When a Jew became an honorary member of the Ku Klux Klan

A new painting in Austin attacks racism while highlighting it.

I‘m looking at a 30-foot-long painting at an Austin art museum depicting a modern-day meeting — and my heart is racing. Powerful art stirs powerful emotions and memories.

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The hooded misfits staring at me from the mural by Houston artist Vincent Valdez look like past Klansmen I‘ve known.

Forty years ago, when I was a young reporter, I somehow ended up interviewing Imperial Wizard James Venable, head of the national KKK.

It was good training to become a watchdog reporter later on. Listening to men who hate helped me learn how to pursue crooks, bad guys and evildoers.

We met in his law office in Stone Mountain, Ga., home of a monument to Confederate generals built into the side of a mountain and also the birthplace of the 20th century Klan.

At the end of my visit, the wizard, as was his custom, gave me an honorary KKK membership card.

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Several years later, for another newspaper story, I used the card as an entry to meet leaders of the West Virginia KKK. When I arrived with my photographer, Bill Tiernan, two hooded men waited on the front porch.

They asked for ID. You know which card I gave them.

They took it inside to show the grand dragon, who called the wizard in Georgia. But Venable, then in his early 80s, didn‘t remember me. That‘s when my problems started.

I went to see the Klan because I shouldn‘t have. I‘m a Jewish boy from Manhattan, the opposite of a suspicious West Virginia grand dragon or a Confederate-loving imperial wizard. Yet from these two, and their hangers-on, I heard enough racist bile to last a lifetime.

I was given the high honor of holding a press card representing a newspaper. That allowed me to invite myself into people‘s lives and ask questions. I adopted "going where I‘m not supposed to go" as one of my work mantras.

Spike Lee‘s wonderful new movie, "BlacKkKlansman," is about a black detective and a Jewish detective who infiltrate the Klan. The same mantra.

I was off to see the wizard (not many can say that) because, as a 21-year-old summer intern in 1978, I was assigned to write a story in the old Atlanta Journal about the Klan‘s former headquarters. It was then a bland apartment complex. My job was to tell its story.

Venable, the wizard, helped me do it. He remembered the building, where workers churned out robes and hoods by the thousands.

He was a confused man of many contradictions.

As a lawyer, he told me, he defended African-American clients, even members of the Black Muslims group "because they were willing to pay."

When I asked what he thought of people like me, he answered, "My daughter married a Jew" — and then went on a rant ("Money is power") about my tribe.

When he put on his robe for a photograph, I noticed that his title was spelled wrong on the back.

Wizzard.

"I know it‘s spelled wrong, but I couldn‘t do nothing ‘cause it was too late when I noticed," he told me.

He gave me the honorary card.

I remember taking it home and where it asked for an expiration date, I wrote "Doomsday."

Five years later, the guys from the West Virginia KKK didn‘t think that was so funny.

"Mr. Venable doesn‘t remember you," one of the West Virginia Klansmen told me.

"Of course, he doesn‘t," I replied, in as strong a voice as I could muster. "He‘s like 80 something years old. I met him in Stone Mountain."

I sensed my photographer, Bill, was uncomfortable. Suddenly, the harsh New Yorker in me took over. I started ordering them around.

"Take off your hoods!" I demanded.

"What?"

"I said, ‘Everybody take off your hoods.‘ Let‘s look each other in the eye and talk. And then Bill can do his job."

Nobody moved except Bill, who was inching closer to our car.

I repeated: "Come on, guys. Take them off and let‘s do this interview."

To my surprise, they took them off.

But for Bill‘s picture, some put them back on.

In the interview I asked if it were true that they had donned their robes and hoods to drive to a coal mine where they ordered a political candidate from the Socialist Workers Party to stop campaigning at shift change.

"This is Klan country," they supposedly said. The campaigners fled.

Grand Dragon Edward Richards confirmed the story. "The members wore their robes down there so people would know," he said.

But to show their heart, he explained that one fleeing campaigner couldn‘t get his car started.

"The rest of them ran off, but the Klan helped one so he could get out of the hollow."

Valdez‘s painting, The City 1, is debuting at the Blanton Museum of Art in Austin. It shows 13 hooded Klansmen, 14 if you count the hooded baby. They‘re looking at you — me — as if we‘ve stumbled upon something we shouldn‘t be seeing.

An induction ceremony? A cross-burning? A lynching? Hard to tell, but from their angry, fearful eyes poking through their hoods, you can see this is not a place to be.

The artist says in a video playing near the painting that his theme is that "racism and discrimination are part of ordinary life."

From the days when the Klan ruled, a century ago, he insists, "We really haven‘t changed that much."

"Underneath those hoods are common, ordinary Americans."

The museum posts a warning about the painting by the entryway: "The KKK has a long history of violent acts and intimidation targeting African Americans as well as Mexican Americans, immigrants, gays and lesbians, Jews, and Catholics.

"The artist, Vincent Valdez, conceived the work to condemn racism, both now and as part of our history."

The painting, it adds, "may elicit strong emotions."

I‘ll say. Powerful art stirs powerful emotions and memories.

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