TRANSCRIPT: Bodily Harm is Coming
Is burning a cross so intimidating as to not deserve First Amendment protection?
SECHRIST: We wasn't here to kill nobody. We wasn't here to run nobody off. We wasn't here to intimidate nobody. We were just here to initiate a few new members, move on out of here to the next rally. … They're not really haters. I wouldn't flag ’em as haters. I just flag ’em as a religious group that believes in what they believe in.
MIKE: A few hundred yards off of Brushy Fork Road in Cana, Virginia, there is a field at the edge of the woods.
SECHRIST: This is where I grew up.
VUOLO: This is my colleague, Matt.
SCHWARTZ: Hey there Joey.
SECHRIST: How you doing, my brother?
VUOLO: My buddy, Matt.
SCHWARTZ: Nice to meet you.
SECHRIST: Yes sir, buddy.
SCHWARTZ: I'm Matt.
SECHRIST: Yes sir. Yes sir. Joey Sechrist. How you all doing today?
MIKE: In the summer of 1998, several chapters of the Ku Klux Klan gathered here with the permission of the property owners, Annie Lee Sechrist and her son Joey.
SECHRIST: My name is Joey Sechrist, and I've lived here in Cana, Virginia for 55 years.
MATT: Joey still lives here. He’s not a member of the Klan, but he was present that night when they held a rally. When they burned a giant cross.
SECHRIST: I'll go out here and show you. Do you all like to walk?
VUOLO: Sure, sure.
SECHRIST: Okay, come on here.
MIKE: What happened here more than 20 years ago led to a Supreme Court battle over the First Amendment. Is cross-burning constitutionally protected speech? I’m Mike Vuolo.
MATT: I’m Matthew Schwartz.
MIKE: And this… is Unprecedented.
MATT: We wanted to see for ourselves where this infamous cross-burning took place. So we headed down to Cana, Virginia. It’s a rural town of rolling farmland on the border with North Carolina.
MIKE: About 1200 people live in Cana. It’s not quite 100 percent white, but it’s close.
SECHRIST: This is a growed-up area down in here. We're just old rednecks. We don't care about nothing.
VUOLO: Am I going to get any ticks here? I don’t have long pants on.
SECHRIST: Yeah, you probably will. They like them kind of shorts.
VUOLO: So what, I gotta check my legs later?
MATT: The Keystone Knights was a Klan chapter out of Johnstown, Pennsylvania. It was founded in the early 1990s by a guy named Barry Black, who went by the title Imperial Wizard. Mr. Black died recently, but here he is some years ago talking to a Duke University professor about why he made the six-hour trip to Cana:
BLACK: What I was doing down there was starting a new den—or starting a new klavern—giving the people the books to read, telling the people what we expect of them and how we want them to become pillars in their community.
MIKE: I asked Joey Sechrist how it was that Barry Black and the Keystone Knights came to hold their proselytizing rally at his place.
SECHRIST: How it got started was there was a friend named Jimmy Jones. And he was a good friend of me and mother's, and he approached us one day out here, and said, "What do you all think about us having a Klan rally?" He said, "I got some good friends in Pennsylvania that wants to come to this area, have a rally, a get together, initiate new members." They’ve always been nice to me and that whole crew, I mean, they were hundreds of them, all just like my brother. Really, really nice people.
VUOLO: So you didn't participate in the rally, but it sounds like you shared their beliefs?
SECHRIST: I do. I do share their beliefs. I'm a strong believer of them. I really am. I'm a strong believer of ’em. Proud supporter. Very much so. I can call any of ’em any day, any night, any time, and they'll be at my aid within the next day if I really needed it. They're just that kind of people.
MIKE: Two longtime members of the Keystone Knights are still around. We met them at their double wide trailer in Pennsylvania on a summer afternoon. They had fans running to keep us all cool, as they talked about that day in Cana.
L PENROD: Lisa Penrod and I was the woman commander and the Imperial Secretary for the Invisible Empire International Keystone Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.
D PENROD: Donald Penrod and I was just a member.
VUOLO: So there was a group of you that went down and what did you do when you got there?
L PENROD: Got things ready and set up.
VUOLO: Set up for what?
L PENROD: Our ceremony that night and the speeches.
D PENROD: We had that cross to put together and get it hooked up. It was in sections. I had it made to screw together. You wrap it with burlap and stuff and light it.
VUOLO: You wrapped it with burlap?
D PENROD: Burlap and soak it with diesel fuel or kerosene with motor oil in it.
VUOLO: And so what did you expect was gonna happen that night? You thought it was gonna be just like any other rally?
L PENROD: Right. Well, there were probably, what, six, eight speakers, got up and talked about, you know, separating the races and keeping the blood pure and, I mean there was no derogatory talk or anything like that. It was just a normal, normal night.
SCHWARTZ: So after the speeches were done, what happened that night?
D PENROD: Went to the ceremony and lit the cross.
MIKE: The way the Penrods talk about the Klan, they make it sound like just another social club. They had meetings twice a month. Ran clothing drives for the needy.
MATT: And wore robes and held cross-burnings. Like the one in Joey Sechrist’s field.
VUOLO: And where exactly was the cross?
SECHRIST: Well, I’ll tell you something. That cross, I don't know about the 100% spot, but I can put you close. This has all been cleared off here. This was all woods here at the time. This has all been cleared off. But that cross, I mean, take a look around you how far we are from the road. I mean, we're off the road I mean 300 yards? I mean, basically back in the woods.
SECHRIST: But it's right in this area right in here. It's like a 25-foot radius right here. It was here, in this area here.
VUOLO: What did it look like when it was lit up?
SECHRIST: You ain't never seen one?
SECHRIST: Have you ever looked on the internet?
VUOLO: I've seen it on the internet, yeah.
SECHRIST: That's what it looks like.
VUOLO: What does it look like in person?
SECHRIST: Well, I ain't never seen but one live, and it was right here. That's the only one I've ever seen live. The beautifulest thing in the world to the Klan.
SCHWARTZ: How about to you?
SECHRIST: I love it.
L PENROD: We all lit the cross. We all had torches. And went through the ceremony and then at the end the Imperial Wizard would light the cross and then we would all take our torches and put ’em on the bottom.
D PENROD: You light it at the bottom and there's streamers like this that go out to the two arms of the cross and light them.
BLACK: Once the cross is completely lit I’d say, “Klansmen! Salute!”
MIKE: Here again is Barry Black, talking to that Duke University professor.
BLACK: You’d hear music in the background, playing Amazing Grace. And you’ll hear someone say, “Behold! The fiery cross! Still illuminating the sky brilliantly.”
L PENROD: It’s beautiful. It really is beautiful.
SCHWARTZ: What does it mean to you? Like, why do you light up the cross?
L PENROD: Fire purifies. The cross itself does not burn, even the wooden crosses, they don't burn. Just the wrapping burns and it shows the purity. Because fire purifies gold. So that's the symbol. You know, it's racial purity.
SCHWARTZ: So, the cross is lit, illuminated. And at what point did things start changing?
D PENROD: It was all over. That's when the sheriff's department showed up.
MATT: Back in the field, Joey points to the spot where a police vehicle had been parked.
SECHRIST: And if you’ll look, right over the top of that house, right over there in yonder, you'll see a big oak tree right over there. See that twin oak tree?
VUOLO: I do.
SECHRIST: That's where he backed his patrol car in and watched the whole thing until it's all over with.
CLARK: My name is Rick Clark. At the time of this case, I was a lieutenant in the Carroll County Sheriff's office.
MIKE: At that big old oak tree is where we are now with Rick Clark, who was watching the rally, listening to Carolina Beach Music on the radio like he always did.
CLARK: Ms Grace is considered the best Beach Music tune of all times, and I played it all the time. One of the neighbors called, I don't recall who, and said there was a large gathering there. So we responded. And they weren’t doing anything wrong so we didn’t go over there.
VUOLO: So you stayed back over here where we are now.
CLARK: Right. And we could see the people.
VUOLO: What did you see when you looked out there? Describe the scene.
CLARK: There was probably 50 to 100 people milling about. I think somebody was giving a speech or doing something, talking.
VUOLO: And so once you saw the cross go up, what did you think?
CLARK: It was the class six felony to burn a cross in Virginia, at that time.
VUOLO: And you knew that because you knew the code?
SCHWARTZ: How did you know the code? ’Cuz I heard a rumor that you are sort of a bookish guy and you like to spend your free time reading through the Virginia Code book.
CLARK: That might be the truth.
MATT: Section 18.2 of the Virginia Code: "It shall be unlawful for any person … with the intent of intimidating … to burn … a cross.” The law goes on to say that if you do burn a cross, it is presumed that you did it with the intent to intimidate somebody.
VUOLO: And so when you saw the cross lit up, you got in the patrol car and you drove up this road towards the property and what did you do?
CLARK: We approached. I said, "Who lit the cross?" And Black said, "I did." And I placed him under arrest for cross burning.
VUOLO: Put handcuffs on him.
CLARK: I did. And Black immediately started into this rhetoric that the good white people here were tired of, uh, he used a racially derogatory term about black people holding hands with white women walking up and down the sidewalks. And I just asked him, I said, "Have you seen a sidewalk since you've got here?" And he said, "No.”
CLARK: I said, "That’s because there are no sidewalks in this community.”
SCHWARTZ: Had you ever seen a cross burning before?
SCHWARTZ: What was it like?
CLARK: It made me sad that there was somebody that represented that kind of hate in the county where I live and I was raising my children at the time.
MIKE: We asked the Penrods if they ever intended to intimidate anyone when they lit the cross.
SCHWARTZ: I wonder, of all the times you lit the cross, did you ever do it to intimidate somebody.
L PENROD: No, no.
SCHWARTZ: You always just did it for your religious ceremony?
L PENROD: Yes.
D PENROD: Where I ever was, there was really nobody around to intimidate.
MATT: We posed the same question to Joey Sechrist.
SCHWARTZ: Did you think it seemed intimidating?
SECHRIST: Shit, no. I'd have another one today. I'd have another one. No questions asked. We wasn't here to kill nobody. We wasn't here to run nobody off. We wasn't here to intimidate nobody. We just here to initiate a few new members. Move on out of here.
SCHWARTZ: Because you know, the officer, somebody said that a couple of black people were driving through.
SECHRIST: Oh horseshit. You couldn't melt down a black man and pour him out around a Klan rally. Why was he doing here anyway? Only reason he'd been here is trying to get in.
SCHWARTZ: Well, I guess the …
SECHRIST: Try to get to be a member.
SCHWARTZ: I guess what they said is, like maybe somebody driving past—where's the closest road?
SECHRIST: Right there. About 400 yards there.
SCHWARTZ: Yeah, that's pretty far.
SECHRIST: Now, I will tell you this. You all can say what you want to, and you'll find out when you get on down the road that I'm telling you the truth. It sounds stupid. Don't laugh. Wait ’til you leave, you laugh. Barry Black had a black lawyer.
SCHWARTZ: David Baugh.
SECHRIST: David Baugh!
SECHRIST: Yeah. He's a black lawyer.
VUOLO: What do you think about that?
SECHRIST: (laughter) That's pretty crazy, man. No shit. I don't know. You know, I heard about that, when all that stuff went on, I heard about it, and I thought, "What the hell, man?" That blows my head right off, man. No shit.
BAUGH: There's something unique about the legal profession where the public thinks whenever you represent someone, you condone their behavior.
MIKE: This is attorney David Baugh. He worked with the Virginia chapter of the ACLU.
BAUGH: People assume that if you represent a pedophile, when the trial is over, you put on a raincoat and go to the playground. No, not that at all. You represent someone for what they are accused of doing. Plus, I realized from my education and the philosophy of the law, that for every right that you have, there is a corresponding responsibility. So, if you want the right to speak freely, that means you have to listen to a lot of stupid garbage. You even have to defend people who say stupid garbage so they can say stupid garbage. A lot of people assume that under the First Amendment you have a right not to have to hear things that make you uncomfortable. And that is not a right. People have the right to say things to you that make you uncomfortable, as long as there is no imminent threat of serious bodily injury or death. I can understand how come a white lawyer might not want to be associated with the Klan, but no one's gonna accuse me of being a closet Klansman.
SCHWARTZ: Now hang on. This is radio. This is a podcast right now, so people might not quite understand what you're getting at. Why might he not want your assistance?
BAUGH: Well, he's a Klansman.
BAUGH: I'm African American. Oh, I'm African American! That's right.
BLACK: When I walked into the courthouse, I just looked at him.
MIKE: Once again, Barry Black.
BLACK: He says, “Is there something wrong here?” And I says, “You’re David Baugh?” He said, “Yeah.” I says, “You’re black.” He said, “Yeah.” I said, “Are you gonna fight for me? Are you gonna give me 151 percent?” He says, “I’m not gonna change your views.” He says, “And my views about you aren’t the greatest in the world either.”
BAUGH: And then I went on to say, "Besides, when I look at you, I can just see the N-word just spilling off your lip buddy, so we're not gonna take warm showers, and be pals, and sing kumbaya. That ain't going to happen."
BLACK: He says, “But I will give you 151 percent. You have my word on that, sir.” He says, “I’ll defend you to the end.” And I says, “Good enough.”
BAUGH: Like most clients who are in serious trouble, he was cordial, but I assumed that I had the only life preserver and he was drowning. So, I don't know if he liked me or he liked my life preserver, but I had it. I had the ring buoy. So I'm flinging it, so he’s gonna grab it, and that's it.
MATT: Barry Black was convicted by a jury. He did burn a cross, after all, and the law, well you heard the former cop, Rick Clark. He said it was a felony. Barry Black was fined 25 hundred dollars. But David Baugh, and lots of First Amendment lawyers, continued to believe that Virginia’s statute was unconstitutional.
MIKE: After the break, we’ll talk about why that seemed so obvious to so many lawyers, and what happened when a certain Supreme Court justice broke his silence on the bench. Stick around.
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