By Laura Zuckerman
(Reuters) - The head of a Wyoming office of the NAACP is defending talks with a Ku Klux Klan activist, the first known meeting between the oldest civil rights group in the United States and a branch of the white supremacist network.
Jimmy Simmons, president of the NAACP in Casper, Wyoming, said on Wednesday he opened discussions with John Abarr of the United Klans of America because that group has renounced violence and because he felt the best way to gain insight into hate crimes was "to go to a hater."
The meeting took place under heavy security on Saturday at a hotel in Casper and was criticized by other civil rights organizations such as the Southern Poverty Law Center.
"It's utterly counterproductive," said Mark Potok, senior fellow at the nonprofit center. "This in effect gives unmerited legitimacy to the racist right, and I don't see how any good can come of it."
Civil rights experts said they could not recall any previous meeting between the National Association for the Advancement Colored People (NAACP) and a branch of the Klan, which has long been associated with hooded, robed night-riders who menaced blacks in the Deep South with cross burnings, lynchings and other acts of violence.
The meeting ended with Abarr paying $30 to join the NAACP, plus a $20 donation.
Simmons said that publicity over the meeting has helped focus much-needed attention on racial slurs and attacks targeting black men who are dating or married to white women in the northeastern Wyoming city of Gillette.
Simmons said he began receiving reports of hate-based crimes against black men in the heart of Wyoming's coal country about seven years ago, but the issue had failed to gain traction with local authorities.
The Gillette Police Department did not respond to several requests for comment on Wednesday. The Casper Star-Tribune newspaper cited police department reports of 10 hate or bias crimes over the past five years, none of them involving assaults on black people.
The issue of race-based harassment came to the fore again last fall when Klan pamphlets were distributed in Gillette neighborhoods, Simmons said.
"This pattern emerged and reemerged. We needed to do something out of the box. To better understand hate language and hate crimes, we opted to go to a hater," he said.
Simmons first contacted Abarr, a Montana organizer for the United Klans of America, in May, and subsequent periodic communications culminated in Saturday's meeting of Abarr, Simmons and three other officers of the Casper NAACP.
As recounted by Simmons, Abarr told them the United Klans of America was seeking to recast itself in the image of an organization like the NAACP, but with an agenda focused on white rights, pride and history, and the aim of establishing white separatists enclaves in states with predominantly Caucasian populations, such as Wyoming, Montana and Idaho.
"They are trying to shed the skin of violence, but they still want a white nation, and people of color are not welcome to join," said Simmons, 61, who has served as head of the Casper NAACP for 13 years.
Abarr and the Alabama-based United Klans of America did not respond to requests for comment on Wednesday.
Abarr was quoted in the Casper Star-Tribune earlier this week as insisting the Klan, despite its adherence to white supremacy and racial separation, does not condone hate violence.
"What I like to do is recruit really radical kids, then calm them down after they join," he was quoted as telling NAACP officials during their meeting. "I like it because you wear robes, and get out and light crosses, and have secret handshakes. I like being in the Klan - I sort of like it that people think I'm some sort of outlaw."
The newspaper also said Abarr, despite agreeing to sign up as a member of the NAACP, declined to ask if any of the NAACP members present wished to join the KKK.
"You have to be white to join the Klan," he said.
According to literature on its website, the group encourages its white-only members to separate themselves from other races, to seek "white fellowship," and to stop supporting minority-owned businesses and wear Confederate apparel.
The Southern Poverty Law Center's Potok said he was incredulous about a "kinder, gentler klan," though he characterized contemporary members of the KKK as a far less vicious than their predecessors.
The Ku Klux Klan has seen a sharp decline in members compared with its original heyday during the era of Reconstruction following the U.S. Civil War, and a resurgence in the 1920s, Potok said.
The Klan flourished again after World War Two and violently opposed the civil rights movement of the 1950s and '60s.
The KKK has fragmented into about 30 different klans in the United States, operating 163 local "klaverns" with fewer than 6,000 members nationwide, Potok said.
Abarr was the campaign manager in 1989 for a white nationalist, William Daniel Johnson, who ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. House of Representatives seat in Wyoming vacated by Dick Cheney when he was appointed Secretary of Defense during the presidency of George H.W. Bush, Potok said.
Johnson proposed an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that sought to deport blacks and other people of color from the United States, he said.
"It's hard for me to believe the KKK is all about white pride," Simmons said, "since we know it's a group that historically has been synonymous with violence."
(Reporting by Laura Zuckerman; Editing by Steve Gorman and Grant McCool)