Flaming Cross

Flaming Cross

by Carl Carmer

a selection from Stars Fell on Alabama (1934)


We heard them coming long before we saw them — three distant high blasts of a bugle, then a drop of a minor third on a long wailing note.

     “It’s the Ku Klux,” said Knox. “They’re havin’ a parade tonight. Goin’ to burn a cross out at Riverside.” He settled back in his porch chair and sipped his julep.

     “I want to go,” I said, teetering dangerously on the porch rail. “Can anybody go — even Yankees?”

     “Anybody can go. But why anybody would want to—“

     “I’m surprised you ain’t out there with ‘em,” said the judge chuckling, his white head bobbing up and down. “Didn’t they get your sheets washed in time?”

     “You know damn well why I’m not with ‘em, judge.” The ice in Knox’s glass tinkled violently. “When they came to me I said: ‘My grandfather was the boss of the real Ku Klux in this section when there was some reason for it. This club you’ve got here hasn’t got as much relation to it as the Boy Scouts. Besides I may get mad enough some day to want to hurt somebody and if I do I want to do it like a man and not with my face hid behind a mask.’ I haven’t heard from ‘em since.”

     “Better watch your step,” said the judge. “They may catch you out tryin’ to kiss a pretty co-ed some night.”

     “I’d try to kill some of ‘em before I’d let ‘em touch me. The sight of those white sheets does somethin’ to me — gets my blood boilin’.” Knox stood up and walked to the end of the gallery. “Look at the bastards,” he said.

     Beneath the tall elms on Queen City Avenue rode three horsemen robed in white. As they passed the black background of the big tree trunks the moonlight picked them out distinctly. One of them raised a bugle and again the minor four-note call sounded. Behind the mounted trio stretched a long column of marching white figures, two and two, like an army of coupled ghosts, their shapeless flopping garments tossing up and down in the still night air.

     An automobile drove up and backed into the drive, throwing its headlights on the rhythmically swaying lines.

     “Come along to the street,” said Knox, “I want to show you something.” We went down the steps and out the walk.

     “Look,” he said, “can you see their shoes? They tell a lot.”

     Moving under the edges of the white robes were pants-leg ends and shoes, hundreds of them. A pair that buttoned and had cloth tops, a heavy laced pair splashed with mud, canvas sneakers, congress gaiters — a yellow pair with knobby toes swung past. At the very end a long figure in sturdy grained oxfords, his sheet twisted awry, stepped gingerly — a little uncertainly. Knox laughed.

     “I reckon I know who that is,” he said, “poor devil. Let’s go finish our drinks and then, if you’re still insistin’, we’ll have a look at their damned cross.”

     An hour later we drove out past the university, turned left at the insane asylum — and right again toward a glow that was growing in the sky to the north of us. Then through a woods-lined road and suddenly we were in a wide cleared area beside the river. Down on the bank a huge willow bend over into the stream. A mount of earth had been thrown up in front of it and from that mound the tall cross streamed upwards in orange flame. Before the cross and a few yards from it was a small platform which bore a single hooded figure. And in a great arc, closed by the plaform, stood the white-robed men who called themselves “The Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.” Hundreds of cars had already been parked in the rear of the clearing and their occupants, crowded down close to the arc of sheeted figures, were black silhouettes against the white cloth and the orange light. Before we turned off our engine we could hear the steady booming of the speaker’s voice, rich powerful, bass. We could have understood every word from where we sat but we moved near to the figures with the grotesque deep black holes for eyes. I was spellbound by the scene — hooded army, white-robed central figure, burning cross, dark crowd — all against the soft green of the drooping willow branches or the black cavern beyond it where the yellow water of the river fitfully caught light from the flames.

     Suddenly the speaker lifted an arm, throwing his robe into sharp oblique lines.

     “Why?” he shouted, and the woods before him and the river behind answered with plaintive distant echoes. “Why? Why?”

     “Because the Pope believes himself to be all-powerful. Because he and his minions here, right here in these United States, are at this minute planning the overthrow of our democratic government. Do you want to wake up one morning and find a dago priest in the White House a-givin’ orders to white folks? Do you know what he plans to do right here in Alabama — he’s got it all worked out — he’s goin’ to give Alabama over to be ruled by a nigger cardinal!”

     There was a low growling murmur from under the white masks.

     “Are the people of Alabama — in whom flows the purest Anglo-Saxon blood of any state in this great and glorious Union — goin’ to stand for that? The curse of Roman Catholicism has threatened white supremacy and how are we goin’ to meet that challenge? By organization, ladies and gentlemen, by banding together in such noble communion as we have here to fight to the last drop if need be for the rights of Protestant white folks, for the honor and virtue of all Southern womanhood, for freedom from oppression — all of which are endangered by the devilish plots of a foreign potentate.”

     I looked at Knox.

     “I don’t believe it,” I said.

     “About the Pope?”

     “You know what I mean. And you’d better get me out of here.”

     “You wanted to come. Listen to some more of it.”

     “Stamp it out!” roared the speaker. “Stamp out the worship of graven images just like we have stamped out immorality and licentiousness in parked automobiles along our country roads, and shameless nude bathing in this lovely spot and at the country club pool.”

     “I think I’m getting a little sick,” I said, “please let’s go home.”

     “All right,” said Knox. “I just thought you might like to wait until he starts on teachin’ biology at the university.”

     On the road back I said:

     “Aren’t there any Roman Catholics in Tuscaloosa?”

     “Sure. A hundred or so. They have a church.”

     “And they don’t suffer mobs like these?”

     “Never heard of it. Come to think I don’t believe these fellows ever connect ‘em up with the Pope.”

     “But what’s it all about then?”

     “Well, they’re jealous of the young folks having their fun in the parked automobiles. And they like to scare niggers — it gives ‘em a sense of power and they think a scared nigger is funny. As for the Catholics — that’s just a way to get votes; it’s like Wall Street tryin’ to lower the price of cotton. The only obstacle in the way of the Pope and Wall Street is the politician. You’d be surprised — if you don’t know already — who that speaker was tonight. He was no small-time vote-grabber.”

     “But are people really as ignorant as that around here? I don’t see how he dar talk such damned nonsense in a university town and with lots of people around who know he’s lying.”

     “Get away with it in Tuscaloosa?” said Knox. “I guess you aren’t acquainted with the back files of an amusing journal published in the capital of these United States and entitled The Congressional Record.

     We rode on in silence. The lights of town seemed friendlier than the flames we had left behind on the river bank….


©1934 by Carl Carmer.
From Stars Fell On Alabama (Farrar & Rinehart), now available from the University of Alabama.

Carl Carmer, originally from Dryden, New York, lived in Tuscaloosa from 1927 to , where he was a professor at the University of Alabama. He published several books, including a volume of poems. His memoir, Stars Fell On Alabama, was a non-fiction bestseller in 1935.

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