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Photo Exhibit of 21st Century Ku Klux Klan Stirs Emotions at University of Southern Mississippi

By Rhonda Miller | Published 16 Apr 2011 02:08pm | comments
Photojournalist James Edward Bates talks with students at USM in Hattiesburg.

Images of pointed white hoods and cross burnings in Mississippi are not from decades ago. MPB’s Rhonda Miller reports a photo exhibit opening April 18 at the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg is making some people nervous.

Maybe it’s the video with Ku Klux Klan members screaming, “White Power.” Or images of hooded Klansmen at a cross burning.

But when 20-year-old African-American student Brad Kirkham found out the black-and-white photos were taken recently, he was rattled. He asked the photographer, “So are they planning to attack any time soon?”

Photojournalist James Edward Bates answered that he hasn’t seen any violent acts in the 13 years he’s been photographing the Klan.

But Kirkham, a film major from Laurel, is only partly comforted.

"I learned something new today, because I didn’t know it still existed. So, I mean, it woke my eyes up and my ears up to, I guess, the racism that’s still hidden in America," Kirkham said.

Photographer James Bates is a graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi. His project is "Passing the Torch: Documenting the 21st Century Ku Klux Klan."

It’s been shown in Europe, but no gallery in the United States was willing to exhibit the work until his alma mater rose to the challenge. At a preview of the exhibit for communications students, Bates says he knows the photos are controversial.

"I’ve been threatened with my life twice. One time was in Simpson County, Mississippi, where a Klansman pulled a rifle on me. He was upset over the photograph of his child with a hanging black doll," Bates said.

The father was standing next to him when the photo was taken, but got upset about it later, after Bates published it with a caption describing what was going on.

"A local Klansman at this gathering had picked up an African-American doll and the adults had shown the kids why it was important to hang black people," Bates said.

Bates is from McComb and witnessed racial tension there in the 70s, 80s and 90s. His curiosity about what causes racism fuels this project.

"Most that I’ve dealt with aren’t afraid to let people around them know they’re in the Klan," Bates said. "Now there are some people who don’t want to be photographed without their mask on."

Christopher Campbell, Director of the School of Mass Communication and Journalism at Southern Miss, said objections to the exhibit were dealt with up front.

"Why do we even gotta be exposed to this stuff?" Campbell said some people ask. "Our reaction to that is, this does exist. We’re not going to end racism and racial animosity and the existence of hate groups if we pretend they don’t exist."

Campbell said the exhibit opens the door to dialogue, even when the location makes it sensitive.

"The Klan in Hattiesburg, historically, did incredible damage," Campbell said. "So I think for folks who lived through the civil rights era in Hattiesburg, to hear about a photo exhibit of the Klan on campus, that’s going to be controversial."

Assistant journalism professor Cheryl Jenkins is from Laurel. Jenkins says it’s important to show the powerful images, even though they may stir up troubling memories for local people.

"My grandmother is still living and she actually witnessed a lynching," Jenkins said. "What’s most disturbing is that these are 21st Century images, though we are supposedly post-racial America."

Many students are disturbed by a photo taken inside the home of a Klan family. The mother and father are fitting a four-year-old boy with a Klan robe.

"It’s like he’s still drinking a bottle. But yet he’s getting trained to be influenced as a Ku Klux Klan member," said 19-year-old Ivana King of New Orleans. "And we wonder why racism and things are still going on. This is because children have been trained to actually hate."

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Photojournalist James Edward Bates talks with students at USM in Hattiesburg.


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