ATLANTA — A Ku Klux Klan group is trying to join Georgia's "Adopt-A-Highway" program to clean up litter on a mile-long stretch of road, creating a quandary for state officials hesitant to acknowledge a group with a violent, racist past on a roadside sign.
The International Keystone Knights of the KKK applied last month to adopt part of Route 515 in the Appalachian Mountains. The Georgia Department of Transportation is meeting with lawyers from the state Attorney General's Office on Monday to decide how to proceed.
The program enlists volunteers from groups and companies to pick up trash. Each group that volunteers is named on a sign along the road it adopts.
April Chambers, the KKK group's secretary, said she applied for the program to keep the scenic highway beautiful, not for publicity.
"I live in the mountains and I want to keep them beautiful," Chambers said, adding that tourists frequently litter along the road as they pass through. "We didn't intend on this being big. I don't know why anybody's offended by it."
State Rep. Tyrone Brooks said he welcomes the opportunity to educate Chambers and the group about the Klan's legacy of violence and racism – which he experienced first-hand as a civil rights activist in the fight to end segregation in the South.
"I'd like to sit down with this young lady and say, `Your organization tried to kill me,'" Brooks said Monday, adding that he finds even the notion of a highway sign identifying the Ku Klux Klan as a civic group "insulting and insane."
Brooks, who is president of the Georgia Association of Black Elected Officials, said the group will pursue legal action should the KKK's application be approved.
"If the state would allow them to plant their name on one of its public highways in the home of Martin Luther King Jr. and Jimmy Carter, we would have to fight it with all of the resources at our disposal," Brooks said. "If we lose, we would ask the state to abolish the program. It's not worth it."
Ed Martin, who moved to Union County from Tennessee seven years ago, said the community is the only place he has ever felt at home – until now. Martin said littering is not a problem in the area. He said the only trash on the highway would be a sign promoting a Klan group, something he doesn't want to have to drive by every day.
He said the sign would be a divisive symbol in the community.
"Listen, there ain't a whole hell of a lot of black people in Union County, but everybody here gets along," Martin said.
According to the latest Census figures, the county is 97 percent white and less than 1 percent black.
Attorney General spokeswoman Lauren Kane confirmed that the agency met with the Transportation Department on Monday. Transportation Department spokesman Jill Goldberg confirmed that the International Keystone Knights of the KKK did apply to the Union County Adopt-A-Highway program on May 21. Both agencies declined to comment on the matter until a resolution was reached.
The Georgia KKK chapter is not the first such group to attempt to sponsor highway cleanup.
In Missouri, lawmakers renamed two stretches of highway for civil rights matriarch Rosa Parks and Abraham Joshua Heschel – a rabbi who narrowly escaped the Nazis in World War II and later marched with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. – after the state allowed a neo-Nazi group to "adopt" those sections of road.
In Kentucky, the transportation department accepted a white-separatist group's contract to participate in the state's highway cleanup program, fearing an unsuccessful legal battle.
The U.S. Supreme Court in 2005 rejected Missouri's attempt to thwart a similar effort in that state, maintaining membership in the program cannot be denied because of a group's political beliefs.
Chambers said group members believed they had been approved for the program and were told only late last week that their application was under review. She said the International Keystone Knights were planning their first cleanup for Saturday, and may still proceed even without the Adopt-A-Highway designation.
Still, she feels the group is being discriminated against.
"It's alright for blacks or Latinos or anybody to have their own groups," she said. "It's alright for churches to adopt a highway. But if white folks stick together, we're racist."
The group's website says it requires members to be white Christians of non-Jewish descent, and to believe in the U.S. Constitution and racial segregation.
Mark Potok, senior fellow at Southern Poverty Law Center, said the effort is little more than a publicity stunt.
"I think this is simply another attempt by the Klan to somehow portray itself as a kinder, gentler group rather than the terrorist organization that it has historically been," Potok said. "On the other hand, they're very likely to win a court battle because the state agencies can issue regulations regarding things like this but they have to be neutral toward ideology."
Brooks said the Klan is not a civic-minded group, like a garden club, church or Rotary chapter.
"Those other groups don't have a history of terrorism," he said.
Follow Haines on Twitter at http://twitter.com/emarvelous