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Into the Lion's Den

My shocking encounter with the Ku Klux Klan.
23 Ago 2017 – 11:23 AM EDT

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Calderón durante la entrevista con los "Leales caballeros blancos". Crédito: Univision Noticias

When I found out that Univision was looking for a reporter to interview one of the leaders of the Ku Klux Klan, I wondered whether I would be able to talk face to face with someone who hated me without knowing me – someone who hated what I represented.

But I also thought it would give me the opportunity to show Hispanics in the United States what those people represent, from my perspective as an immigrant and especially a black woman. It was an intimidating challenge, no question. But I volunteered to do it.

When we looked into the background of Chris Barker, the man we wanted to interview, we learned he had a violent past. He was on probation for his role in A knife attack against one of the members of his group, a charge later dropped because the alleged victim refused to testify against him.

He required that we hold the interview at his “general headquarters” on the outskirts of Yanceyville, in a rural area of North Carolina near the border with Virginia. We were told we would not be able to use our cell phones.

It was like walking into the lion's den.

But my professional curiosity outweighed my fears.

After a lot of preparations, I took a plane to Greensboro with my film crew and drove to Yanceyville. The day of the interview, my head was full of emotions – a bit of anxiety, a bit of fear and a lot of uncertainty. As we drove into the forest I thought about what we would find. What kind of person was he? How would he react when he saw me?

Ilia Calderón, a life built on diversity and against racism

When we arranged the interview, our Univision’s producer, María Martínez Guzmán, told the Loyal White Knights, the branch of the Ku Klux Klan that Barker heads – his official title is Grand Dragon - that the interviewer would be a Hispanic woman of color.

When we arrived at the property, Maria and our two videographers went inside the house to shoot some images. I stayed in the car, going over our list of questions.

Maria warned me directly: “Look, get ready because they are going to insult you.” I thought I was prepared. But I never thought they would go that far.

I was still in the car when one KKK member came over to say hello. I saw the surprise on his face. He turned around and I followed him, trying to get there before he could tell Barker about who was going to interview him. And suddenly I ran into Barker and his wife, in the middle of the forest. His face changed when he saw me.

There was hatred in his eyes. Hatred and a bit of bewilderment. He turned to Maria and told her, “You brought this nigger to my house?” Maria responded, “I told you she was a Hispanic woman of color.” Barker could not get over his surprise. “I thought she was like all of you (Hispanics), maybe a little darker, but this one is a ...”

He repeated the word.

He was clearly uncomfortable with my presence in his home, and the first thing he said to me was that I was the first black person to step on his property. His body language reflected his disgust and desire to cancel the interview and kick me out. But we were already there, and we started – but not before he noted that “in my 20 years in the Klan I've never given the interview to a ...” (the "n" word again)

Again, the racist insult.

The situation grew tense, but thinking about all the people who have been or will be attacked by these kinds of groups filled me with strength and I started to ask my questions. I never imagined that my questions would upset him quite the way they did. At one point, he even stood up from his chair and threatened to cancel the interview.

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Ilia Calderón comes face to face with hate in interview with KKK leader

One of the toughest moments came when I asked him what it was that he saw when he looked at me. He insulted me and told me that he would chase me off the property with fire. At that point, I was very afraid, for my own safety as well as the safety of the entire Univision crew. He had a criminal history and I was on his property. But I screwed up my courage and continued with the interview.

It wasn't easy. Like when he called me a “mongrel,” as though I was a street dog, something contemptible. Or his reply when I asked him what would happen if one of his two children would need an organ transplant from me. “We can't be compatible because the blood of white people is different from the blood of blacks,” he said.

Barker's group claims it is not racist or a hate group, but rather a Christian group. It was upsetting to see how they hide behind the Scriptures. At one point Barker even said Jesus was a six-foot tall white man, blond and blue-eyed. He backed up that claim with scriptures that have been repeatedly proven to be apocryphal.

I also asked why they set fire to crosses, one of the most important symbols of Christian religions, during the ceremonies. They – plural because Baker's wife Amanda joined the conversation several times, sometimes trying to tamp down her husband's anger - said it was a way of illuminating the cross. Their war cry as they light the crosses is “For God, for the race, for our nation and for the Ku Klux Klan.”

It all seemed very confusing to me, but I focused on the details of their ceremony in order to experience it to the fullest so that I could recall it for our viewers.
Barker's two boys and the young son of a friend took part. They have been taught the KKK credo since childhood, and became racists from a very early age so they will pass it down to their children.

They're doing that now, with an aggressive recruitment program. The KKK remains a small group, but the phone line listed by the Loyal White Knights on its Web page receives 200 to 300 calls per day from people who want to join, members claim.

But it's not easy to join. The Loyal White Knights check out applicants to determine their family backgrounds and requires DNA tests showing they are 100 percent white – and with not a hint of Jewish blood. They hate Jews as much or more than blacks. Like the Nazis. And that terrifies me.

I am a mother, and my instincts tell me to protect all children from any pain and suffering. Although suffering is part of life, not all suffering is necessary. For me, that was one of the key lessons I learned from my interview with Barker.

The other is that these groups are out there, in plain view. As the recent events show, they are trying to spread their hateful message throughout the country. What better way to block them than to spread the message of respect and tolerance, seeding it among our children – and thereby in our society.

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