
The Klan is mixed up in my family's own folklore. Just typing that sentence makes me feel dirty, but at least we're on the anti-Klan side of those stories. My cousin, Dan Conaway, writes a fantastic weekly column for The Memphis Daily News. He wrote about his grandfather, my great-grandfather, J.P. Alley, and his work against the Klan in a column last month (read Dan's column here). I figured there was room for two anti-racism columns in this town and used it all as a springboard for the "Because I Said So" column that ran yesterday.

My kids shouldn't be scared of the Klan. Hell, they shouldn't even know about the Klan other than what they read in textbooks or see in documentaries. It's still hard for me to believe that they're learning about it on the front page of the daily newspaper. Maybe this will be the last time it warrants such real estate. We can hope.

Lesson for kids: What Klan doesn't stand for
It’s been all over the news lately that at the end of this month the Ku Klux Klan plans to march on Memphis. Like any good civic organization staging a rally, or a circus, they’ve applied for and received a permit from the city. And they have presumably tidied themselves up with Tide and some Snuggle fabric softener. It’s always important to make a good first impression.

But this is not their first impression, is it? They’ve been around for far too long. In 1923, my great-grandfather, J.P. Alley, was editorial cartoonist for The Commercial Appeal, and he, along with editor C.P.J. Mooney, used their respective talents to speak out against the KKK. They won the newspaper a Pulitzer Prize for Public Service that year.

And now, 90 years later, we’re still talking about this gaggle of radicals? It’s the sort of news story I ignored for a while, hoping it might all just go away, thanks to good, common decency. But it looks as though this stain just won’t wash out.

I enjoy teaching my children about their family history, about the good that their great-great-grandfather did, but in this context it seems a bit ridiculous. As far as civil rights has progressed — right here, in this city set as a stage for the world — to have a conversation about a group of misanthropes hiding cowardly beneath cowls in this day and age is surreal.

This needs to be a time, not to teach children what such a group stands for, but what it is they don’t stand for. Equality. Decency. Common sense. Good, Southern manners.

And then there’s the irony that this current brouhaha is over a park. If there is one place in society where we should be teaching our kids to play fair and get along, it’s in the park. Games of freeze tag and kickball, waiting in line for the slide or a turn at the swing, making friends with strangers so there will be enough for a proper game of flag football. This is what should be happening within our parks.

For this discussion, our opinion on what that specific park on Union Avenue should be named is irrelevant. We’ve progressed a lot in 90 years and there are more civil and expedient ways to debate such a subject than with robed anachronisms.

Living in a house with many children, I’ve learned that lines of communication must be left open, that there are ways to work through any disagreement of territory and ownership. Even the newest parent learns quickly that tantrums are ineffective.

As a parent with some years under my belt, let me assure you that a kid wrapping himself in a bed sheet and shouting his misguided tenets at me would land that kid in time out and not upon a pulpit in front of the courthouse.

On the day of the Klan’s proposed rally, we’ll stay away; there’s no reason to poke a hornet’s nest. Perhaps we’ll take the kids to another park where they can run and play and get to know kids of varying ethnicities. Perhaps there will be a history lesson so that, hopefully, we’re not doomed to repeat our mistakes.

I’ll include a chapter on cowardice and one on standing up for your ideals, and that some clans who claim to be better than others because of the way they look are merely cartoons of themselves.

© 2013 Memphis Commercial Appeal. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.