Is northeast Indiana, and specifically my home community of Auburn, a hotbed of Ku Klux Klan activity?

A Canadian who recently visited Auburn raises that accusation in a letter to the editor, concluding that Auburn is home to “a very active KKK group.”

The letter writer overheard bigoted comments in an Auburn retail store. He then talked to someone who pointed his attention to sketchy, past news reports linking Auburn to the Klan.

I see no evidence whatsoever of Klan activity in Auburn, but those reports keep lingering out there on the internet.

In 2017, the Southern Poverty Law Center reported that the Confederate White Knights of the KKK were based in Auburn, with no evidence of how it reached that conclusion.

However, the SPLC’s most recent report on hate groups no longer lists that organization and makes no mention of Auburn.

News reports in 2016 also connected Auburn to the Klan. According to those stories, fliers turned up in North Carolina, recruiting people to join the The Confederate White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.

A phone number on the recording reportedly encouraged people to send donations to “a private mailbox in Auburn,” a local TV station reported.

That led to a frenzy by news organizations that went way overboard.

One Fort Wayne broadcast outlet spoke of those Klan fliers “making their way around the country,” when in fact they were found in one isolated spot in North Carolina.

A Fort Wayne TV station interviewed Klan Imperial Wizard Richard Preston, who claimed he had “heard from people in Auburn saying they’re happy the Klan is back and asking how they can join.”

The TV news story never mentioned where Preston lives, so its “AUBURN” dateline could have led you to think he lives in Auburn.

An easy internet search reveals that Preston lived in Maryland at the time. Now, he lives in prison. Last year, he was convicted of illegally firing a weapon during that deadly white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, and sentenced to four years behind bars.

Of course, when the Fort Wayne TV reporter asked Preston if the Klan was thriving in Indiana, Preston was happy to answer with an enthusiastic “yes.” One wonders if he could find Auburn on a map.

When a reporter takes at face value anything a Klan leader says, it’s a recipe for inaccuracy.

DeKalb County really did have a Klan leader in the 1990s, I never trusted anything he said, and rarely — if ever — printed it.

Too many reporters are suckers for stories about the Klan. When the late Jeff Berry was staging Klan rallies in Auburn and around the Midwest in the ’90s, other reporters were tripping over themselves to interview him. He fit with their suspicions that all of us Hoosier hicks keep white robes in our closets.

Our newspaper was not going to give Berry a free outlet for his poisonous views.

Putting Jeff Berry on camera to spew hate was bad enough. Finally, one TV news team from Louisville, Kentucky, achieved the utmost in stupidity. Its two members set up an interview with Berry at his house in the tiny burg of Newville.

Even if I’d been dumb enough to interview Berry, I at least would have been smart enough to do it in a safe place.

As the TV news team prepared to leave Berry’s house, his Klan buddies blocked their vehicle. Berry had decided he didn’t like the interview, and he forced the reporters to surrender their videotape.

Once set free, the reporters went straight to the sheriff’s office in Auburn. Berry soon went straight to prison — on a felony conviction for criminal confinement. Without its leader, his Klan organization slithered away.

For all the shame he brought on DeKalb County, Berry did not grow up in the community. He came here because he had committed petty crimes elsewhere, and he avoided going to jail by agreeing to serve as an undercover drug informant in Auburn.

Berry’s clandestine work in the 1980s led to the biggest one-day drug bust in local history, with more than 50 arrests.

With his informant obligation fulfilled, Berry settled here and eventually formed his Klan chapter. Some believed his main motive was making money by selling robes and memberships.

We don’t know who was under those KKK hoods, but we know for sure of only one DeKalb County resident — beyond Berry’s family — who joined his white-sheeted mob. That person later renounced the Klan in a tell-all book.

Do we have Klan members among us now? If so, we haven’t heard a peep out of them. Our experience says when you actually do have a Klan chapter, you’ll be painfully aware of it.

Do we have local residents infected with bigotry? Find me a town that doesn’t. Perhaps bigots exist even in Canada.

As for our letter writer, I promise not to judge his entire hometown by one dimwit I might overhear while eavesdropping.

Dave Kurtz is the executive editor of KPC Media Group newspapers. He may be reached at dkurtz@kpc media.com.

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(1) comment

timzank

Very well written Dave, thank you for being an honest and non "sensational" voice in the media.

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