A member of the Ku Klux Klan who created a stir three years ago by building a snowman in the shape of a hooded knight is now causing headaches in Anne Arundel County by demanding that the Klan participate in the county's Adopt-A-Road program.
Rather than raise signs giving the Klan credit for picking up roadside litter, the county has shut down the program.
Genewalter Newport Jr. of Mayo said he wants his group to "adopt" Gambrills Road near Millersville and win the same respect as the Lions Club or Elks Club for cleaning up the community.
"Out of common courtesy and respect to the people of Anne Arundel County, we would like to compromise on a road sign that would be less controversial, for example, `The Invisible Empire,' " Newport told the county in a September letter.
Faced with a 1992 Arkansas federal court ruling that it is unconstitutional to bar the Klan from appearing on adopt-a-highway signs, Arundel officials decided five days before the November elections that they would quietly stop taking all applications to the program to prevent an embarrassing public battle, according to county records.
The Klan persisted, however, and Thursday the American Civil Liberties Union sent a letter to newly elected County Executive Janet S. Owens demanding that her administration honor the Klan's right to freedom of speech.
Dwight H. Sullivan, managing attorney for the ACLU's branch in Maryland, wrote to Owens: "The organization does not plan for its members to wear robes while engaging in trash collection."
County attorneys plan to meet early next week to decide whether to advise Owens' administration to give the Klan a form of roadside advertising or kill the program, said county spokesman Andrew C. Carpenter.
Owens said she would rather cancel the program permanently than raise a Klan sign.
"It's such a symbol of racism. They are not in the same league as the Boy Scouts or the Women's Club," she said. "Isn't it sad? What good does this do for anybody?"
A number of states nationally, including Missouri, Texas and Ohio, have faced legal challenges from the Klan in recent years over whether the traditionally secret organization should be allowed to enjoy the same public credit as the Boy Scouts when they pick up trash along highway roadsides.
The U.S. District Court for the western District of Arkansas in November 1992 ruled that the state violated the Klan's right to freedom of speech when it refused to give the organization a sign for volunteering to clean up Highway 65 in Boone County.
Newport, who describes himself as the grand knight hawk of the Invisible Empire of the KKK of Maryland, said his organization just wanted equal treatment when it began asking the county in July to allow the Klan to adopt Gambrills Road.
"I'm not looking for publicity," Newport said yesterday. "I just want the public to say someday, `Hey, the Klan wasn't so bad.'
"We're like the Elks Club or the Lions Club. All we want to do is help the community."
In January 1996, Newport sparked the enmity of his neighbors by building a six-foot snowman in the shape of a hooded Klansman next to a Confederate flag on his lawn.
Herbert H. Lindsey, state president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said the county should not bar the Klan from the program if the organization meets the program's requirements.
"Most African-Americans would find this absolutely repugnant, that they are trying to use this program as a forum to advertise their organization," he said.
"But we are a nation of rules and laws, and as long as they meet the criteria of the program, it should be open to them."
Valerie Burnette Edgar, spokesman for the State Highway Administration, said yesterday that she has heard of only one other instance of a controversial organization asking to participate in an adopt-a-highway program run by state or county governments in Maryland.
In October, an applicant wanted to put the term "Invisible Empire" on adopt-a-highway signs maintained by the state in Frederick County, Edgar said. The state turned down this request, in part because officials didn't want passers-by to vandalize the signs and gaping motorists to crash, Edgar said.
After the Anne Arundel branch of the Klan asked to adopt Gambrills Road, the coordinator of the county program, Edward H. Meehan, wrote in a memo Sept. 9: "We have had discussions with the office of law and have been advised that we must honor the KKK's request."
On Oct. 28, county Road Operations Assistant Chief Charles G. Barnes wrote the leader of the local Klan: "The Adopt a Road Program has been suspended."
Pub Date: 3/06/99