Jim Crow Museum
1010 Campus Drive
Big Rapids, MI 49307
Why did you buy a Klan robe at the Howell, Michigan auction? Why would you want to support the Klan?
-- Lenny Blinklen, Hudsonville, Mich.
We did not "buy" the robe. We do not support the Klan.
I should preface this account by mentioning that these events were ignited when Ole Gray Nash Auction Service owner Gary Gray decided to display a KKK robe in his shop window. He had received the robe as part of an estate sale. His shop is on one of the main thoroughfares in Howell, Michigan, and to add insult to injury, the original auction was scheduled to occur on Martin Luther King's birthday. Mr. Gray has sold racist memorabilia in past auctions. The auction was postponed until January 29th and soon became an all-KKK memorabilia auction.
I spoke to several reporters at the beginning of the week about the auction and our museum's relationship to these kinds of hate-objects. I spoke to the Howell Mayor's Office and they put me in touch with Vic Lopez, who is the President of the Livingston 2001 Diversity Committee, a group that had planned to purchase the offending robe and burn it, an action they voted not to do mid-week. President Lopez incidentally owns an accounting business directly across the street from where the robe was first displayed. In my conversation with Lopez it became clear that we could perform a symbolic and socially responsible way of "disposing" of the robe they intended to buy. I made arrangements with David (Pilgrim) for the two of us to attend the auction. By Friday evening, Mayor Pro-Tem Steve Manor called my office, and we made arrangements for David and me to meet at Manor's house to discuss a strategy for buying the robe and for generating something positive for the town out of the experience.
The trip down was uneventful, and we arrived by four o'clock in the afternoon. David, who is an experienced auction bidder, recommended that we check out the establishment, look at the artifacts, and register to bid. The auction house is a worn, somewhat ramshackle building that seats 100 comfortably. The store owners were polite. We were warned that without a seat and a bidding number that we might not be able to stay for the auction. It appeared that 75 of the seats had already been spoken for by the coats that were draped over them although at this time probably 30 or so people were in the room. David's assessment of this situation was that one of us needed to stay with the seats or we would lose them by the time we got back from our meeting with Mayor Pro-Tem Manor. David stayed, and I took the meeting.
The auction included at least 10 Klan robes and hundreds of Klan-related objects, including, shirts, patches, knives, swords, pins, leaflets, and books. The auction also included photographs of Robert Miles, a KKK leader who had lived in Howell.
I met with Steve Manor, a retired history teacher, and his wife at their home. I presented to them a detailed account of the museum and its mission, and together we developed a strategy with Vic Lopez for biding on the robe. It was agreed, given David's expertise and the concern that if city officials bid that they might be purposely outbid, that David would be the bidder -- and he would bid for at least one of the robes. We would make a ceremonial exchange at the downtown's opera house later that evening.
When I returned to the auction house at about 5:30, the scene had changed dramatically, and David was rightly agitated. The room was over capacity, and David had been hassled for the seat he was saving for me. Some of the customers were wearing pro-Klan shirts and patches. Several wore swastikas. Just before my re-arrival, the owner had whipped up the crowd's enthusiasm with an anti-government, anti-press speech that was little more than a thinly veiled pro-Klan speech. Individuals had been standing with their arms folded directly behind where David was sitting, in an obvious attempt to intimidate him. They did this throughout the event. Others tried to stare him down as they silently mouthed words that were clearly laden with profanity and racial epithets. The owner's speech apparently ended with a reference to "showing this town a real parade," which was an allusion to a previous Klan march, which the town's people had largely thwarted by closing local businesses.
We had one hour before the auction started at this point, and the sense that things could go terribly wrong was quite real. As we waited, the number of anti-racism protesters started to build up outside. At one point a group of masked protesters stepped into the building and yelled an anti-racist chant. The room started to surge toward them. By this time Steve Manor had come in and was sitting two rows ahead of us. When the chanters came in, a young man next to him stood up to face the protest crowd and delivered a Hitler salute while screaming, "Go back to Israel." Other expressions were also shouted, but this is the one that I remember. It was fortunate that the protest group quickly returned outside.
There should have been a stronger police presence. The police, apparently not wanting to agitate any of the principals, stood across the street from the auction.
Not long after this incident, a camera crew from one of the Detroit news stations entered and was shouted out of the premises by the owner's wife. The tension in the room was so palpably thick at this point that the air was practically vibrating. At this point, I counted over 200 people in the room, twice its legal limit. Aside from David, only three other individuals in the room were discernibly non-White. Gary Gray asked for volunteers to leave the room because the fire marshal was coming and would shut the auction down. Very few people left. When the fire marshal did arrive, escorted by two police officers from among the dozen who were outside controlling the now shouting crowd, he made a brief announcement about the room being overcrowded. However the auction started, and the marshal wisely decided against making any moves and left.
As auction items were offered up for sale, it soon became apparent that all sanity had left the building. KKK knives that would have fetched 20 dollars on eBay were going for $400. Someone paid $60 for a History Channel tape on the Klan that is probably available on A & E's website for $20. The KKK robe that sparked the original controversy sold for over $1,400. Another robe, a blue KKK officer's robe from Kentucky, was sold with a sword. It sold for over $5,500.
David purchased the third robe that was auctioned. It was a woman's robe. The cost was $700. The Jim Crow Museum focuses on everyday racist objects, not objects by white supremacists groups; however, an honest critique of historical racism must include information on the KKK and similar organizations. The museum did not have a women's robe so the robe will help make the point that women were involved in KKK organizations.
After David went to pay for the robe, I walked forward to get it from the auctioneer's assistant. I did not like holding it. I placed it under my shirt. Someone yelled, "Show it with pride, Brother." We left the auction and crossed the street to give the robe to representatives of the Livingston 2001 Diversity Committee. We were told that the ceremonial presentation of the robe would occur at the opera house within the hour.
The whole night was surreal. It felt like we had morphed backwards into a 1950s town where the KKK and KKK ideas were normative. On our way to the opera house four white teenagers approached us, looked at David, and said, "If it ain't white, it ain't right."
When we reached the opera house I could tell that David was emotionally spent. A group of concerned citizens were watching a video of "Not in My Town" as an alternative event to the auction. The members of the Livingston 2001 Diversity Committee gave us a reimbursement check to pay for the robe, then they asked David to come forward and receive the robe. Those assembled wanted to hear David speak. He stood and spoke with passion about the museum's strategy of using objects of intolerance to teach tolerance. It was a moving, gut-wrenching scene -- and it was redemptive. David's speech reminded us that the Klan and similar organizations had lost the cultural battle, nationally and locally.
A final note: The Jim Crow Museum each year gives a Martin Luther King Jr. Social Justice Award to individuals and organizations that live out Dr. King's commitment to justice. This year one of the recipients will be the Livingston 2001 Diversity Committee. We did not buy the robe, we acted as a purchasing agent for them; but more importantly, they stood against hatred and injustice. We stood with them.
March 2005 Response by
Jim Crow Museum