African American Leaders, ACLU of Maryland Say County Should Let Klan Join "Adopt-A-Road" Program

March 8, 1999 12:00 am

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Monday, March 8, 1999

BALTIMORE–Leaders of local African American rights groups joined with the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland today in calling on county officials not to shut down its “Adopt-A-Road” anti-litter program just to avoid having the Ku Klux Klan participate.

In return for picking up roadside trash, groups are recognized in signposts along sections of the road. Klan members have asked to join, saying they would want a sign to credit “The Invisible Empire.”

After the Klan made its request last September, Anne Arundel County officials stopped accepting applications for the program. In response to an inquiry from the ACLU, officials said that the program had been suspended because a controversial group had applied to participate.

The ACLU said that the only way the county could avoid letting the Klan participate and post a sponsorship sign would be to shut the program down completely. That, say the civil rights organizations, would give the Klan too much power.

Robert Eades, Chair of the African American Unity Coalition, said he thinks that it’s better to let the light of day shine on the Klan. “If they’re out there along the roadside picking up trash, then I and my kids know what they’re up to. I don’t want to sweep them under the rug.”

Michael Brown, Chair of the Black Political Forum of Anne Arundel County, agreed. “I’m not upset by some guy with a robe out there picking up trash,” he said. “I’m more upset by the guys higher up who have shut the door to the political process for African Americans in the County.” Brown noted that none of the County Executive’s cabinet or the county’s legislative delegation are African American.

“This is really not about the Klan at all, it’s about free speech rights for all of us,” said Susan Goering, Executive Director of the ACLU of Maryland. “As Herbert Lindsey, President of the State NAACP, so eloquently pointed out, while most African Americans find the Klan and its message absolutely repugnant, Ôwe are a nation of rules and laws’ and the program should therefore be open to the Klan, too.”

In September 1998, under the previous County Executive’s administration, a Ku Klux Klan organization applied to participate in the Adopt-A-Road Program, which involves a group cleaning a designated section of a county road and the county erecting a sign indicating the group responsible for cleaning the road. The following month, the Anne Arundel County government suspended new applications for the program.

On March 4, 1999, the ACLU sent a letter to County Executive Janet Owens asking her to reevaluate the Ku Klux Klan group’s application. The letter noted that “[i]t is a fundamental principle of American law that government may not exclude an organization from participating in a program based on disagreement with that organization’s viewpoint.”

The letter also noted that in 1992, a federal district court held that Arkansas could not prohibit a KKK group from participating in that state’s adopt-a highway program. Anne Arundel County must therefore allow any qualified group to participate in the Program or it must eliminate the Program entirely.

“If the government excludes groups that it considers controversial, where will it end?” asked the ACLU’s Goering. “What if a pro-choice or anti-abortion rights group had applied to participate in the program? Or a pro- or anti-gay rights group? Or the Nation of Islam? Would Anne Arundel County have told them they can’t because they’re too controversial?”

“The First Amendment doesn’t allow the government to draw those kinds of conclusions. And in the end, that’s good for all of us.”

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