On Halloween night, in a community not far away, a group of people believed to be between the ages of 18 and 22 donned the uniforms of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, complete with pointed white hats and the red insignia.
And while many in that community swiftly condemned the ignorance on display, several others questioned why everyone was so upset that young people paraded around town dressed up as Klansmen on Halloween night.
I've started and stopped writing this column 15 times since I first saw the post on social media Friday morning.
I was angry and appalled.
I was heartbroken. The post was shared by a friend from high school who is Native American. She spoke of the bigotry and hate she experienced first hand growing up with dark skin in an overwhelmingly white community.
And then I read the comments and I was — for the most part — encouraged. The action of these few was being roundly condemned by most people I saw.
Some, however, tried to explain it away.
It was a joke, they said.
The Klan isn't in our community, they said.
Everyone's too sensitive, they said.
Don't give them the satisfaction of the attention, they said.
I don't know the motives of these people. Truth is, I don't even know who they are.
Perhaps they thought this was a joke. But hate isn't funny. It's not a punch line.
The atrocities committed by the KKK are forever tied to Southern history, no matter how badly people want to forget them. Members of the KKK bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, AL, in 1963, killing four girls. A member of the KKK killed a husband, father and civil rights activist named Medgar Evers in Jackson, MS, in 1963.
Two men beat and tortured 14-year-old Emmet Hill in Money, MS, in 1955. They shot him and threw him in the river because it was said he flirted with a white woman. His memorial continues to be the target of vandalism in 2019.
In 1995, members of the KKK burned the Mount Zion AME Church in Greelyville, SC. A former KKK leader named Frazier Glenn Miller Jr. murdered three people when he opened fire at a Jewish community center in Overland Park, KS, in 2014.
The Southern Poverty Law Center reported the number of hate groups in the U.S. are at the highest in 20 years, with the most significant growth in the number of white nationalist organizations. The FBI's annual hate crime report listed 7,775 criminal incidents in 2017, up from 6,121 in 2016.
Interestingly, groups that study hate groups have found the KKK to be on the decline. The SPLC said in a January USA Today article that the KKK was antiquated and not digitally savvy, making it difficult to attract new recruits. But the hate at the heart of the KKK remains, and it has lots of groups that welcome it.
So let's turn again to the incident in Jamestown last week.
You had people dressed in the iconic outfits that terrorized people of color for generations running around a community. Young people may have seen this. Those young people need to know this behavior is not OK.
Like I said earlier, I don't know the intention of these seven or so people. I don't know what is in their hearts or their heads. I can only judge their actions. And what they did was terrible.
There’s a famous quote, often attributed to Edmund Burke, that says “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men (or women) to do nothing.”
We can't bury our heads in the sand and tell ourselves we have achieved some mythical point where racism and prejudice are no longer a part of the identity of our region. Less than two weeks ago a county commissioner in Sevier County made national headlines with his comments regarding an openly gay presidential candidate and that "a white male in this country has very few rights."
That person did not elaborate on exactly what rights he doesn't have as a white man.
The vast majority of people who call Fentress County home are wonderful people. They are generous and kind. I'm proud to call many people in that community my family and my friends. The same can be said for Sevier County where the actions and comments of a few do not represent the majority.
But the only way we know they don’t represent the majority is by standing up and saying these actions are wrong.