How the Ku Klux Klan Welcomed My Father to Arkansas in 1965

hanghimdetailMy father began his ministry at the Pulaski Heights Christian Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, on March 1, 1964. He had left his previous church in Daytona Beach, Florida, in part because some in the congregation were outraged that he had welcomed a black woman to a service one Sunday in the fall of 1963. Some were also upset that my parents had twice invited small groups of black and white church members from around town over for mixed-race social gatherings at our home. Folks with a similar mindset tracked my father down in his new posting. A little over a year after he started work at Pulaski Heights, he received a thinly-veiled death threat, apparently from the Ku Klux Klan. (Click thumbnails to enlarge.)

hanghimIt was scrawled on one of three crude posters, drawn with a black marker on torn pieces of white poster board, that I found in my father’s files. It reads, “Let’s Hang Him,” alongside a stick figure with my father’s name, hanging on a gallows with “K.K.K.” at the bottom.

mixed race

Rhodes Thompson, 1965

Rhodes Thompson, 1964

One of the other posters accused my father of supporting mixed-race marriages, something the writer seemed to think was so self-evidently abominable that no editorial comment was required. The third poster, topped with a hammer and sickle and the headline “Birds of a feather,” showed a hand labeled “Thompson” embracing a hand labeled “Kosygin, Brezhnev, Castro, Mao Tse Tung.”

hammersickleThe posters are undated and I found no other mention of them in my father’s files, nor had I ever heard of them before. There is no evidence as to how they were delivered to my father, who now has advanced dementia and wouldn’t be able to discuss the posters. But their proximity in the files to a hate letter condoning a recent KKK murder, and some newspaper clippings about that case, leads me to believe the posters date to early April 1964.

Less than a month earlier, on March 7, Alabama lawmen had savagely beaten civil rights protesters who had attempted to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, in a peaceful march for voting rights for blacks. Several weeks after that infamous Bloody Sunday, on March 25, Viola Liuzzo, a white mother from Detroit who had come south to participate in the protest movement, was gunned down by a carload of Ku Klux Klansmen.

My father was one of a dozen clergymen named in an article in the Arkansas Gazette as having attended a memorial service for Liuzzo on April 3 in Little Rock.wholefrontpage The service was delayed by a bomb threat, according to the article in the Gazette, which ran on the front page on April 4 (click to enlarge) alongside another story stating that someone had burned a cross and left other KKK symbols in the backyard of the home in Detroit where Liuzzo’s husband and five young children lived.

Apparently another Arkansas newspaper on that day ran a photograph showing my father and other clergymen leaving the service. Someone who identified himself as Sherman McDaniel, from Conway, Arkansas, saw that article and sent my father a letter the next day commenting on it. Whether the name on the letter was a pseudonym or not, online genealogical records list a man by that name in Conway, who was born in 1909 and died in 1983 at the age of 73. (Here’s an image of the letter.)

In the letter to my father, the man calling himself McDaniel taunts, “Saw your picture in yesterday’s paper where you and others like you were leaving the Cathedral after being in there ‘hollering and slinging snot’ over that ole gal who got shot because she was out of place and meddling where she had no business.”

He goes on to assert, of the mother who was gunned down for helping black people register to vote,  “If she had been at home with her husband and five kids where she belonged, it would not have happened. Would it? Maybe she did not have a husband and maybe those kids were born while she was unwed. That is the type of people that cater to such ‘carrying on’ isn’t it?”

McDaniel seemed convinced that most Arkansans were on his side. “Several people have told me they are ashamed to admit being members of the Christian Church since they learned what you are doing,” he wrote. He was quite proud of the letter, and wanted my father to show it to each member of his congregation. “[T]hen see how many of them are willing to ‘sic’ you on with what you have been practicing.”

The letter, McDaniel believed, “should keep you out of devilment for a while.” Whoever drew up the posters obviously thought they would have the same effect. They didn’t.

The photograph of our family published in the Pulaski Heights Christian Church newsletter announcing my father's arrival in Little Rock in early 1965.

This is the photograph of our family that was published in the Pulaski Heights Christian Church newsletter announcing my father’s arrival in Little Rock in early 1964.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *