What happened 15 years ago outside the Shelby County Courthouse between the seated figures of justice and wisdom informed much of what happened Saturday, March 30, when a different Ku Klux Klan group, the American Knights, came to Memphis and rallied at the other southern entrance to the courthouse – between the seated figures of authority and liberty.
Memphis Police used lessons learned in 1998 to deal with a Ku Klux Klan rally and counter-protestors over the weekend. The rally came after the Memphis City Council renamed three Confederate-themed city parks.
(Photo: Lance Murphey)
The result was an overwhelming police presence, a police strategy that allowed counter protestors to only get as close as two blocks from the Klan group and alternatives to a counter protest at the Mid-South Fairgrounds.
“Downtown is a very complex area to secure. You look at the size of the area that we had to secure and you look at what happened in ’98 – we learned from that – allowing protestors to be in such close proximity of each other,” Memphis Police Director Toney Armstrong said after the day’s events Downtown. “We looked at this thing and turned it every which way we could to try to accommodate everybody. The plan that we came up with was the most efficient plan. You see the results of it. There are no injuries. There is no property damage.”
What happened in 1998 was police dispersed a large crowd of onlookers within a block of the Klan group that rallied on the steps of the courthouse. Police used nightsticks and pepper spray after several counter demonstrators climbed over a police barrier. Several windows at the 100 N. Main building and other buildings were shattered as some of the counter demonstrators scattered.
Armstrong was among the plainclothes police officers working in the crowd for the 1998 rally.
There was no alternative to the Klan rally in 1998. Instead those local civil rights groups condemning the Klan rally called on citizens to ignore it without an alternative activity. It created a vacuum filled by the counter demonstrators who breached the police barricade.
Fifteen years later, a different Klan group, the Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, brought a group of 60 that included the neo-Nazi group “National Socialist Movement” and claimed to have members of Aryan Nations as well.
With a police truck directly in front of them and a camera in the truck bed recording the rally, much of what the speakers had to say was not audible except for frequent chants of “white power.”
What was audible was in most cases a reference to the Memphis City Council’s decision in February to rename three Confederate-themed parks including Nathan Bedford Forrest Park.
Like the 1998 rally, there were also references to the federal holiday honoring slain civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Chief Administrative Officer George Little as well as Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. were up early Saturday to check in on the preparations around the courthouse as well as the “Heart of Memphis” activities at the Mid-South Fairgrounds.
Meanwhile, lines of sheriff’s deputies and police officers in riot gear greeted those who made it past the security check point at Fourth Street leading into the counter protesters area two blocks from the Klan rally.
At first there were less than 50 people in the area and the few there were snapping pictures of officers in riot gear on the other side of the chain-link fence and on the north side of Adams Avenue in front of the Magevney House.
Armstrong moved plastic orange and white traffic barrels in front of the seams of the fences as Memphis Fire Department crews filled the barrels with water.
Closer to the 1:30 p.m. scheduled start of the rally, the crowd within the area began to grow to what Armstrong later estimated was 1,200 people.
The only real challenge was a group of several dozen counter protestors spotted on Jefferson Avenue early on by police. They were seeking to come north on Second Street. Some made it a block away from the corner of the courthouse where the rally took place but were still unable to see or be seen from the corners
The group at the corners was about 20 people who were moved back by police to about Court Square.
Armstrong and Shelby County Sheriff Bill Oldham looked south on Second Street for a few anxious minutes as police radio chatter accelerated a bit. The crowds gradually dissipated and the well-planned police choreography began with the arrival of the Klan group in two chartered Memphis Area Transit Authority buses.