Adopt-a-Highway programs allow civic-minded organizations to clean litter from roadsides, but should just any group be allowed to volunteer? In Georgia, a fight has broken out over an application by the Ku Klux Klan to sponsor a one-mile section of Route 515 in the Appalachian Mountains, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported Monday. Civil rights leaders have asked the Georgia Department of Transportation to deny the group permission, but if legal precedent is any guide, they may be forced to let the KKK go ahead — or be forced to shut down the program.
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Litigation in a similar case favors the KKK’s position. In 2005, the Missouri Department of Transportation lost a case in the U.S. Supreme Court after denying a highway-adoption application from another KKK chapter. With the help of the American Civil Liberties Union—a strange bedfellow for the Southern white-supremacist group—the KKK argued successfully before the Court that the First Amendment barred the DOT from denying an application because it disagreed with an organization’s political agenda.
“We just want to clean up the doggone road,” Harley Hanson, the exalted cyclops of the Klan’s Realm of Georgia, told the Journal-Constitution. “We’re not going to be out there in robes.”
But opponents say that to allow the KKK to sponsor the highway — which would include permission to erect signs advertising their work — would be a black mark on a state that has come far since the civil rights era. State Rep. Tyrone Brooks (D), head of the Georgia Association of Black Elected Officials, has asked the DOT to deny the KKK’s application. “They have to say no. If it brings a lawsuit, so be it. If it ends the program, so be it,” Brooks told the Journal-Constitution.
Brooks said that the KKK’s volunteer work is part of an effort to publicly rebrand the group in order to grow its membership. He said that by accepting the application, the state would be “complicit” in the activities of the KKK as a “domestic terrorist group.”
The KKK originally formed as a vigilante organization to intimidate Southern blacks during the Reconstruction era through violence and murder; it’s been classified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League. But the adopt-a-highway applications of recent years come as some KKK factions have taken to describing themselves as a mainstream organization supporting civil rights for whites.
“I love my race. Does that make me wrong? I’m proud to be white,” Hanson told the Journal-Constitution.
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“We just want to do something good for the community,” another Georgia KKK representative, who would only be identified as the “Imperial Wizard,” told ABCNews.com. He added, “Everybody has a past they want to forget about.”
The GDOT has not yet reached a decision, a representative told ABCNews.com.
Perhaps Georgia will find another way to fight back, even while granting the KKK’s application. While it lost its legal battle over the KKK’s application, Missouri’s state legislature found another way to fight back: it renamed the KKK-adopted road after civil rights icon Rosa Parks in 2000. In 2009, after a different stretch of Missouri highway was adopted by a neo-Nazi group, the state voted to name it after Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a rabbi who fled Nazi Germany and led civil rights movements in the U.S., according to the New York Times.
If the Georgia state legislature wants to take a similar kiss-your-enemy move to thank the KKK for their service, they might consider naming the highway after W. W. Law — a Savannah, Ga., NAACP leader who led a successful campaign to desegregate the city in the 1960s.