ANDERSON — At the successful conclusion of the 1984 trial in which an Elwood woman had been acquitted of the murder of her abusive husband, she gave her Superior Court 3 public defender, Patrick Murphy, a token of her gratitude, a figurine of a Ku Klux Klansman.
“I didn’t know this kind of stuff still existed. I didn’t know this stuff went on still, that it really kept going,” said Murphy, now a magistrate in Marion County.
After keeping it tucked away in a box for many years, Murphy eventually disposed of the curiosity.
“I did not display it. It obviously was not my viewpoint,” he said. “It was too disconcerting.”
What’s noteworthy is the woman’s comfort with the Klan’s philosophy, her apparent assumption that others shared her sentiments and her belief the figurine was an appropriate way to demonstrate her appreciation.
This is an example of the white supremacy that historically has been a prominent part of the history of Madison County, with its sundown towns and Klan havens.
But a resurgence of overt acts of racism is leading to a new civil rights era.
In spite of a rise of concern among some residents that white supremacy is resurging, the Southern Poverty Law Center does not identify the area as one where the 20 active hate groups, such as the white nationalist American Identity Movement, the neo-volkisch Asatru Folk Assembly and the racist skinhead Blood and Honour Social Club, operate in Indiana.
Still, some residents say casual racism, such as the sharing of off-color jokes, again has become more prevalent over the past several years under a U.S. president who has refused to denounce white supremacy and even invited white nationalists to “stand back and stand by.”
Though the attention at one time was firmly on Elwood, it has shifted more recently to other areas of the county.
That includes Pendleton where police Chief Marc Farrer was briefly demoted to patrolman but reinstated in spite of a history of social media posts considered disparaging of racial and religious minorities and women. His behavior and the apparent acceptance of it by the town council and residents led, in part, to the recent resignation of former Councilwoman Jessica Smith.
Leaders in social justice throughout the county, including Terrell Brown, one of the five founding members of It’s Up There, praised the move.
“I thought that’s a good reason to step down in my eyes,” he said. “She’s a powerful woman for doing that. There’s a lot of people who are afraid to speak on the racism they see or hear because they are afraid to lose their job or lose their money.”
It’s Up There also has shone a spotlight on Alexandria by staging anti-racism protests there. Though many at first argued there was little white supremacy there, many of the same people over time admitted they were surprised and ashamed at the level of racism that appeared there.
It’s Up There was founded in the wake of the George Floyd death at the hands of police officers in June in Minnesota. It’s one of several formal and informal groups that have taken up the civil rights banner in Madison County in recent months, as residents have confronted the Anderson Community Schools board of trustees, Anderson City Council and the criminal justice system, including the Anderson Police Department and the courts.
“That could have been my dad. That could have been my uncle. That could have been my brother,” Brown said. “People are tired of seeing it. People are tired of hearing about it.”
It’s Up There’s founders want to prevent the kind of high-profile incidents, such as the death of George Floyd.
“Me, personally, I think I can speak for a lot of people, I felt a shift in the whole world because we watched this man get murdered, calling out for his mama. Just to see the agony in his face yelling out that he knows he’s going to die. I think it sparked a fire in the whole world that is not going to be put out this time,” he said.
Though a more multicultural Anderson was a good place to start, the organization also is committed to spreading its message to more homogeneous reaches of the county, Brown said.
“Me growing up here in Madison County, it was always ‘Don’t go to Elwood; don’t go to Alexandria; don’t go to Frankton,” he said. “Black people are scared to drive through Alexandria.”
Diversity and implicit bias trainer Tamie Dixon-Tatum said much of the necessary change will need to come through education. Implicit bias is the unconscious influence on an individual’s actions and words.
Dixon-Tatum disputes the notion that white supremacy has moved underground, saying it’s been there for all to see all along.
“Quiet for who? Because when you live the life of being mistreated or discriminated against, whether the whole world sees it happening to you, it happened,” she said.
Farrer’s reported actions, for instance, have moved from implicit to explicit and also need to be dealt with effectively.
“Being a police chief, that’s more than an innocent comment or mistake,” she said. “If there is evidence this leads up to your normal behavior, that’s a problem.”
Recognizing the toll of white supremacy, the Madison County Circuit Court 2 and the Juvenile Probation Department took the lead last year by establishing a Race, Equity and Inclusion Workgroup.
Kim Townsend, who chairs the workgroup, made up of community leaders from throughout the community, stands to benefit not only the criminal justice system but the community as a whole.
“When I look around Madison County, I see some strides made by the smaller communities around the county,” she said. “it looks like some doors are starting to open, but there still is so much work to do.”
One of the most visible areas of need, Townsend said, is in Anderson Community Schools, where community activism put the brakes on administrative appointments that some felt did not reflect the increasingly multicultural nature of the district.
“I still don’t see Madison County being as intentional in their efforts in diversity as you’re seeing played out with the school board,” she said.
But the problem doesn’t stop with the school board, Townsend said. It also extends to the education of a public that willfully accepts white supremacy under the guise that race shouldn’t matter because the best person for the job should be hired.
“The problem is you’re not recognizing that the right person for the job could very well be Black or a person of color,” she said. “Children need to see role models. They need to see people like them in high positions to give them something to shoot for. The people who say that the most are the ones who never had to battle a color issue.”
Townsend admitted the current state of affairs in Anderson is in large part because the Black community has been complacent, accepting the advances made by civil rights leaders of the past without looking at the ways in which those improvements can be built upon. Residents also left the heavy lifting to aging leaders who are dying out, said Townsend, whose father served as president of the Urban League.
“Those men were out in front fighting on the civil rights frontlines so the community could sit back and let them fight the fight,” she said.