An Open Letter to my Ancestor. A Founder of the KKK

by - 6:52 AM

A Brief Forward.

When I was a child it was made known to me the shameful history of our family. My mother, hailing from Alabama, spoke to my brother and I in hushed tones and told us of my great great uncle who helped found the Klu Klux Klan in Birmingham. A terrible man, she would say, lamenting our family's history of racism. She would shake her head in dismay at the thought of it and quickly whisk the conversation away into stories of our other famous relative Clara Barton. Clara founded the Red Cross, her cousin burned them. I am their legacy.

Great Great Uncle Barton,

You have been on my mind lately. As I read the news and listen to the stories of friends you keep coming up. My mom told me about you but she would never say much, I don’t think she knew much and wanted to keep it that way. I on the other hand always wondered just what you would have been like. Watching videos of nazi rallies or movies depicting Klansman it’s always you I picture under the hood. You are there goose stepping with the rest of them as flames lick the night sky and people cry out in desperate fear. That is how I picture you. But I’m sure thats only part of you.

Growing up with a southern mother I was taught quite a bit about the south. And to her credit it wasn’t only the pretty bits. But there was something that I didn’t learn. Something I never grasped until lately.
I like to think I arrived at this point as a result of my Christian walk.
I would like to think I arrived at this point because I’m an empathetic person.
But I think it would have taken a lot longer to get to where I am, if I hadn’t revealed myself as a minority.
Because up to this point I was even more callous than you.

I imagine you were raised in the heart of the deep south. A southern gentleman, a christian man. God fearing and bible believing you spouted the white washed hate and moral certitudes that had been your lineage for generations. And when you saw the fall of the institutions you believed were holding back the flood of immorality you cried with a loud voice in your sincerity.
I am no fool, one does not start a group like the Klu Klux Klan without believing in the rightness of your beliefs. I am sure you were certain you were doing the right thing.

You were terribly terribly wrong. So was I.

As I dwelt this week in the background quietly absorbing the deaths of 9 Christian men and women and the resulting lack of anything but symbolic action I started to wonder what you would have done.
As I watched the grief of families paraded around for the consumption of a calloused nation I wondered how much you would have stood for.
As the bitter nausea of familiar feelings grew, as the bile caused by the apathy of a nation turned my stomach more and more each day I asked myself: Do I have the moral compunction of even this man, even this monster who I call a relative?

Do I even care?

Last night I read something that injured me very deeply. I had been reading yet another article on the blatant racism in America and it occurred to me that I had never read the full text of Martin Luther King Jr’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”. So I dedicated a few minutes of my time to one of the great thinkers of our country.
There, in a jail, in a town all three of us are deeply connected too he penned a letter, and he said something to both of us. Across a century of time he brought us both together. And Great Great Uncle, who I have always looked down upon, it was to my horror, that I got the worst of it. In a small passage in the middle of his letter he absolutely destroyed me.

Let me share what he wrote about us.

First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

I look back upon the overwhelming majority of my life and this passage stares back at me. I remember as a young white person embodying the very definition of this passage.
It was the party line that I spouted, it was my excuse for continued racial inequity, it was why I viewed those who called for justice to be rabble-rousers, moochers, and worst of all liberals. I believed in equality, as long as it required nothing of me, and as long as it didn’t topple the ever important status quo.

When I look into the past, at you and me Uncle, I see only one of us who stood up for their beliefs.
How sad it is to me, that that person was you.

What I have wrote all this to say is, maybe you arent the only member of our family who has a lot to make up for.

I hope I gain your strength of conviction. So I can do my part to erase the legacy of your harm.
I hope I learn from you how not to be silent. So I may drown out the echoes of your hate.
I hope I retained some measure of your passion. So I can use you to inspire my own search for justice.

I hope I don’t forget you. But I will work and pray fervently towards a day when remembering you is no longer necessary.

With deepest regret, Your Great Great Grand Neice,

P.S. Let cousin Clara know I plan to do some healing of my own.

“Thou shalt not be a victim, thou shalt not be a perpetrator, but, above all, thou shalt not be a bystander.”
Yehuda Bauer

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