WHEN I first learned of the brouhaha over the recent effort of the Ku Klux Klan to sneak into the "Adopt-a-Road" program in Anne Arundel County, I must confess that I chuckled and fantasized over the comic spectacle of white-sheeted Ku Klux Klansmen picking up trash along the highways in much the same way that stripe-suited chain-gangs used to perform that onerous task along the highways of Dixie not so many years ago.
But comedy aside, there are serious issues involved, so it might be instructive to recall an episode in the history of an authentic Klan stronghold, Alabama of the 1950s.
When the young and then-unknown Martin Luther King Jr. drove into Montgomery to take up his duties as pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in the fateful year of 1954, he may have seen a crudely fashioned highway sign posted there in which the local "Klavern" of the Ku Klux Klan welcomed him to "the Cradle of the Confederacy."
Once King got his bus boycott going a year later, the sign began to turn up constantly in news photos of the day. This became a source of mild embarrassment to the Alabama authorities, but whenever they were asked why they didn't just remove the noxious greeting, they would slyly smile, shrug and say that under the First Amendment, the Klan had just as much right to put up a sign as the Jaycees or the Rotary Club.
Their tender solicitude over the First Amendment was, needless to say, palpably hypocritical. After all, these same officials at that very moment were using every hammer and tong in their legal arsenal to drive the NAACP out of Alabama. When the civil rights group refused to turn over its membership lists to the courts -- thereby exposing every named individual not only to economic retaliation, but also to physical danger -- a state judge promptly levied huge fines and banned the NAACP from doing business in Alabama.
The NAACP appealed to the Supreme Court, which lost no time in holding, in a landmark unanimous decision, that the Alabama action violated the First-Amendment rights of the organization and its members.
Thereafter the NAACP went about its business of desegregating Alabama, and in time the Klan sign fell to neglect and decay -- but not before it was subjected to regular defacement at the hands of night riders of a different kind.
Let me hasten to add that I relate this history not to draw a moral equivalence between the KKK and the NAACP, but simply to point out that each enjoys the same rights as the other under the First Amendment.
No doubt Anne Arundel County Executive Janet Owens was quite sincere in her indignation over the Klan's stealthy attempt to grab a little respectability at her county's expense, but there is also no doubt that the Alabama authorities of the 1950s were just as sincere in their outrage at what they perceived to be the "threat" of the NAACP.
Nearly 60 years ago, Justice Robert Jackson of the U.S. Supreme Court captured the spirit of the First Amendment in eloquent and memorable words: "If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation," the justice wrote, "it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what is orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion . . ."
And that's the majesty of the First Amendment. Its benevolent umbrella covers the KKK and the NAACP alike, and its prohibitions apply to all officials, high or petty, whether in Alabama or Anne Arundel County.
Ray Jenkins is a former editorial page editor of the former Evening Sun and presently a director of the Maryland chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, which is defending the right of the Klan to participate in the program.
Pub Date: 3/15/99