SHARPSBURG - Hours before the World Knights of the Ku Klux Klan came to this small town yesterday, before its imperial wizard paraded up a side street to the town's Little League field with seven men and one woman in tow, the Rev. Malcolm Stranathan went to church to pray.
About 60 other people joined Stranathan for the 9:30 a.m. service at Dunker Church on Antietam National Battlefield, which borders the town. And just as people have done since a bloody Civil War battle here killed or wounded 23,000 soldiers Sept. 17, 1862, those who gathered in the old brick church prayed for peace.
Stranathan and many of those on hand had known since late May that the Klan was coming. When the day arrived, a community that had no choice but to play host to a group that stands for discrimination and hate was ready with its own form of ammunition.
If the Klan was going to spread its message, Sharpsburg and nearby Keedysville were going to voice their values, too.
So at 1:30 p.m., soon after the nine members of the Klan climbed out of a bus on Hall Street, Sharpsburg residents began giving away pizza and sodas to 44 teenagers and children who had stayed away from the rally.
A few miles away on the battlefield, behind a restored farm that had been burned by Confederate soldiers, a free all-day concert was under way.
And five miles up Route 34 in Keedysville, population 476, a dance marathon planned in the name of peace and unity (and with a $500 cash prize for the winners) had begun.
A small group of people from the two towns had spent most of July and August planning the three events - making calls, holding meetings, printing fliers, begging for donations, arranging for trash bins, renting portable toilets, looking for speakers, advertising, organizing and trying to think ahead to whatever trouble the day might bring.
Stranathan, pastor of Salem United Methodist Church in Keedysville, was one of the chief organizers. Like many of his neighbors, he was so offended when he heard the Klan was coming that he felt he had to do something.
After the morning service yesterday, as he stood outside the church shaking hands, he couldn't say how this day might change the town. But like other volunteers who had worked so hard to do something positive, he had a feeling that whatever happened, it would be good.
Permit to march
It was three months ago when a 38-year-old man and former Sharpsburg resident who identified himself as the Rev. Gordon Young of Hagerstown, imperial wizard of the World Knights of the KKK, filed an application asking for a permit to march and rally.
The Town Council and Mayor Hal Spielman consulted the town attorney. After learning that the town of Thurmont had spent thousands of dollars trying to keep the Klan from rallying there, they realized there was nothing they could do to keep the group from assembling.
In Sharpsburg, a town of 690 people, word of the planned Klan rally spread quickly.
Amanda Reed heard about the rally at an emergency meeting at Sharpsburg United Church of Christ. She imagined seeing a newspaper photograph of her house on Main Street with Klansmen marching by. Someone seeing that picture would want to know what the people who lived in that house felt, she said.
"I personally needed people to know what I thought about this," she said.
The news moved from neighbor to neighbor up Main Street, past limestone houses built in the late 1700s, past Victorian porches adorned with gingerbread railings, past wooden benches in the town square adjacent to Sharpsburg's most famous establishment, Nutter's Ice Cream.
"It almost felt like a personal insult," said Georgiann Toole, a middle school music teacher. "It felt offensive on a gut level. I thought, `These people are bringing this negative thing to my town.'"
Urge to resist
Down the street and around the corner from Toole, a former social worker who restores old stone houses heard the news and recalled his father marching in civil rights rallies in the 1960s. Like his father, Jerry Randall said, he felt an urge to do something.
In Keedysville, Stranathan read the news about the Klan in the Sharpsburg Town Crier. It reminded him of a time in the early 1990s when he was living in Carroll County and a cross was burned on a black family's lawn. The act had appalled and outraged him.
This time, in response to the Klan, he organized an interdenominational service that drew Reed, Randall, Toole and her husband, and others. After the July 14 service, "a miraculous thing happened," said Stranathan, who grew up in Columbia and has lived in Keedysville for four years.
A small group of people like him, transplants who'd been attracted to small-town values, decided to stand up and fight for them.
`Love Not Hate'
The group began by meeting at Stranathan's church, in a Sunday school room under a Veggie Tales banner that read "Stand Up For What You Believe In."