Brad Hirschfield: Should the KKK be able to adopt a highway?

Jun 13, 2012

A chapter of the Ku Klux Klan in Georgia wants to "adopt" a stretch of highway, but its application has been denied by the state.

Should all people who want to offer volunteer civic service be welcomed to do so, regardless of political and social views? Does denial constitute punishment for their views?

Brad Hirschfield discussed this topic Wednesday at 1 p.m. ET.

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What to do with KKK Clean Up Crews?  Or is that Klean Up Krews? 


Is the notion itself a bunch of garbage, or is this exactly the way that organizations clean up not only their community, but their deservedly terrible reputation?  What say you?


Let's go!

I would never want to join the KKK. But, I would also like to understand the issue. I assume they are doing it to get a sign on the side of the road advertising their name. I wouldn't want to see a bunch of hooded figures cleaning up the side of the road, waving signs, or using it as an opportunity to setup along side of the road while claiming they are just picking up trash. But, I would say the same for any organization. I wouldn't want PETA to adopt a road and using that as an excuse to post their own signs. I assume there are some standards that must be met to maintain status of an adopted highway.

Glad you wouldn't want to join the KKK!  Perhaps it's judgmental of me, but I assume that to be true for anyone reading this.  Actually, I would love to hear from someone who WOULD like to join, or even better, is already a member.


That said, you have identified a key issue in this debate i.e. what we want to see -- that, more than what these kkk'ers want/believe or what the Constitution requires is driving most of this, and I think that is not so good.  One of the things that makes this nation great, and what KKK cannot stand, is the presence of that with which we do not agree.


They would have gotten the same PR benefit that any organization would have gotten -- no more and no less.  That either makes it especially grotesque, given the group's history, or a fair application of the law, and one which rewarded them for doing something positive.  Imagine, they would be cleaning up roads that served white and black together -- sometimes even riding in the same cars!  For the KKK, that's real growth.

There is one thing far worse than the KKK adopting a road and that is government censorhip of ideas. Yes, the KKK is heanous. But their ideas should be ridiculed in public, not banned by the government. Allowing the government the power to censor ideas you do not like is also giving government the power to censor ideas that you do like or even cherish.

I tend to agree, but there are limits.  For example, were their members to stand at the side of the road with arms raised in a "sieg heil" salute, as they are in a number of photos connected to their bid to adopt the road, or wearing uniforms directly linked to inspiring lynchings and worse (though I am not sure what's actually worse), then it would be appropriate to challenge their presence.  The purpose for which they are granted the priviledge of adopting a highway, is cleaning it, not propagandizing alongside it.

Like most reasonable people, I detest racism, but agree that even an entity as abhorrent as the KKK is protected by the first amendment. But this is an entirely different case. I don't want to be reminded on my daily commute about the ignorance of a group of hate-mongers. If they are willing to flip the bill ENTIRELY for the road and NONE of my tax dollars go toward it, fine. But if you use one cent of my taxes to help maintain a hi-way that promotes the KKK, NO WAY! I used to live in Denver and the Neo Nazi Party there has a hi-way (or did) they sponsor, I was so appalled that this was allowed to happen, I called and wrote letters and nothing changed. I was embarrassed that this was allowed to happen, I mean where is the line? Can the North American Man Boy Love Association (NAMBLA) have a hi-way?

For starters, what you want to be reminded of, is really of no consequence.  And before you get to bent out of shape, the same rule applies to me and everybody else.  That's what freedom of speach is all about, as you already recognize.


And the fact that our tax dollars support roads which convey and facilitate the behavior of all sorts of odious behavior, is nothing new.  That's how it is with freedom.


Finally, where "the line" is, is actually not a matter of the views of the sponsoring organization, as SCOTUS ruled some years back, in a simillar case from Missouri.


Your question about NAMBLA however may be a good one because they are organized exclusively to champion something that is not only grotesque and dangerous, but entirely illegal.  One could aregue that as odious as the KKK is, that is not the case, and so they should actually have the opportunity to sponsor a road.  Of course, they would also have to behave in ways that they seem unprepared to do.  And for that reason, they should be excluded.  It's about behavior, not ideas.

No, KKK is a terrorist group. Adopting a highway is a privilege not a right. What would be said if it was an Islamic terrorist group?

They certainly were a terrorist group.  Are they still?  Not so sure.  They are small-minded, fear-driven racists to be sure, but terrorists? 


And the Muslim group question is a great follow up precisely because so many Muslim groups are branded as terrorists simply because they are Muslim or because they don't deal with issues in ways that most of us see as reasonable and wise.  That means they should be called to task for sure, but branded as terrorists?  Having dealt with terrorists myself, I can tell you, we should be very careful with how we use that word.

OK, I know this would be wrong, but if the KKK gets its name on a stretch of highway, I would be incredibly tempted to dump old mattresses, broken appliances and other things that would be a huge nuisance to pick up there.

LOVE IT!  You are sop honest, and I SOOOO share your view -- both that it would be wrong and yet so very tempting.  BTW, the only reason that it would be wrong is because when a group signs up for this, they expect that the garbage they clean is not a penance for the garbage they have spread elsewhere. 


That however raises the possibility -- never explored because nobody is full honest about what they really want (except you), the KKK does want a platform to spread it's ideas, and the state wants to silence those ideas -- would have been to invite them to take charge of cleaning a park in a truly integrated neighborhood.  If they did that, they could "graduate" to the adopt-a-highway program.  Just a thought.

I remember a few years ago I saw a story about this where another state approved the Klan's request, and then renamed the road "Rosa Parks Way", or something like that. Why not do the same thing. Rename that portion of the road "Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd."

You remember well.  It was 2005, and teh case was ouot of Missouri.  The state actually fought the KKK all the way to the US Supreme Court, and lost. 


The renaming was a brilliant move, and should be a part of any response to the Klan.  If they want to clean a road, let it be one which reminds passersby of both their right to think what they choose, and America's obligation to celebrate those who offer a better alternative.

I wonder about having a such a group maintaining the road? As a white person, I would feel very uncomfortable if my car broke down on that section of highway. I can't imagine how uncomfortable a non-white would feel. (Hence, making the drive a bit more unpleasant as well.)

THAT is a great point -- one I never thought have and haven't seen anywhere else. Kudos!


I know, some will say that the volunteer road crews are only their ocassionally, but you are still correct.  Can you imagine the anxiety if your car broke down when they were around, especially if you are a person of color, or a bearded, skullcap-wearing rabbi like me, for that matter.


No, I don't assume that all KKK sympathizers pose an immendiate threat to people's safety, but it's not entirely unreasonable to feel some genuine discomfort given their 150 year history either.

Wow - PETA, Nazis and NAMBLA all within the first couple of posts. Impressive villainy right from the get-go. Of course the KKK should be able to adopt a highway. There are no groups or organizations that everyone agrees with, and if the highway program is open to those who open their wallets or donate time, the KKK should be allowed along with others. There are lots of groups I don't agree with, but if they want to clean up a road, good for them.

You are right that easy analogies meant to tug at heart strings are a poor substitute for reasoned argument.  You are also correct that people should not be barred from civic engagement and community volunteerism, simply because they hold views that most people find odious.


You are also dead wrong to simply equate all organizations based on their willingness to contribute time and money.  When an organization has a century and a half history of intimidation, thuggery and murder, they don't simply get to be thought of as "everybody else".


They need to go a few extra miles (sorry) to demonstrate how they would behave if allowed to adopt a highway -- and to this point they have done everything wrong on that front.  And to be fair, the gov't needs to give them a fair chance to prove that they could actually behave responsibly if they ever did get to adopt.  That doesn't seem to have happened here, and you are correct about that being a problem.

Any group that can be defined as a terrorism group should not be allowed to have their name on a public service project/sign.

Agreed.  Of course, that begs the question: is the KKK of 2012 a terrorist group or simply a group brought together by a set of foolish to ugly political and social theories?


Again, even if it's "only" the latter, they do not get a free pass, but neither should they get an automatic denial.

...but how can we say no? They are a terrible group and I think most would agree stand for terrible things, but how can we keep them from doing good volunteer work just because we disagree with them? Especially the state!

if they plan to do more than simply clean up, as it appears they do, then we can say "no".  in fact, that is the state's job.


This quote by local kkk member, Harley Hanson, indicates that in fact, they were there to do much more and much worse than simply clean up: 

“It was not just to warn people, ‘Hey, the KKK lives next door,’ but to do some good for the community.”



A comedy writer posted this: the KKK should be allowed to sponsor the highway, as long as they agree to pick up the white trash

That's very funny, but the image of Klansmen trying to pick themselves up is especially intriguing -- like one of those old m.c. escher prints...

If GA had just given the KKK a road side to clean, then the KKK would not have gotten all of this media attention. They already have adopted road sides in other states, so GA knew that there was precedent for it.

No, they -- the kkk -- would have gotten a differnt kind of PR, the kind that comes from having the roadside sign announcing their having adopted the highway.


Also, I think that ignoring these things in hopes that they will just go away is dangerously naive.  History demonstrates that over and over again.


You are certainly correct that the state could have handled this better.  Simply denying them the opportunity, rather than figuring ground rules that would test their committment to real civic service and their willingness not to exploit the opportunity, and then combinig it with renaming of the road, etc.  was a lost opportunity to smoke out a potentially still-dangerous group and do some good public education regarding the ongoing challenges of racism and hatred.

If I was thinking of moving to that area, I'd appreciate the head's up that there are KKK people in the area. The sign is a handy danger sign! Keep away!

You probably meant that as joke, and it did make me smile, but that is exactly what the Klan wants, and exactly why this was so problematic.  If this was just about hauling trash, then I would actually say, "go for it!"  "Do some good for a change".


But as their comments and promotional pictures indicated, this was about balkanizing the community, which is their desire and is both ugly and illegal.  Noboy should have to stay away from any part of this country simply because of their race, ethnicity or relgion.  I know, it happens all the time already, but that leaves us with two choices:


1.  accept this as a part of life and move on.

2. respond carefully and intelligently to each challenge to a healthier society in which human dignity and safety are not based on the color of one's skin, or the beliefs in their heart.


I think the right choice is clear.  Ironically, it will lead to a bit more voice for the Klan, at least sometimes, and a lot more voice for those who oppose them.  A good bargain, I think

Okay, that's it for this week.  Thanks for so many wonderful comments and great questions.


Don't forget that we can continue this conversation if you find me on facebook and follow me on twitter @bradhirschfied.


'til next week,


In This Chat
Brad Hirschfield
Rabbi Brad Hirschfield is an author, radio and TV talk show host, and President of CLAL-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. His On Faith blog, For God's Sake, explores the uses and abuses of religion in politics and pop culture. He wrote "You Don't Have To Be Wrong For Me To Be Right: Finding Faith Without Fanaticism." Named as one of the nation's 50 most influential rabbis in Newsweek, and one of the top 30 "Preachers and Teachers" by, he is the creator of the popular series, Building Bridges, airing on Bridges TV, and co-host of the weekly radio show, Hirschfield and Kula: Intelligent Talk Radio. For more information see
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