And thus began a historic meeting between Jimmy Simmons, the president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s branch in Casper, Wyoming and John Abarr, a kleagle of the United Klans of America out of Great Falls, Mont., on Saturday night. After months of negotiating and haggling over details of this meeting, it finally took place.
Was it a success? Perhaps just the idea that these two philosophically disparate men sitting together was victory enough. Certainly what took place between them wasn't going to close the chasm which so deeply divides them. But we're in reality land here, and this is a connection that years ago could never and would never have taken place.
Wyoming's new source, Trib.com covered the meeting.
For months he (NAACP leader Simmons) had been hearing reports that black men in Gillette were getting beat up. Inevitably the men were with white women when assaulted. Then Klan literature showed up around town. Smith considered rallying against the Klan, but then decided to try something different: talking.
“If you want to talk about hate, get a hater,” Simmons said later. “Let him tell you something about hate.”
Now what came out right off the top was how different the impressions of tolerance are between the Klan and the NAACP when Abarr began:
A certain amount of segregation is a good thing, he says. White police should stay in white neighborhoods and black officers in black neighborhoods. Color-blindness doesn’t even make sense. Interracial marriage? No. It’s better if the races are kept separate. Completely opposed.
“Because we want white babies,” he says.
Simmons was curious where this type of thinking comes from. Why would Abarr want to be a Klansman?
“I like it because you wear robes, and get out and light crosses, and have secret handshakes,” he says. “I like being in the Klan — I sort of like it t hat people think I’m some sort of outlaw.”
He quickly added his assessment of today's Klan.
We believe in treating everyone equally, like the Klan would want others to treat its members, Abarr says.
Playing dress up, secret club handshakes, hatred based on race and they claim they treat everyone equally? Bull pucky.
Calling him out on this, the NAACP's Simmons challenged the Klansman to see how serious he is about the "new" Klan's more "open-minded and progressive" thinking which resulted in this meeting. Abarr asked how he could prove it, because he believes it. Simmons put Abarr on the spot re: the NAACP.
Simmons asks: Would you like to join?
Abarr doesn’t hesitate: “I wouldn’t have a problem with joining the NAACP.”
“Wow,” Simmons says, pulling out an application. Abarr fills it out, checks his watch for the data. Adds a $20 donation to the $30 membership fee. Simmons gives him a receipt.
Ignorance doesn't disappear with a single meeting. And miracles are few and far between. Let's not discount though, that this meeting did take place. It was an opening salvo. Was this opening congenial meeting genuine? I don't know, but I'd like to think so. Was it just public relations? Who can tell -- only time and further actions will be the proof. But what is most interesting is the fact that a huge wall has started to crumble. Talk between two sworn adversaries has begun, no matter how limited. What will the future bring?
If the door is opened even a crack and a shred of light shows through, Saturday night was a landmark. It was perhaps the beginning of something long overdue. You can't educate and elevate people's understandings if you don't talk. And now talk has begun with a meeting and a handshake. Let's hope it's contagious.