News / 

Window on the Klan: Controversial play set in '40s to be read today

Save Story

Estimated read time: 5-6 minutes

This archived news story is available only for your personal, non-commercial use. Information in the story may be outdated or superseded by additional information. Reading or replaying the story in its archived form does not constitute a republication of the story.

The old black woman lives at the end of what used to be a dirt road in a squat house with a screened front porch and a clear view of the overgrown pasture across the way.

When Catherine Johnson, 71, was a child, she would sit on the porch and watch buses and hundreds of cars rumble by, roiling up red dust on hot September nights.

The road was the only way in for thousands of white-robed Ku Klux Klansmen coming from as far away as Ohio and Illinois to the annual KKK rally in the pasture near the foot of Stone Mountain.

"I could see the crosses burning and I could hear all the words they would use, the N-word and the hate words, and I would listen until I got tired of listening," Johnson recalled this week, dabbing her brow as she sat on the same porch and looked across what is now a paved Lucille Avenue in the Shermantown neighborhood. "Then I would go inside and turn on music to listen to that instead."

The large and pervasive "Invisible Empire," as the Klan was known then, has shrunk to relatively nothing now. The last Klan rally in the pasture was about 15 years ago, townspeople say, and even then it was less a threat than a curiosity.

But the torch-lit "Klonvocations," as they were called, laced with hate-filled oratory that boomed through loudspeakers, will be remembered today in two readings of Atlanta playwright Calvin Ramsey's work "Shermantown --- Baseball, Apple Pie and the Klan." Ramsey, 55, will read his 61-page work at 3 and 8 p.m. at the Cathedral of the Holy Spirit church on Flat Shoals Parkway.

The play, set on the night of a Klan rally in 1940, ignited controversy last month when ART Station, the Stone Mountain theater that had agreed to stage the reading, pulled out.

Theater Director David Thomas said the opening monologue by James Venable, the Klan leader who lived in Stone Mountain and died in 1993, was too incendiary and might fracture relations between blacks and whites in Stone Mountain, now about 70 percent black.

The monologue is "not only racy, it's inciting, and slanderous about Jews and Catholics," Thomas said. He was supported by the theater's board of directors. With the help of the DeKalb History Center, which is funding the reading and continued to support it, Ramsey found a new location.

Fears that the play will reopen old wounds are unfounded, he said. "This play isn't just about the KKK," Ramsey said. "It's about how the black community of Shermantown learned to peacefully coexist with the Klan and the annual rallies."

Johnson, who lived all those years across the road from the rallies, said she never harbored ill will toward Venable, because the Klansmen never, in her recollection, threatened or hurt blacks in her neighborhood.

"Mr. Venable was always good to us," she said. "He let blacks live in houses on land and didn't charge them rent. They just had to pay for their electricity."

The Ku Klux Klan was founded shortly after the Civil War in Pulaski, Tenn., but had all but disappeared when it was reborn on Thanksgiving night 1915, in an infamous cross-burning ceremony atop Stone Mountain. Over the next half-century, Klansmen staged the fiery rallies --- intended to recruit new members and terrorize blacks and the Klan's new targets, Jews, Catholics and Communists --- in the name of Christian white supremacy.

During the group's heyday, from the 1920s until the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the annual Stone Mountain rally was attended by thousands who were so welcome that railroads offered discount fares.

In 1946, the mining company that owned Stone Mountain banished the KKK, and Venable moved the proceedings to the horse pasture he owned in Shermantown.

Writer Stetson Kennedy infiltrated the KKK as a 27-year-old investigative reporter. In his 1954 book "I Rode With the Ku Klux Klan," he described being initiated into the group at a Stone Mountain rally in the early 1940s.

What struck Kennedy was the insidiousness of the "Invisible Empire" in the South, where the group was such a fixture of the status quo that the late former Georgia governor and U.S. senator Herman Talmadge once claimed that every governor before him and his father, Gov. Eugene Talmadge, had belonged to the KKK.

Kennedy described riding in a motorcade of Klansmen. When they got to an intersection in Stone Mountain, a Klansman in a white robe was directing traffic with great expertise. "Looking down at his feet," he wrote, "I saw the trousers of a police uniform protruding from beneath his Klan robe."

Kennedy described "thousands" of Klansmen gathered in the pasture "in lines three deep, with arms interlocked." He wrote that their behavior ranged from menacing to buffoonish.

One minute the Klansmen were howling hate-filled epithets; the next they were giving each left-handed "fish-wiggle" handshakes and drinking from jars of moonshine.

Kennedy, 88, said last week from his home in Jacksonville that he feared for his life after he turned over information he gathered to Fulton County authorities because he witnessed the killing of at least one black man whose death authorities attributed to a hit-and-run accident. But nothing came of the threats, he said, and today he considers the group nonexistent.

"The real threat are the unrobed Klan in the halls of government," said Kennedy, who is putting finishing touches on his memoirs, with the working title "Dissident at Large."

Former Stone Mountain Mayor Chuck Burris --- the only black mayor in the city's history, who was defeated in 2001 after one term --- takes credit for halting the Klan rallies.

Burris, who lives in Venable's brick-and-granite former home in town, said that when he was elected to the City Council in 1991, a rumor went around that he was going to change the name of Venable Street in Shermantown to Martin Luther King Street.

Burris said Venable's daughter called and asked him not to change the street name, because it was important to her father, whose health was failing. "I told her we wouldn't change the name if they canceled those rallies in their pasture," Burris said last week. "That was the end of it."

Copyright 2005 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Most recent News stories


Get informative articles and interesting stories delivered to your inbox weekly. Subscribe to the Trending 5.
By subscribing, you acknowledge and agree to's Terms of Use and Privacy Policy.

KSL Weather Forecast