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Hello, ACLU? KKK wants to adopt a Georgia highway, state said no

June 14, 2012|By Laura J. Nelson
  • Members of the International Keystone Knights Realm of Georgia perform a traditional Klan salute along the portion of highway they want to adopt near Blairsville, Ga.
Members of the International Keystone Knights Realm of Georgia perform… (Curtis Compton / Atlanta…)

The Ku Klux Klan’s reputation may be dirty, but it apparently likes clean highways.

After the Georgia Department of Transportation rejected a local KKK chapter’s Adopt-A-Highway application this week amid outrage from social activists, the group’s leader cried foul and sought the help of the American Civil Liberties Union.

"We just want to clean up the doggone road," Harley Hanson, 34, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. (His official title: exalted cyclops of the Realm of Georgia.) “We’re not going to be out there in robes.”

In a statement, the Georgia Department of Transportation cited the KKK’s history of social unrest and civil disturbance. Allowing the group to participate could harm Georgia’s image, they said. And that Adopt-A-Highway sign that would be out on Route 515, with the KKK’s name on it? That would be “a definite distraction to motorists.”

ACLU of Georgia has begun reviewing the facts, executive director Debbie Seagraves said, and will decide next week whether to take the case. She said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times that no matter how upsetting the group's message may be, the KKK has as much right as anyone to pick up trash off the highway.

“Is their message often offensive and obnoxious? Yes. Is that a reason for the government to limit their rights of participation? No,” Seagraves told The Times.

The Klan originated during Reconstruction as a violent vigilante group that intimidated Southern blacks with lynchings and cross burnings, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit organization that studies hate groups. Klan membership was once estimated in the millions. Now, the SPLC estimates, that number is below 8,000.

The application would give the KKK’s International Keystone Knights official recognition to keep a mile-long stretch of highway in the Appalachian Mountains free of litter. They would be required to clean up both sides of the road at least four times a year for two years.

Should the ACLU decide to take the case, the organization will contact the Department of Transportation, Seagraves said, giving the department a pre-determined amount of time to respond. Should the conflict come to a lawsuit, the KKK has solid federal precedent, Seagraves said.

In 2005, a Missouri chapter of the KKK applied for a similar highway program, Seagraves said. When the state rejected its application, the KKK took the case to the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals. The court ruled that the state could not exclude the Klan because of disagreement over political beliefs. Missouri appealed, but the  U.S. Supreme Court  declined to hear the case.

With its long legal battle still fresh, Missouri found a different way to fight back against another controversial group. When the National Socialist Movement, a neo-Nazi organization, adopted a half-mile stretch of highway, the state renamed the road after a Jewish theologian.

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Follow Laura on Twitter or Google+. Email: laura.nelson@latimes.com

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