Georgia's Department of Transportation "manages 18,000 miles of primary and secondary highways and tollways, spends millions every year cleaning up roadside trash, and needs all the help it can get," says Eric Lach at Talking Points Memo. But even in this era of budget crunches, the Peach State's transportation department isn't sure it wants help from one particular group that has applied to keep a mile of northern Georgia's Route 515 clean through the state's "Adopt-a-Highway" program: The Ku Klux Klan. Here's what you should know:
What does the KKK want?
The International Keystone Knights of the KKK says they are just trying to keep a corner of Appalachia trash-free. "I live in the mountains and I want to keep them beautiful," the KKK group's secretary, April Chambers, tells the AP. "I don't know why anybody's offended by it." It's a question of public service, Harley Hanson, the Georgia Klan group's "exalted cyclops," tells Talking Points Memo. "We try to do charities," and keeping a mile of road clean "gives our members something to do every other month or so."
What's at stake?
Along with clean roads, the Klan would get a sign along Route 515 proclaiming the civic-mindedness of "IKK Realm of the GA Ku Klux Klan." In other words, the KKK is trying to make the government let them "plant their name on one of its public highways in the home of Martin Luther King Jr. and Jimmy Carter," state Rep. Tyrone Brooks (D) tells the AP. That's "insulting and "insane." And it smacks of a publicity stunt, says Mark Potok at the Southern Poverty Law Center. "This is simply another attempt by the Klan to somehow portray itself as a kinder, gentler group rather than the terrorist organization that it has historically been."
Can Georgia legally stop them?
It looks unlikely. The Georgia DOT says "any civic-minded organization, business, individual, family, city, county, state, or federal agency is welcome to volunteer in the Georgia Adopt-A-Highway program," and the KKK is "very likely to win a court battle," should it come to that, says the SPLC's Potok. "State agencies can issue regulations regarding things like this but they have to be neutral toward ideology." Legal precedent also favors the Klan: In 2005, Missouri lost a long, costly battle to keep the KKK from adopting stretches of its highways, when federal courts ruled that the Klan had a First Amendment right to participate and the Supreme Court declined to intervene.
Should Georgia even try to stop the Klan?
No, exalted cyclops Harley Hanson tells TPM. "It's just like seeing a sign that says First Baptist Church to an atheist.... You may not support them and you may not like what they do, but if they're out there trying to do something good for the community, I don't see what the big issue is." State Rep. Brooks disagrees. Unlike Baptists, the Klan tried to kill black Americans during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, he tells The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "What's next, are we going to let Neo-Nazis or the Taliban or al Qaeda adopt highways?"
What happens next?
Probably a lawsuit. The KKK says it will sue if Georgia says no, and Brooks says his group will sue if the state says yes. But Georgia does have one other option: End the 23-year-old program. That would be unpopular with stretched state agencies, and likely the 173 active organizations and 4,100 individuals participating in Georgia's Adopt-a-Highway program. But maybe abolishing it is the best option, Brooks tells the AP. If the program helps legitimize the Klan, "it's not worth it."
Editor's note: After this story was published, the Georgia Department of Transportation rejected the KKK's request to adopt the stretch of highway in north Georgia.
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