May 22, 2003 News » Cover Story

When the Klan came to town 

The year was 1992. In Colorado Springs economic conditions -- which had taken a downturn in the late '80s -- remained bad. To counter low employment, the Economic Development Corporation actively recruited Christian fundamentalist employers to move to town.

The Human Relations Commission (HRC) had proposed inclusion of gays in a new Human Relations Ordinance. Then-Mayor Bob Isaac and members of a conservative City Council were not pleased. A citizens group that would later become Colorado for Family Values (CFV) formed to oppose including gays (many of whom subsequently asked the HRC to remove their inclusion from it so as not to doom the proposal). The HRC complied with the request.

Unsatisfied, CFV, and, therefore, the majority of Council, opposed the ordinance. Spurred on by success, CFV grew under the leadership of car dealer Will Perkins to offer the discriminatory initiative that would become known as Amendment 2. A vote was scheduled for the fall.

Minorities, meanwhile, were beginning to sound alarms of concern, feeling largely ignored. Unemployed and underemployed, they argued that they were being socially and economically oppressed. They called for a meaningful HRC and an ordinance. Council worked to diminish the Commission, ignoring those calls.

Sean Slater, a leader of the Ku Klux Klan in Colorado, had been holding rallies in Denver and Aurora. One of the most notable, in Denver, turned into a riot, suiting Slater fine. He looked to Colorado Springs. Seeing racial tensions, anti-gay activities and a rising numbers of right-wing organizations, Slater determined to hold a "Recruitment Rally" here in mid-July.

Minorities and their allies were stirred to action. Council wanted to ignore the rally, and refused to pass a resolution condemning the Klan. The HRC (already on Council's hit list), and supporters, wanted a strong condemnation. An emotional battle raged throughout May, June and early July. Isaac opposed the condemnation while then-Councilman John Hazlehurst supported it.

A strategy developed among social justice groups. Other events were to be held at the same time as the rally, so as to encourage people to ignore the Klan rally.

As the date neared, the battle over the resolution of condemnation by Council grew more vocal. Isaac blasted the HRC for its persistence. Hazlehurst continued to fight for its passage. Among Council members who opposed the resolution were Randy Purvis and Larry Small (who both returned in 2003 to Council). Also in opposition to the resolution was David White, who opposed the HRC and who, after leaving Council, would be appointed to it and ultimately helped bring about its demise.

Then-Councilwoman Mary Lou Makepeace offered a compromise that urged people to participate in events of the day promoting community harmony but not mentioning the Klan. It passed unanimously but was viewed by most of the community as a failure to take definitive action to denounce the Klan.

Activities went on much as planned. It seemed there were more police than Klan participants. About 250 spectators jeered the Klan. Thousands attended alternative events. The day ended peacefully.

The split between Council and the HRC, begun over inclusion of sexual orientation in their discussions for an ordinance and continued during this debate, made totally ineffective that much-needed Commission. Further, the perception among minorities that racism was rampant in Colorado Springs had been re-enforced by Council's failure to denounce the Klan.

The mood was set. What could be described as the "Dark Ages" in Colorado Springs had begun. The next half dozen years would become identified for their acrimonious atmosphere. Not until Amendment 2 was overturned in 1996, a moderate Council was elected and the "Zero Tolerance" for discrimination policy was adopted would the tide begin to turn. The "Makepeace Years" would see the healing of many wounds.

The city still has no Human Relations Commission -- nor does it have an ordinance. Further, a move to the right in the recent Council election may foreshadow a loss of the gains made in the "Makepeace" era, especially in the areas of social justice.

Certainly the recent passage of the "second most important" item in the Rivera agenda, the reversal of domestic partner benefits for the city's gay employees, does not forebode well for the next several years.

-- Frank Whitworth is a lifelong community activist.


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