Unity Rally Web Exclusive

unity rally

by Christopher Maier '99

This story originally appeared in the winter 2001 issue of Dickinson Magazine.

The East: Whitewashed 

One p.m. Sept. 23. Temperature: fair; sky: overcast. And, as a distant bell rang once to mark the new hour, a pernicious rally began east of Dickinson, in front of the Cumberland County Courthouse. More than 20 men cloaked in hoods and gowns assembled on the courthouse steps to spread the word of Aryan supremacy under the aegis of Church of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. Two Klansmen diverged from the traditional white garb in favor of black gear; another, dressed in jeans and a flannel shirt, wore a leather-looking executioner's mask with a rebel flag on the crown.

The Klansmen waved confederate flags, played white supremacist music over a rag-tag stereo system and belched "White Power" every time their energy seemed to fade. Twenty or 30 supporters returned the racist salute, while a larger scattering of protestors responded with boos or chants such as "Take it off—a reference to the hoods. But most of the estimated 600 onlookers just watched, silently—not participating, but too compelled by curiosity to walk away.

A few blocks away, Dickinson and the Carlisle community were gathering for a "rally" of a different sort.

Securing the Rally 

When Carlisle Mayor Kirk Wilson first received the petition to assemble from the Klan in late August, he realized that telling the Klan that it couldn't gather on public property would have been a violation of its First Amendment rights. So Wilson approved the petition—what he later called the most "disgusting" chore of his 14-year tenure—and, the morning of the rally, ordered the streets of downtown closed and put the security task force to work.

Carlisle Police Chief Steve Margeson, along with a few other state and local officials, led the security efforts. Nearly 200 state and local—including K-9 cops, horse-mounted patrollers and rooftop snipers—staffed the event. "What we had to remain focused on as a municipality and a police department was that these people had a constitutional right to do what they did, regardless of the message," said Margeson a few weeks after the rally. "And our ultimate goal was to let them do that in a safe manner."

During the morning hours, police hoisted two layers of orange fencing around the courthouse steps, installed two metal-detecting doorways—the only ways to enter the fences—and blocked off full city blocks stretching in all four cardinal directions from the rally site. Every reasonable precaution was taken to preserve order and provide safety.

As soon as the rally ended—at exactly 2 p.m., in accordance with the permit—Margeson helped shuffle the Klan members quickly into a police bus waiting at the back of the courthouse, and they were whisked away to their cars, at an undisclosed location.

As the battalion of officers tried to expeditiously clear the streets—threatening to arrest loiterers—a heated conversation sparked between a black woman in a Mike Tyson T-shirt and a Klan-supporting, spike-haired white man. "Do you hate me, honey?" the woman asked—more aggressively than her words suggest—then paused to let him answer. After a few seconds, he said, "Not right now."

Why Here? Why Now?

Ann Van Dyke, from the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, had attended 17 Klan rallies before she came to Carlisle. When she heard that the Klan had sent a petition to Mayor Wilson, she quickly offered to help mobilize the community and plan an alternative demonstration of peace to offset the draw to the Klan rally. But she also asked a question that she asks each community that confronts a public challenge from hate groups: Why here?

Van Dyke's question "kept running through my mind," said Rusty Shunk, Dickinson's associate vice president for college and community relations. Shunk was among the core players and decision makers as Carlisle and Dickinson determined how to respond when they heard the Klan was coming to town. At first, "I was absolutely appalled that they would come here," he said. 

But, according to Klan officials, they had their reasons. In a Carlisle Sentinel interview, Klan rally organizer Rick DeLong said that Carlisle seems "to be having a lot of problems in the school[s]," and that's why the group, based in Warren, Pa.—nearly six hours from Carlisle—decided to rally in Cumberland County. "The community has a lot of drugs and undesirables, I guess you'd say." The Klan, DeLong alluded, is dedicated to improving society, not disseminating hate.

Despite the Klan's persistent claim that it's not a hate group—"That's all media lies and bullshit," shouted one hooded member from the courthouse steps—it affixes violently charged white-power slogans to its rhetoric about improving society. And, Van Dyke explains, "The group only goes where it thinks the conditions are right" for the community to accept its combination of rhapsodic conservatism and white supremacy. Which again brings us to the question: Why here?

Shunk points out that Carlisle is a county seat-a favorite soapbox for Klan groups in recent years. And he mentions that downtown Carlisle offers "all of the trappings of power-pillars, flags, the courthouse."  

He's right. But there's more to it than that. Carlisle, like many mid-sized American towns, is in a state of flux, welcoming an increased diversity to its community. With an 89.9 percent Caucasian population, Carlisle's pie chart includes 6.4 percent African-American, 2.1 percent Asian and 1.3 percent Hispanic. These numbers represent a gradual shift in the face of Carlisle: just 10 years ago, 92.2 percent of borough residents were Caucasian, 5.7 percent African-American and 1.6 percent Asian, with 1.1 percent also listing Hispanic origins. As these evolutions occur, hate groups like the Klan demand that demographic changes in race, religion, ethnicity and sexual orientation lie at the root of a community's ills. Crime in Carlisle, they suggested, is a result of a legal system not appropriately punishing black offenders.     

Carlisle's growth reflects the nation as a whole. A recent Newsweek article asserted that by "2050 whites will make up a slim majority [of the American population]-53 percent. [And] the Bureau of Labor Statistics announced that the number of foreign-born workers has hit 15.7 million, the highest level in seven decades." For people like the Klan members—who define themselves not individually, but by skin color—these figures seem frightening. Frightening enough, in fact, that Klan members will desperately take to the streets to try to spark public sentiment.

But hate groups rarely show themselves in Carlisle. According to a July 1, 1998-June 30, 2000 study by the Human Relations Commission, only two hate-group activities were reported in Cumberland County during that time, as opposed to 16 in nearby York County. In total, 19 organized hate groups existed in Pennsylvania in 1999, placing the state at sixth in the national ranks-tied with Texas. Today, says the Human Relations Commission study, at least 32 groups—many so temporal and incoherent that they could be reasonably considered disorganizations—have been active in the state at least once since the summer of 1998.

So as America barnstorms for a more diverse and tolerant society—with educational voices like Dickinson's at the head of the caravan—the hate groups continue to find an audience. And even with all of the numbers and theories in place, we still ask ourselves Van Dyke's question: Why here? 

Daniel Welliver, Van Dyke's colleague at the Human Relations Commission, agrees that the question is important to ask, though he suggests that we may never find a clear answer. "They could really pick just about any community in Pennsylvania and come in and give reasons for being there," he said, adding, "because all of our communities are facing change."   

The West: The Color Purple   

In spite of the presence of the Klan, skin color had never seemed to matter less in Carlisle. In fact, the most notable color around town—even against the backdrop of white hoods at the courthouse—was the color purple, beaming from the thousands of large and small violet ribbons that adorned lampposts, trees, storefronts and sweatshirts.

The ribbons—created symbolically to celebrate unity in Carlisle—were, for weeks, handed out by local merchants, volunteers and members of the college. Norm Sharp, a Carlisle resident, joined other local peace promoters at a ribbon-hanging event at the town square the day before the Klan rally. "We are [thankful] for the Klan," he said, preparing to hang another ribbon, "because it brought us all together." The evening before the Klan's appearance, a crowd of several hundred gathered around the courthouse for a candlelight vigil to-in a sense-sanctify the grounds.

The culminating event-The Unity Celebration-took place at the western edge of the Dickinson campus. Nearly a month in the planning, The Unity Celebration was Carlisle's response to the hate-group activity in its own back yard. Pooling the energy of the college and surrounding communities, the celebration lasted three hours, with crowds swelling above 3,000 despite the threatening sky. But the rain never came.

The events kicked off more than an hour before the downtown rally was under way, starting with a few tunes by the Carlisle Band and opening remarks by master of ceremonies former State Rep. Al Masland '79. Speakers spoke, choirs sang and musicians played on the main stage, while activities for people of all ages speckled the lawns at Biddle Field. Many of the offerings targeted youth, like the table where origami was taught or the easel-held map where kids—with their parent's help, if needed—could stick pins to designate their ethnic origins. By day's end, the map was a galaxy of pinholes.

While most of the speeches and activities seemed to be consciously oblivious of the hate-fueled rally down the street, Gov. Tom Ridge—who made a surprise visit at the celebration—spoke directly to the Klan. "Take your evil, take your bigotry and take your hatred, and be gone from Pennsylvania. You are not welcome!" he said, looking toward the TV cameras and the people who filled the bleachers at Biddle.

Apparently a handful of folks didn't hear the governor's decree. "We did have a few people who made it through the gates who weren't exactly there for unity purposes," said Paul Darlington, director of the Dickinson's department of public safety, which handled security for the celebration. The rabble didn't rouse anyone, though. 

On the whole, Rusty Shunk adds, Carlisle was met with good fortune. "The Unity Celebration broke a silence," he said, referring to the community's failure to effectively acknowledge the fact that certain tensions do exist between different groups in Carlisle, in Pennsylvania, in America. "It is a really important time for Carlisle to face some of those issues, talk about them openly and propose solutions and resolutions. In that sense [the celebration] was a beginning, not an ending."  

In fact, the Carlisle Unity Celebration Next Steps Committee has met a few times since the event and, with an updated list of goals and vast community support, its members are ready to continue their march as the new year begins.

At the Dividing Line

In Jack Kerouac's On the Road—one of literature's defining novels of the American journey—the narrator, Sal Paradise, makes his way to Des Moines, Iowa, where he realizes that he is "at the dividing line between the East of my youth and the West of my future." Indeed, Carlisle can empathize. This fall, on that wispy September Saturday, lines were clearly drawn in this town, and on one side-the eastern side-stood the past, the vestiges of American bigotry that modern society has worked so hard to move beyond, the crumbling pillars of hate. And on the other side, in the West, proudly shining light on the richness of American diversity, there was the Unity Celebration. In the West, there wasn't a white hood in sight. In the West, there was peace. In the West, there was the here and now, and in the West, there was the future. 

Published April 11, 2013