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

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.

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