The International Keystone Knights of the Ku Klux Klan filed a request to participate in the Adopt A Highway program on May 21, according to the Atlanta Journal Constitution. The application was for a one-mile section of road on Route 515 in Union County, Ga. The group, led by Harley Hanson, who calls himself the Exalted Cyclops of the Klan's Realm of Georgia, said that they merely wanted to clean up the road, but the move is seen by many civil rights groups and activists as an attempt by the historically racist organization to soften its public image and grasp a certain level of state recognition.
It's a publicity stunt to put a soft face on what has historically been a terrorist organization, Senior Fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center Mark Potok said. It's an attempt to redraw the Klan as a kinder, gentler organization.
The KKK was formed in 1865 at the close of the Civil War and has a history fraught with violent lynchings, tar-and-featherings, rapes and various other racially motivated attacks. The group was responsible for bombings during the civil rights movement, notably at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., which killed four young girls in 1963.
We can't change what happened, but we can still work for a better tomorrow, the KKK's Hanson said, according to the Washington Post. It was not just to warn people, 'Hey, the KKK lives next door,' but to do some good for the community. Hanson said that the group has done food drives and collected toys for Christmas.
What's important about this fight is the history of an organization that is predicated on hate -- the idea that they would then erect a sign for goodwill -- It's just ludicrous! said Edward DuBose, president of the Georgia NAACP and recipient of the 2012 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Living Legend Award.
The Department of Transportation blocked the Adopt A Highway application by the group Tuesday on the grounds that encountering signage and members of the KKK along a roadway would create a definite distraction to motorists. Also, the section of roadway requested is ineligible for adoption due to its posted speed limit exceeding the program maximum of 55 mph.
However, the blockage of the KKK's application is probably only a temporary fix, as Hanson has said the group will appeal the decision in court, according to the Washington Post.
The simple fact of the matter is, despite public outrage over the attempt, there are few if any legal ways to prevent the KKK from succeeding in their Adopt A Highway petition.
As a general matter, it is very, very difficult to prevent a group like the Klan from doing this, Potok said. Adopt A Highway signs are usually seen as falling into the category of free speech and are thus constitutionally difficult to block. A similar 2005 attempt in Missouri by the KKK to get an Adopt A Highway sign was successful. The only case where a KKK Adopt A Highway petition has been legally blocked was in Vidor, Texas, in 1997 when a court ruled that the petition for the sign was a deliberate attempt at intimidating residents of recently desegregated public housing, which the road fronted.
In the Missouri case, though, while the Klan did win the right to Adopt A Highway, it ultimately wound up failing. The state put up multiple signs that were all almost immediately stolen or destroyed by angry members of the public, according to Potok. After several incidents, the state told the KKK that it would no longer replace the road signs.
DuBose says the Georgia NAACP takes the KKK to be serious in its threat to pursue legal action against the state. We will fight them to the very end, DuBose said, adding that the Georgia NAACP is exploring legal options with the national organization.
We think this case could be won with the public outrage, DuBose said.
If the case isn't won in court, though, the state of Georgia is left with just two options: Allow the KKK's Adopt A Highway sign to be put up (and then probably vandalized and destroyed as in the Missouri case), or discontinue the entire Adopt A Highway program. When the KKK petitioned for an Adopt A Highway sign in Maryland in 1999, the program was ultimately shut down.
The American Civil Liberties Union represented the KKK in the Maryland case, but there is no word yet whether it will become involved on behalf of the Georgia group.
The state of Georgia seems prepared to at least consider getting rid of the Adopt A Highway program. On June 4, the Department of Transportation suspended new application requests to the Adopt A Highway program while it updates its policies and procedures.
The Georgia Department of Transportation may seek to insert content-neutral language into its Adopt A Highway guidelines, which would prevent future applications by the KKK, according to Potok. This kind of language could include requirements that the organization be a registered nonprofit and have a certain minimum membership or other requirements that are not specific to ideology.
Representatives for the KKK did not immediately respond to requests for comment.