TRUE STORIES — The relearning curve

J.T. Knoll
Morning Sun

Like most everyone growing up here in the Little Balkans, I learned the importance of hard work and belligerent independence, as well as an unspoken responsibility to take care of my neighbors.

Also, I learned to be prejudiced, which is to say, have an incorrect, negative attitude toward black people. I wasn’t unique — prejudice was a frame of mind that pervaded the county.

Most people hereabouts aren’t aware that the Ku Klux Klan had a strong presence here in the early part of the 20th century.

Arcadia songwriter and historian Holly Reed recently shared research that revealed some troubling history about Crawford County. “I began looking for info,” she wrote me, “after I learned of a lynching in Mulberry in 1920 of a 16-year-old black boy. He was arrested and held in the Mulberry jail where an armed mob took sledge hammers, broke down the wall of the jail and hanged him on Main Street.”

Holly attached to her email a research paper published through Emporia State College in 1975 titled “The Ku Klux Klan in Eastern Kansas during the 1920s” by Lila Lee Jones. Here’s some excerpts:

“During the last week of April 1925, the Mulberry Klan entertained members of visiting Klans at the Miller brothers’ property north of Mulberry. It was reported that 1,811 automobiles passed through the gate that led into a large pasture, and hundreds of others passed by the gate. A large cross, burning brightly, could be seen for miles. The American flag was raised high above the cross. Orin Strong of the pro-Klan newspaper, The Independent, described the meeting:

“The Mulberry Klan, the largest in the county outside of Pittsburg, was out in full force. Girard, Liberal, Minden, Franklin, Frontenac, Lamar, Cherokee, and other points were represented as well. Pittsburg sent some hundreds of people, including a band, drill teams, and the chief executive of the central organization. A number of prominent men of the state in church and school affairs were present.”

Rather than the old fear of inter-marriage and Negro rule, the Klan movement into eastern Kansas appears to have been more about prejudice borne of fanaticism and deep-rooted fears and insecurities about Catholicism, communism, immigrants, labor organizations, Jews and corrupt government. The black problem was already covered: “Most small towns already had ‘Jim Crow’ laws, and Negroes knew they did not dare stay there overnight.”

Getting back to my upbringing, despite the presence of prejudice, I was raised with the awareness that bigotry was wrong and we didn’t have the right to discriminate against black people – or behave as though we were superior to them (or anyone else).

Still, we gave prejudice tacit approval by not overtly questioning, objecting or speaking out against it.

In the 1960s, my older brother, John, gave me (and our whole family) a leg up on this issue in a couple of ways.

First of all by going to college. Here’s a quote from an email exchange we had just last week, “I was a full-blown redneck entering college. You know what saved me — Dr. Noble's sociology classes, Rumford's abnormal psych, Plato's Republic, Animal Farm and James Brown.”

Being six years younger than John, I was just entering adolescence when he started KSC (now PSU) so I reaped the benefit of his education in the conversation around the supper table and the hi-fi record albums he brought home.

The second leg up came after he graduated with a degree in sociology in 1964, and went to work for the Kansas Civil Rights Commission investigating racial discrimination. When he was assigned to cases in Southeast Kansas, he got me out of high school to go with him.

In the midst of the civil rights movement I got the kind of exposure to stereotyping and racism during those ride-alongs that can’t be acquired in books or classes.

Over the years since I’ve come to see that all prejudice – whether it be toward blacks or any other ethnic, religious or social group - is learned. And what is learned can be unlearned.

Also that new learning can take its place. My social psychology studies in college exposed me to something called social norms and the bystander effect, which is when a person is much less likely to speak out against injustice – or intervene in a crisis – if in a group than when alone.

More to the point, bystander effect specialist Alan Berkowitz shared at a PSU workshop a few years back that polls taken 40 years after the civil rights movement in the south revealed that many more white southerners were for desegregation than against it … but did not speak out because of an unspoken social norm that it was unacceptable and they would be judged negatively by their fellow southerners.

The increasing number of white demonstrators marching alongside black to stop police brutality in the south – and all across the nation – indicates that that social norm is weakening. That relearning is taking place.

In the end it comes down to learning and flexibility. As futurist author and philosopher Alvin Toffler once wrote: "The uneducated of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn."