Death of a klansman, 25 years later: How the sick legacy of Bob Miles continues to haunt Howell

Former KKK Grand Dragon Robert Miles, who died 25 years ago.
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With the ugliness and hatred that was on display in Charlottesville last week comes this ironic anniversary: It was 25 years ago today that the Klansman from Livingston County died. And yet, 25 years later, he still won’t die.

This is the story of one evil man and how he single-handedly ruined a town’s reputation. And how he continues to ruin it to this day.

“Pastor” Robert E. Miles was the Grand Dragon of the Michigan Ku Klux Klan, and is still considered one of the most influential white supremacists of all time. Unfortunately for us, he made his home – quite publicly – in Livingston County. He moved to Howell in the early 1960s and later settled on a farm in Cohoctah Township, where he held cross-burnings and other hate rallies through the years. As we saw in Charlottesville, the racist hatred that he proudly championed lives on, as well.

He died 25 years ago today – Aug. 16, 1992. We’ve been free of Bob Miles for 25 years, but his sick legacy lives on, and it continues to haunt Livingston County to this day.

Particularly Howell. Thanks to Bob Miles, people all over the country still think that there’s an active Klan in Howell. (There isn’t.) Thanks to Bob Miles, the town still hasn’t been able to shake this totally unfair reputation that it’s a haven for racists.

The Grand Dragon has been dead for 25 years, and he still won’t die.

Case in point: A few months back, I got an e-mail from filmmaker in California. He had seen the documentary “Blood in the Face,” which was mostly filmed at a racist gathering at Miles’ farm in the late 1980s. This guy had seen some stuff I had written about Miles in the past, and wanted to see if I could help him locate some of the people who were interviewed in “Blood in the Face.”

This is what he wrote to me:

“Thanks for the reply and for taking time to consider, as I said I figured it was a longshot. We’re also reaching out to a few people who worked on the Blood In the Face doc. Are you still covering that alt-right (or whatever we are calling it these days) beat? As a local Michigander I would be curious to hear your impressions of how things have played out in the lead up to Trump’s election and since he took office. I gather Howell is still something of a hotbed for Ultra Nationalist, Nazi, KKK, etc…”

Sigh. This guy – who has never been here – thinks that Howell is “still something of a hotbed” for the Klan.

Thank you, Bob Miles.

It’s been that way for more than a half-century – ever since Miles moved to Livingston County. He single-handedly ruined our reputation.

Consider this story on Miles that was published in the Ann Arbor News on April 25, 1972. This is how they described us:

“Miles was interviewed at a truck stop near his farm home in Cohoctah in rural Livingston County, known by many as ‘klan country.’”

That’s how people in the media were describing us in 1972. “Klan country.”

This is how Livingston County was described in a 1972 Ann Arbor News article.

And it hasn’t changed. Today, when you do a Google search for “Howell Michigan,” this suggestion comes up No. 2 on the list: “Howell Michigan KKK.”

That’s the legacy of Bob Miles. He’s been dead for 25 years, but that’s what comes up when you Google this town. “Howell Michigan KKK.”

As if it needs to be said, I’ll say it anyway: There is no Ku Klux Klan in Howell, or anywhere else in Livingston County. The Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks such things, confirms it. There are no white supremacist groups operating anywhere in Livingston County. To correct that filmmaker from California, Howell is not “still something of a hotbed” for the KKK.

There’s no Klan in Howell, there’s no Klan in Cohoctah Township, there’s no Klan anywhere here. This is not “Klan country.” Howell is not “still something of a hotbed” for the Klan.

There is no Klan here. None. There’s only a Klansman who has been dead for 25 years now.

As we observe the 25th anniversary of Bob Miles’ death – especially in the context of what happened in Charlottesville – it’s appropriate to reflect on his life and times. In an entirely negative way, he was one of the most influential people in Livingston County history.

Sad to say, I knew Bob Miles. Back in the 1980s, when I was the editor of the Livingston County Press and Brighton Argus, Miles would frequently stop in the newspaper office and pick up a few copies every time we wrote something about him. Unlike other hate-group leaders who shied away from publicity, Miles loved it.

He would make a point of seeking me out to say something snarky, and that would be that. I also got to see him in action in 1989, when he made a memorable appearance before the Michigan Civil Rights Commission in Howell.

Bob Miles also arranged for the Ku Klux Klan to give me an award in 1989. More on that later.

People will point out that Miles was a highly intelligent, literate and charming man – which is why he was such a charismatic leader for the hate movement – but be clear about this: Bob Miles was an evil man.

He didn’t just think evil thoughts. He did evil things.

In 1971, he was convicted of conspiring to bomb school buses in Pontiac. That same year, he helped to tar and feather a high school principal from Ypsilanti named R. Wylie Brownlee.

Robert Miles in handcuffs in the early 1970s, heading to trial for conspiring to bomb school buses in Pontiac.

Think about that for a minute. He tarred and feathered another human being. You can read the details here. They’ll turn your stomach.

That’s evil. That’s pure evil, and Bob Miles was pure evil.

Miles went to prison for his crimes, and when he got out, he began to cement his reputation as a white-supremacist icon. He started holding cross-burnings at his farm in Cohoctah Township, and started dragging down Livingston County’s reputation in the process. Word began to spread all over the country that “they hold cross-burnings in Howell” (never mind that it wasn’t in Howell). The media and everyone else started to think of this as “Klan country.”

All because of one evil man.

And as I said, Miles was very open about it all. He gladly invited anyone and everyone to attend his hate rallies – including the media. In 1986, he invited two of our reporters to attend one of the cross-burnings. That same year, he invited the crew from “Blood in the Face” (a group that included a then-unknown filmmaker from Flint named Michael Moore) to a rally.

If you want a taste of what went on at these rallies, check out the clips from “Blood in the Face” on YouTube. You’ll see one of them at the bottom of this story that features Miles talking about how he was looking to grow the Klan’s membership.

And then there’s the award that Miles and the KKK gave to me.

In 1989, the Michigan Klan was having its annual conference in Grand Rapids, and Miles arranged for the KKK to give an award to me and Dennis Keenon, who was the managing editor of the Livingston County Press at the time. A few months earlier, we had done a series in the newspaper on racism in Livingston County, and as Miles saw it, when we wrote about him and the Klan, we were helping him do his job. We were helping spread the word that “Livingston County has a Klan,” and thus, we were scaring away anyone who wasn’t white.

So he gave us an award. Miles had mentioned this to me in 1989, but I had forgotten all about it. It wasn’t until years later that I actually saw this “award.”

In 2005 – 13 years after his death – Bob Miles was back in the news, as his family decided to auction off all of his racist stuff. His Klan robes, his cross-burning pictures, everything. They hired an auctioneer from Howell named Gary Gray to auction everything off.

You might remember that this was hugely controversial at the time. People in Howell were sick that Miles’ legacy was coming to life again, and they were sick that an auctioneer from Howell had actually agreed to handle the estate.

This was huge news back in 2005, and it drew newspaper and TV attention from all over the country. The New York Times even came to town to report on Bob Miles’ auction.

Howell was back in the news because of the Klan. Just great.

One of our reporters, Susan Demas, went over to the auction house to look at all the stuff. When she came back to the office, she told me, “There are a couple of items in the auction with your name on them.”

Say what?

“There are a couple items in the auction with your name on them,” she said. “Some award you got and a letter to the editor.” (One of the other items was a letter to the editor addressed to me.)

That’s when I remembered what Miles had told me back in 1989 – that the Klan had given some sort of award to Dennis Keenon and me.

I went over to the auction house to see this “award” for myself, and sure enough, there it was. You can’t imagine how sick it feels to see your name on a Ku Klux Klan award.

This “award’ was nothing more than a piece of paper on KKK letterhead, but it was sickening. The wording, in case you’re curious, went like this:

“Whereas, by consent of the state council of this order, sitting in session at Secret Konklave in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Friday, October the sixth of the year of 1989, it is hereby proclaimed that the editor and the minions serving him on the Livingston County Press, have done outstanding service to the white race through the racial agitation which their newspaper continuously promotes; and whereas, these efforts are aimed at keeping Livingston a white island in a growing black sea; we here and now do award:

“Buddy Moorehouse – The Order of the Torn Bedsheet With Invisible Garter Attached.

“Dennis Keenon – The Order of the Ripped Pillowcase With Eyeholes Rampant.

“Sundry minions of above likewise to be honored.

“Let these awards be published in public places as our tokens of appreciation for the services performed by above.”

And then it was signed by the Grand Dragon and the Kligrapp, whatever the hell that is.

The Miles auction took place in May of 2005, and somebody paid a couple bucks for that piece of paper. I hope they burned it.

A newspaper photo shows the Ku Klux Klan “award” presented in 1989 to Livingston County Press editors Buddy Moorehouse and Dennis Keenon.

I can’t believe it’s been 25 years since Miles’ death. I was at the paper that day in 1992 when somebody called to say that Bob Miles had died at McPherson Hospital in Howell. We called the hospital, and while they couldn’t tell us the cause of death, they did confirm that he had died.

I don’t know if it’ll take another 25 years for Howell’s reputation to finally recover from the damage that Bob Miles inflicted on it. If you’re relatively new to the area and you might be wondering why Howell has this bad reputation, it’s because of Miles. Every town has its racists and other idiots, but it’s entirely because of Miles that Howell is saddled with this reputation. And people from Howell still have to explain that he wasn’t even from Howell, and that he’s been dead for a quarter-century.

You could say that by writing about Bob Miles today, I’m as guilty as anyone of keeping his sick legacy alive. That could be true, but I have a couple thoughts on that.

First, I do believe that in order to avoid repeating history, we have to study history. It’s why we teach about the Holocaust. It’s why we study slavery. It’s why we talk about Bob Miles.

We saw last week in Virginia that the racism and the hatred that Miles stood for haven’t gone away, so it’s important that we continue to study people like Bob Miles.

And second, while his racist ideas aren’t dead, Bob Miles is.

I don’t want to miss the chance to remind everyone yet again that yes, Bob Miles IS dead. He’s been dead for 25 years, and as far as anyone knows, there’s nobody else holding cross-burnings and hate rallies in Livingston County.

It was just him, and he’s been dead for 25 years now.

The klansman’s final resting place. Robert Miles’ grave in Sanford Cemetery in Howell.

So as we continue to battle the racism and hate that he stood for, let’s let this whole “Howell KKK” thing finally die, too.

Look, Howell is the hotbed for a lot of things. Hot-air balloons. McDonald’s. Teeny-tiny roundabouts that serve no purpose whatsoever. Howell is a hotbed for all of those things

Howell is NOT, however, a hotbed for the Ku Klux Klan.

Yes, there was once a Klansman who lived here. But he’s dead. He’s dead, and he’s been dead for 25 years now.

Let’s focus on what we should be focusing on: Fighting the hatred and the bigotry and the ignorance that Bob Miles stood for. Fighting the bigotry and the hatred and the ignorance that was on full display in Charlottesville.

And as we focus on that, let’s leave Howell out of this.

Bob Miles is dead. It’s time for Howell’s reputation to die, too.

Howell’s reputation front and center in recent Facebook post. Read about it by clicking here.

About Buddy Moorehouse 101 Articles

Longtime Livingston County journalist Buddy Moorehouse is director of communications at the Michigan Association of Public School Academies.

28 Comments

  1. Was the Howell-area KKK a party of one or did residents attend his rallies? Are they all gone? Who bought the memorabilia? Why did the family sell and not destroy it, unless they too shared his views? Where do they now live? The article does not answer these questions, and does not prove KKK sentiments are dead in Howell.

  2. “Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.” Let me take this opportunity to set the record straight. The KKK, arguably the most evil and racist group in American history, was founded by Democrats to fight against the Republican Party. Remember, Abe Lincoln, a Republican freed the slaves. Democrats continue play the race card in large part to obfuscate their evil racist roots. Democrats know their allies in the media will conveniently forget to mention the Democrat association with the KKK. This racism extended into Livingston County when Robert E. Miles set up shop locally. Miles supported racist Democrat policies as he backed the racist Alabama Governor George Wallace. Oh yes, Wallace was also a Democrat. With today’s push to eliminate all racist symbols I am looking forward to working with liberals and progressives to eliminate all references to the Democrat Party.

  3. Moorehouse seems like a bit of an odd duck, but I do have to give him credit for some very interesting and provocative stories. In particular his history with Drew Sharp, the Genoa Township fiasco with selectively enforcing ordinances on a church, and now this. Good stuff, even if discomforting as the KKK fiasco history is.

    The Hune hysteria is ridiculous. I am not a supporter of him, and particularly his role in stifling Tesla is shameful. But his support for the President of the United States being used against him is a sick hysteria, and its a hysteria born of a seed not too distant from racism…tribal politics liberal vs. conservative. hate and intolerance of a group. there’s some real irony in there if you look closely.

    • I will pick a nit with your reasoning of folks criticizing Hune and Trump in light of Charlottesville. We are talking Nazis here – not policy groups or political theories. It’s Nazis, the folks who brought us the killing of millions of people in gas chambers and ovens. How can there be wiggle room on this?

      • The wiggle room in our country is the Bill of Rights, or for those who like international rule, it’s in the Declaration of Human Rights – in both cases the declared right to hold and express opinions without fear of interference or retribution.

        Hateful opinions are protected.

        That said, I do not believe Joe Hune or President Trump are racists, nor Nazi sympathizers. Joe Hune is a Chamber of Commerce Republican who will do lots of things, some of them unethical, to support people who donate to him. For example, stifling Tesla and distorting the law in order to support the auto dealer lobby in Michigan. When you call him a Nazi or a racist you lose credibility. Hune will happily take donations from anyone !

        I do believe there continues to be racism in America though, and that’s a real troubling thing. Fortunately It seems to diminish with each new generation.

        Nazi-ism in America – tiny group. Giving them publicity through media hysteria only helps the tiny group grow a tiny amount. Ignore them…it ain’t a thing.

    • This made me sick! Why would there be a gathering here for support of Trump? What are you supporting?

  4. I remember the cross burning on Chilson road in the late 80s. Buddy, I have to disagree about Howell no longer being a “hot bed” for racism. I’ve lived in Livingston since the 70s, and I have encountered folks who were unapologetic and outspoken racists. I agree that it is unlikely there are any active organizations here, but attitudes that supported them are still here. Yes, they are a bigger minority than they were in the past, but they are not gone.

  5. Not newsworthy in today’s Livingston county .
    Buddy, While I respect your talents as well as your professionalism I must share a side that is often not told and never spoke of. I met Mr, Miles a day or so after his release from prison. I was a very young man and knew nothing of his past. I have lived in the same township for 50 years now. Our family bout a farm there in 1943 I believe. I have in years past purchased my Grandparents home and been entrusted to care for it until I go from Gods green earth. Not many people in today’s times have met Mr, Miles. Most of the stories I hear from the urban transplants that didn’t know this county when there was nothing past the Viaduct on grand river and nothing past the Airport except the $ mile bar ( Wranglers ) are pure BS.
    There was another side of Mr, Miles that many did not know. While he was a showman and supported his cause with all his heart he was a kind man. I never once heard him talk of his views, He never once tried to recruit anyone I knew. We farmed his ground and stayed away while his gatherings went on. He lived within a stones throw of a Black family and another who adopted 2 black children. I was friends with all four and would ride bikes and play as any other kid did in those days. I didnt see color then. Mr, Mile would carry on conversations with the grandmother to two of my friends and would open the door for her as they entered the General Store. They would talk as they were friends she never feared him. Not everything was Evil about this man like as any other man there were many facets to him.
    While I don’t condone what he stood for his biggest bitch was with the federal government. They would stake out his house and when they did he baked them cookies or brownie ( he was a hell of a baker) and offer them lemon aid. I will die here in this county and be buried in a family plot in the same Cemetery he is at. I am sick of hearing the retoric and the strange tales. He is long gone lets let it go and just be part of the history and not the future.

    • He tarred and feathered another human being, Frederick. That alone makes him an evil man.

      • Convicted of and found guilty of but until his dying day denied he had done it. He spent time in prison and while he stood steadfast in his belief his true hatred was for the federal government whom by the way had done much worse to entire communities such as Tuskegee. I do not condone violence upon another human being unless it is to defend that of oneself or a loved one. The man I met was post prison and was by that time a harmless mouthpiece who treated his neighbors of all colors with kindness.

  6. I am 23, and have witnessed racism in Howell through spoken word, paraphernalia, etc. Confederate flags are commonplace in Howell. I never used to bat an eye until I moved away for college and realized that this is not a typical trend in most places. In elementary school, I remember that a schoolmate on my bus route had a Nazi flag proudly displayed by their parents in the garage. I had never communicated with a black person until my freshman year roommate. When I told people of her and they found her race out I had people telling me “good luck,” and “oh, that will be interesting.” It’s honestly sickening that the community I grew up in still holds up to the negative reputation it has. While I do not believe that the community as a whole is racist, and that we are making steps to become more accepting, there are still pockets of people here that hold similar views to those of white supremacists. I hope and pray that one day Howell will not have this reputation, and that the people who grow up in Howell will not be taught that racism is acceptable.

  7. Thanks for writing this article because we need to be reminded that this what Livingston County no longer stands for.
    Now it was mentioned that the Republicans met at the Block Brewery
    For Trump. I have no idea about what they
    talked about there, but if they are supporting a President who is an avowed racist by supporting the White
    Supremacist movement along with all the other hate groups, then they need
    To let everyone know what it is that they
    Like about Trump. If they are resurrecting what Bob Miles started
    here then I am very disappointed
    That they have not learned anything.
    Hope I am wrong in what I am thinking.

  8. This legacy is not going to die as long as local politicians, like Joe Hune celebrate, yes celebrate, the hatred the Trump and is ilk spew in the wake of the tragedy in Charlottesville. “Are we a Trump community or what?” Hune asked a cheering crowd. He also inspired the crowd to chant “build the wall” and “fake news,” before listing what he described as positive points about Trump’s presidency, including the stock market, Iran sanctions and the stripping away of federal funding to sanctuary cities.”
    http://www.livingstondaily.com/story/news/local/community/howell/2017/08/16/200-gather-howell-support-trump-wake-criticism/572060001/

    • Shari: There’s a big difference between a power abusing meathead and an evil racist nazi. Gotta be credible and on point….wild rants won’t win the day. What’s going on in Livingston County is abuse of power….would be run-of-the-mill if there were political competition, but there isn’t so the abuses are never penalized and people who have not earned and don’t deserve power get worse with each uncontested election.

  9. Unfortunately, racism still exists in Livingston Co.
    I grew up in Fowlerville and currently live in Byron – both a stone’s throw away from Cohoctah. I heard the stories, never witnessed first hand. But the most disturbing was hearing stories just a few years ago that klan-type activities really do continue to take place. Just because it’s not reported doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Go ahead, keep your head in the sand if you like.

  10. Great article, Buddy. Growing up in Brighton, I had certain negative perceptions of Howell. (It was hard not to when you see Confederate flags waving on the back of diesel trucks revving their engines along Grand River Avenue.)

    That said, this helped me to form some different opinions. Thank you.

  11. As someone who normally likes the articles you write, I have to,say I’m deeply disappointed in this article. Racism can never truly die until folks stop dragging it out of the corners where it hides. Yes, Howell has a reputation, let it die. Stop bringing it up. History is important but not in the negative light you just wrote it. I was born and raised in Cohoctah, my family roots go back to being original settlers there. I take offense at the continual shaming of my hometown because of the actions of one man.

    • “Racism can never truly die until folks stop dragging it out of the corners where it hides”……very nice. Lets cover it up, pretend it never happened (and is STILL happening elsewhere very moment of every day). And it was not the actions of ‘one man” but many who joined him in his hate mongering. One can’t hide history. What one does is learn from it and try to not let atrocious actions repeat themselves. Why hide shame? The town wasn’t being shamed by the author…he was simply bringing up that if it can happen in areas such as Howell, it certainly can happen anywhere and it DID happen in that area.

  12. Buddy Moorehouse, your agenda is as transparent as Saran Wrap. The Republicans for Trump dinner was in Howell yesterday and you chose to write about Robert Miles- how convenient. Fortunately, your writings are still that of a preschooler and educated people still cannot take you seriously. Start your fires elsewhere. We, the real American people of Howell, can see you and your pathetic stone throwing coming from miles away. Do not speak for US again.

    • It was the anniversary of Miles death perhaps poetically the same day trump supporters met in Howell

    • He can speak for me whenever he wants. I don’t consider people like you the real American people ohm Howell.

  13. By memorializing this racist scumbag with this long article, you continue the trend. BTW….Racism is far from gone in Livingston County. An article on how diversity would benefit Livingston County may have been more appropriate.

  14. Back in 1990- I wrote a piece that was put in our high school newspaper the Main Four- it was about racism and the fact , as a high schooler , I rarely heard my peers ever talk about race. And that the adults in our world were much more concerned about “racism” and how it effected their children . When the fact of the matter was that talks of race and/or racism were rarely on our radar at all. Well, a week later Miles wrote a response to my writing piece. All that I can remember of his exact response was ” even your Sesame Street group of cub reporters gets the idea that they are growing up in a ‘white’ community’ and it’s a far superior way to grow up.” As I think of his response – it is haunting to me that our current president would most likely spin my ideas into something that benefitted his cause , just likes Robert Miles.
    When my parents moved to Howell back in 1974- we were a few miles from cohoctah and after about a month, three guys showed up at our door ( Jehovah Witness style) and introduced themselves as a group for the advancement and preservation of the white race- not coming right out and saying ” Hi – we are the KKK!” But they were obviously trying to recruit my dad. My parents being the hippie , liberals they were, told them ” no thank you”.
    Hate has many forms- racism being one of the worst. When he died , a lot of evil was gone with him , unfortunately it’s out there- but Howell, has the unfortunate title of KKK land- all we can do to dispel that — title– is one citizen at a time replying with ” no thank you.”

  15. Good article. I have to admit that before I moved briefly to Howell, to live closer to a family member, it’s reputation as a KKK haven was foremost in my own mind. I learned differently and I also learned that it furiously upsets most Howell residents to have their charming city maligned with the KKK reputation. I love Howell. It is a fantastic place to live. So sad that the taint of Bob Miles and his racist followers still hang on in the fringes of it’s history.

  16. A couple things — With all due respect, Mr. Moorehouse, I find it curious you continue to write about this evil man when in fact the newspaper you worked for made money off of his activities. Secondly, was it a coincidence the Republicans held a “Trump, We’ve Got Your Back” event at Block Brewery yesterday, on the anniversary of Miles death? Seems a bit ironic to me.

  17. I applaud you for reminding us of a lingering reputation based on actual history. Bob Miles wasn’t the only KKK member in Livingston County back in the day nor is racism dead here. But until we know and honestly admit our history will we be able to hold our heads up with humility and say we were part of a America’s legacy of racism and we are sorry and ashamed of that. We need to actively work to educate ourselves instead of just denying our past. The truth, no matter how bad it makes us look, frees us. It’s our responsibility to earn a different, more open and accepting name for ourselves. Clearly, we haven’t been successful at that so we have to ask ourselves why.

What do you think?