As authorities investigate the deadly attack at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Americans are confronting our history of racism and hatred.
The American dream is as enduring as the second line of the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
The American dream is also delicate as hate groups exploit protected freedoms of expression, fostering an attitude of victimhood to justify harming others.
Hate groups provide a simple explanation, a group of “others” is identified and the “enemy” demonized.
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This foul undercurrent has been part of the American political conversation since the earliest days.
The founding fathers wove slavery into the national fabric, leaving it to later generations and a catastrophic Civil War to abolish.
Articles in San Luis Obispo’s earliest newspapers, circa 1868 to 1871, use the N-word, ridicule Chinese immigrants or offer support to the Ku Klux Klan.
Conversations about racism can be difficult, as a a part-time Cuesta College political science teacher discovered more than 35 years ago.
Louis Schwartz invited groups with controversial political viewpoints such as the Communist Party and John Birch Society to speak to his class.
George Pepper, then the California Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan, accepted Schwartz’s invitation in 1982. Community response led to a follow-up presentation a week later by leaders from religious and African-American communities.
Pepper later apologized for belonging to the Klan and left the organization, the Los Angeles Times reported in 1985, saying he did not agree with the group’s philosophy of violence.
The following are excerpts from two stories written by S.E. Seager, edited for clarity and length. The first story was published in The Tribune on Dec. 2, 1982, the second on Dec. 8, 1982.
KKK at Cuesta
The Ku Klux Klan came to Cuesta College today.
Louis Schwartz said he wanted to teach his Cuesta College political science class about the “beauty” of democracy, so he invited George Pepper, the grand dragon for the Invisible Empire for the state of California, to speak to his students.
More than 40 students crammed into the small room — more than half weren’t registered for the class.
Schwartz introduced Pepper as proof positive of the freedom of democracy.
“I want to show you how well democracy works,” Schwartz said. “It’s one of the greatest heritages we have in this country. It is the beauty of it — allowing minority groups to have opposing views.”
Pepper and his fellow klansman, Rev. Gerald Gruidl of Glen Avon, walked into class wearing white robes and cone-shaped white caps. Dark polyester pant legs poked through the bottom of their robes.
The students listened quietly as Pepper spoke for half an hour about the Klan.
Pepper stayed away from the Klan’s traditional platform of racial and religious segregation, and talked about the Klan’s plan to return to political power.
“We call it the Invisible Empire because we are you,” Pepper said. “This is not tied to the American Nazi party. We are for America, God Jesus Christ and a strong defense.”
The hooded klansman would not tell students the number of his membership, but said his group was gathering strength. “We aim to get back into politics,” he told them.
Pepper said President Ronald Reagan’s political party is “exactly the Klan’s ... The Klan endorsed him (Reagan) overwhelmingly.”
Pepper evaded one student’s question about the Klan’s history of lynching blacks in the South as portrayed in Alex Haley’s televised production of “Roots,” saying Haley has been “proven a liar.”
The grand dragon added that most students had been “brainwashed” by the “Jewish-controlled press” and “communist” teachers into believing “lies” about the Klan.
“We want to make America the superpower it was in 1964, before Civil Rights and integration,” Pepper said. “We want segregated schools and a segregated society.”
Students criticized Pepper’s call for total segregation. One student, Alexis Ross, told Pepper, “I disagree with you about segregation. I think it’s the cause of the gang fights. Isn’t it because we are separated that we fear each other and fight?”
A local rabbi, an episcopal minister and a black woman administrator from Cal Poly came to Cuesta College Tuesday to condemn the “falsehoods” and the “serious danger” of the racist views of the Klu Klux Klan.
They were referring to the campus appearance of two white-robed KKK members last week.
Schwartz, who is Jewish, later told his classes “there is no validity in the arguments used by ... the KKK,” but he wanted his students to hear the KKK’s ideology “first-hand.”
He had invited speakers from the Communist Party and the John Birch Society, among others, but said George Pepper, Grand Dragon of the Invisible Empire, was the only one to accept his invitation.
Pepper, of Southern California, came to class with a fellow Klansman.
But in the days that followed the Klan campus appearance, Schwartz said he received a number of phone calls from people (who) were upset at the publicity” the Klansmen received in the local news.
Rabbi Harry Manhoff, of the Congregation Beth David, condemned Pepper for “his half-truths and misrepresentations.”
“His presentation was very simplistic,” Manhoff said. “It is very easy to give simple answers to complex problems.”
Last week Pepper denied that the KKK has a documented history of lynching blacks. He angered students with his evasive answers and insistence that the KKK “is not a hate group” and that the American public had been “brainwashed by the Jewish-controlled media.”
One student, who criticized Pepper for the KKK’s support of South Africa’s severe form of racial segregation, said he became frustrated when Pepper dodged his questions last week.
“We tried to ask him hard questions, but he wouldn’t let us. He was so evasive,” the student said.
Pepper, however, did hand out pamphlets that stated: “Today, many people have experienced the blacks first-hand and have seen the savagery and animalism in many of these people. White people simply will not buy the ‘equality’ propaganda anymore.”
The Rev. Charles Ramsden, of the St. Stephens Episcopal Church, called Pepper’s racism “a kind of a sickness.”
“It’s a kind of a perversity in the human race that we had better work hard to correct.”
Ramsden denied Pepper’s claim that racial and ethnic segregation is advocated in the Bible. “Is it Christian? Absolutely, categorically not,” Ramsden said.
Willie Coleman, assistant director of the Cal Poly activities planning center, said she was angry that the KKK is often treated as a joke.
“I’m not concerned that he (Pepper) was here. I don’t mind that he spoke to a class. But the newspaper made it sound like it was a joke. It is not a joke. Racism is a very serious thing.
Schwartz, who is in his sixties, defended his decision to have the Klan speak in his class.
“The students saw how un-American it was. That it is un-American to discriminate against groups of people. America is the melting pot of the world. It’s a slow process, and we don’t need the Klan to hinder that process,” he said.
Schwartz pointed to the student’s tough questions directed at Pepper and their unwillingness to believe Pepper’s statement that the KKK “is not a hate group.”
“The group could see through the half-truths. I didn’t feel there was a danger of being brainwashed. We had studied about racism before Mr. Pepper came here.
“Bigotry, hate, discrimination and prejudice is found were there is a lack of knowledge,” he told his students. “The purpose of education is to teach you the process of discovering the truth for yourself. An informed populace can safeguard themselves from falsehoods or the big ‘lie.’ “
College President Frank Martinez also made a surprise appearance to the class, and made a brief speech praising Schwartz.
“I’d like to commend you on what you have done. It’s too bad you didn’t have these others present when Mr. Pepper spoke so they could give the other viewpoints.
“But you attempted to present the other sides today, and that’s the beauty of education.”