Jones’ protest in Dearborn stirs memory of Klan rally in Howell

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I’ve watched the Pastor Terry Jones protest saga in Dearborn unfold with a sense of déjà vu.

Jones is the Quran-burning leader of the Dove World Outreach Center, a teeny-tiny church in Gainesville, Fla., that is classified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Jones originally wanted to protest in front of the Islamic Center of America; a court order bars him from the mosque, and he is instead taking his protest to Dearborn City Hall.

All this hoopla over Jones takes me back to a time not all that long ago, when the city of Howell found itself facing the specter of a Klan rally on the steps of the community’s beloved Livingston County Courthouse.

Livingston County in general and Howell in particular have suffered for years with reputations as racist communities, as places where minorities should fear to tread.

This reputation was carefully nurtured and well-fed by Bob Miles, a former Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan. Though it pains me to say it, Livingston County is and was no more or less racist than any other pretty much all-white community; however, it’s suffered mightily under the weight of Miles. It was, after all, to his homestead in Cohoctah Township that white supremacists from across the country flocked, and it was on his land that crosses blazed.

You know the adage about something good coming from something bad? It was a cross burning — this time by a couple of young men on the lawn of a black Genoa Township couple — that gave birth to the community group that would help take a lot of the fire out of the Klan rally.

The group, committed to diversity education, took its name — Livingston 2001 — to reflect the year in which children starting kindergarten at the time of the cross burning would graduate from high school.

I was a member of the group in 1994 when the Klan announced a series of demonstrations in the area, including stops in Lansing and Ann Arbor. The rally was, in fact, one of the first stories I covered as the new editor of the Livingston County Press.

When it became apparent that there was nothing that could be legally done to stop the Klan, Livingston 2001 rallied the community around a “just stay away” campaign.

And stay away everyone did.

In the end, a handful of Klansmen shouted from the steps of the venerable courthouse, their words drowned out by the heavy metal music blaring from their sound system. They looked and acted like a band of angry misfits; if their ideology wasn’t so frightening, they’d have been comical.

Security was intense. A huge fence went up to separate onlookers and protestors from the Klan and its supporters. The downtown area surrounding the courthouse looked like a prison yard, complete with snipers on rooftops.

It was hard not to cry when I saw the awful transformation of my beautiful little town.

In the end, there were more police and media types at the rally than Klan members and onlookers. The “just stay away” campaign was a success.

Then, after the Klan left, people gathered to sweep and wash the courthouse steps, symbolically cleansing the area of the message of hate that had spewed there just a short time earlier.

It was a positive, constructive, uplifting, wholly fitting end to the tough day.

Just as in Howell, security in Dearborn is intense. As I write this, barricades are being erected to keep the factions apart, and Dearborn police and Muslim leaders are urging people to stay away from the protest.

I hope they do.

Jones has the right to speak, a right that should be respected, not fought. (No one said all this democracy and freedom of speech was neat and easy.)

But the community has the right — and some might even say the responsibility — to clean up after him.

Fighting fire with fire works best when scorched earth is the desired outcome. It’s wise to fight fire by starving it of that which gives it life and, when the fire’s extinguished, to simply sweep the ashes away.

About Maria Stuart 211 Articles
Journalist Maria Stuart lives in Howell. She worked at The Livingston County Press/Livingston County Daily Press & Argus as a reporter, editor and managing editor from 1990-2009. She is often spotted holding court at Uptown Coffeehouse. You can check out her website by clicking here.