Memphis issues demonstration permit for KKK rally

By Kevin McKenzie – full Commercial Appeal story here

They can’t carry guns or wear masks, but the city of Memphis on Tuesday issued a permit allowing the Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan to rally on the steps of a Downtown courthouse on March 30.

Memphis Police Director Toney Armstrong said at a media conference following the announcement that issuing the permit gives city officials the ability to control and formulate a plan for the KKK demonstration, which was triggered by a decision by the Memphis City Council to rename three Confederate-themed parks earlier this month.

“We will be more than prepared for this,” said Armstrong, noting that the city’s police department handles far larger special events and festivals.

Even so, the police director said that the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office has agreed to help police the Klan demonstration and that he will contact other local law enforcement agencies for similar help.

Memphis Mayor A C Wharton said the had deferred to Armstrong’s judgment on the permit decision as it relates to public safety, and “that’s what it’s all about.”

“We were never about the business of saying they could not come,” Wharton said. “We just wanted to make sure that everybody is protected and it’s safe and orderly.”

The mayor added: “I hope, though, that our citizens and residents will act as they always do and celebrate our diversity and our tolerance and just regard this as a nonevent. I’m begging them to do that and let these folks show up and do their thing and get out of town.”

The Imperial Wizard of the Loyal White Knights, Chris Barker of Pelham, N.C., said said the city made no mention of a security fee when the permit was approved and that if a fee becomes an issue, “We’ll just turn it into an open picket and start marching up and down the sidewalks. It is unconstitutional for a nonprofit Christian organization to be charged a security fee.”

Barker said he still is unsure how many people will take part in the March 30 rally, but, “Every hotel in town has told us they would give us a discount rate.”

Armstrong said the police department had not yet determined a cost for the services the rally would require, and that questions of charges would be left to the city’s legal representatives.

A KKK rally in January 1998 at the same Shelby County Courthouse, protesting the Martin Luther King Jr. national holiday, led to Memphis police use of tear gas against anti-Klan protesters, window-breaking and about two dozen people taken into custody.

Armstrong said that one of the conditions police set for the KKK is that no guns will be allowed, even for those holding Tennessee handgun carry permits. In addition, no masks will be worn, although he said that restriction may face a challenge.

He said he learned from and was exposed to tear gas during the department’s response 15 years ago, and that an undisclosed number of Memphis officers are receiving riot training in advance of the KKK rally. Still, Armstrong he said he doesn’t foresee any problems with ensuring public safety.

“I honestly believe that you’re going to see more police officers than participants,” he said.

The police director said he had spoken to one representative of the Loyal White Knights who said on various days that he had joined the group by telephone, decided to quit it and yet had been promoted to a higher position.

Armstrong pointed to such conversations to illustrate why he wouldn’t estimate how many Klan members might appear, saying that the group “apparently is not a very organized organization.”

“I’m not even sure that they know” how many Loyal White Knights might rally, he said. The group’s application, filed with the city on Valentine’s Day, estimated that 180 would participate.

Following the rally in 1998, police blamed gangs for the violence and vandalism.

Armstrong said that the department has information that several gangs in Memphis have indicated interest in expressing their First Amendment rights, like the Klan.

The police director stressed that police will be monitoring behavior and taking a zero-tolerance approach.

The KKK rally is scheduled from 1:30 p.m. to 4 p.m. on March 30 and the police director said the Downtown streets affected by the rally at 140 Adams will be identified at a later date.

Scheduled for Easter weekend Armstrong said he certainly hopes that despite the KKK rally, Memphians would “go about their business” preparing for Easter.

In a statement about the permit, City Attorney Herman Morris said denying the Klan’s permit application would create a legal battle.

“We have known from the beginning that denying this application would result in a legal fight on constitutionality that would be long, divisive, expensive, and that would unnecessarily prolong the decision,” Morris said. “We have all, however, been very attune to Director Armstrong’s review given the critical role the Memphis Police Department will play in a proposed demonstration.”

The Klan group pointed to the City Council’s renaming of three parks — (Nathan Bedford) Forrest Park in the Medical Center and Jefferson Davis and Confederate parks Downtown — on Feb. 5 as the cause for the demonstration.

Following controversy about a granite Forrest Park marker installed by the Sons of Confederate Veterans and supporters, and fearing that a bill in the state legislature would block future action, the council renamed the parks and appointed a committee to the study the issues.

Michael Lollar and Scott Carroll contributed to this story.