Cancel culture? Teacher’s anti-KKK speech pushed out of Kansas county building | Opinion

I swear there must be something in the water out here in Stafford County that makes local government prone to bizarre and capricious decision-making.

I’ve spent a lot of time in Stafford County this past year, because it seems like there’s always one agency or another flouting the law and violating the rights of its citizens.

There was the time the city of Stafford mowed down a resident’s budding wildlife refuge while it was still before the City Council, and arrested a young worker trying to protect it.

There were a series of illegal evictions, aided and abetted by Stafford City Hall, which shut off power and water to residents of a recently deceased individual’s rental properties a week before Christmas.

The city of St. John filed abusive criminal charges against a couple trying to homestead a vacant church building they bought, an alleged violation of a zoning code that no one else seems to have to follow.

And now, the Stafford County Commission is getting in on the act, revoking permission for a retired teacher to use a county meeting room for a historical lecture about the Ku Klux Klan, pretty clearly violating her 1st Amendment rights.

Permission to speak?

The presentation by Alice McMillan Lockridge specifically focuses on her research into a time a century ago when the Klan was allowed to use the St. John city building for a big racist rally.

Commissioners and the county attorney said they think the subject is too “racially charged” to be discussed in a county building and that doing so could embarrass local people.

“She (Lockridge) has no authority, no professional credentials to speak about anything on that subject,” said Commissioner Jim Stanford. “She could disparage accidentally, purposely, many people, and that’s not fair. Those people are dead. They can’t defend themselves and their families would have to live with that whether it be true or not . . . secondly, if you do some research on her social media posts that have been shared, there’s people assuming that there’s going to be a Klan rally here, which is furthest from the truth.”

Surprisingly, their attorney thinks that’s sufficient grounds.

“We don’t want people’s names being mentioned, family names being mentioned, we simply don’t think that’s appropriate,” said the County Attorney, Mike Robinson. “It (the presentation) has racial overtones that the County Commission does not believe is appropriate. We’re not saying she doesn’t have a right to have her program, she can have her program anywhere she wants other than the county building.”

Sorry, that’s not good enough.

There’s a slew of Supreme Court decisions explicitly stating that government can’t pick and choose who can and can’t use public spaces for free-speech activity based on what the speaker intends to say.

Stafford County commissioners Todd Wycoff, Jim Stanford and Bryce Garner voted unanimously to revoke permission for a county meeting room to be used for a historical presentation on a Ku Klux Klan meeting that took place in St. John 101 years ago.
Stafford County commissioners Todd Wycoff, Jim Stanford and Bryce Garner voted unanimously to revoke permission for a county meeting room to be used for a historical presentation on a Ku Klux Klan meeting that took place in St. John 101 years ago.

Lockridge, who splits time between residences in the Seattle area and St. John, was astonished when the county officials, who she doesn’t know, questioned her credentials. She has a bachelor’s degree from from the University of Kansas and a master’s from the University of Washington.

“I’ve been teaching 53 years, from kindergarten to adults,” she said. “I’m a very experienced teacher and a fifth-generation person in this town.”

For the past four years, she’s been conducting historical and genealogical research on Stafford County “Exodusters” — freed slaves who left southern states for Kansas after the Civil War — sharing that lost history with their descendants and hosting “homecoming” events to bring them back to St. John to reconnect with their heritage.

She became interested in the subject in 2020, when she wrote a profile for the Stafford County Historical Society on Ida Long Goodman, namesake of the public library in St. John, the county seat.

In researching that, she stumbled across 111 photos of Black pioneers and their families, and her curiosity was aroused.

The photo studio where the pictures were taken still exists, and descendants of Exodusters who return to St. John can have their pictures taken in front of the same backdrops where their ancestors posed for the camera 100 years ago.

Through the decades, prejudice and economics took their toll on the local Black population, which has virtually disappeared. In the 2020 Census, the racial breakdown for St. John was white, 1,008; Hispanic, 220; and Black, 2.

The effort to preserve the Black history of small-town Kansas was the subject of a 12-page cover story two years ago in the Journal of the Kansas Leadership Center, in which Lockridge was prominently featured.

The Klan rallies

Denied the use of the county building, Lockridge is moving her presentation to her own porch.

The story she is highlighting goes back to 1923.

The original Ku Klux Klan was formed in the 1860s as a secret society for confederate veterans and used assault, murder and other tactics to intimidate freed Black slaves, who were politically empowered for the first time by Reconstruction after the South lost the Civil War.

Under pressure from the federal government, the Klan mostly faded away by the late 1870s.

But it was reborn in a new form after 1915, the year D.W. Griffith’s cinematically groundbreaking but blatantly racist film “Birth of a Nation” glorified the Klan and the Lost Cause of southern independence.

The new Klan used many of the same tactics as the original, including violent and often deadly nighttime raids by members whose identities were shrouded in white robes and hoods made from bedsheets.

While politically active Black people were still the primary target, the rebirthed Klan expanded its mission to include intimidation of immigrants, Catholics and essentially anyone else who was not white and Protestant Christian.

Which brings us to St. John, where Lockridge unearthed newspaper reports and other documents pertaining to a large Klan meeting in September of 1923.

The rally was originally planned to be held outdoors at a farm south of St. John, but had to be moved inside because heavy rain left the fields muddy and dirt roads inaccessible to the cars of the time.

St. John City Hall, formerly known as “Convention Hall,” which was used for a large Ku Klux Klan rally in 1923.
St. John City Hall, formerly known as “Convention Hall,” which was used for a large Ku Klux Klan rally in 1923.

The meeting’s featured speaker was the Rev. Fred Hanger of Great Bend. It was billed as a “National Lecture” on the Klan and its platform, which included ”White Supremacy,” “The Limitation of Foreign Immigrants,” “Closer Relationship of Pure Americanism” and “The Sovereignty of our State Rights.”

If any of that sounds familiar in Kansas 2024, it probably should.

According to a contemporary report in the St. John News, “The house was comfortably filled, notwithstanding the fact that is was raining hard at eight o’clock. “

The meeting was accompanied by the St. John Band, which played “Onward Christian Soldiers,” “America” and other selections before Hanger’s hour-and-a-half speech, which according to the newspaper “was apparently well-received by the large audience.”

Constitutional error

To be clear here, I’m not accusing the county commissioners of being racists or closeted Klansmen.

By all indications, they’re just three well-meaning laymen trying to protect the reputation of their town, and particularly the descendants of that cheering crowd at the Klan meeting 101 years ago, who had nothing to do with it and are blameless.

But their attorney should have known, and warned them, that they were treading dangerous constitutional ground when they told Alice Lockridge “We feel it is inappropriate to have anything to do with KKK in this building.”

That doesn’t change the fact that they violated Lockridge’s constitutional rights. If she sued, she’d almost certainly win, although she doesn’t strike me as the type to do that.

But I would strongly caution the commission not to try this again.

The next time, the ramifications might be a whole lot worse than a tongue-lashing in the newspaper.

Klan meeting in St. John, Kansas, in 1923
Klan meeting in St. John, Kansas, in 1923

Klan meeting in St. John, Kansas, in 1923 20 Sep 1923, Thu The St. John News (St. John, Kansas)