On the way to the principal's office, the boy told me that he had gotten the patch from a high school girl who rides his bus in the morning. The boy said the girl had all sorts of KKK paraphernalia she had picked up at the booth at the Apple Festival over the weekend.
The boy had visited the booth himself and described some of the things he saw there: items depicting lynchings; lighters that flamed into a burning cross when ignited; T-shirts depicting a Klansman and the words "The Original Boyz in the 'hood" with a black face inside a red circle with a line drawn through it.
Perhaps by mere coincidence, this boy happened to be wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with a small "Legends of the Confederacy" and Rebel flag on the front, and a large portrait of Nathan Bedford Forrest on the back. Forrest was a notoriously ruthless Confederate general considered to be one of the founding fathers of the KKK, but the student said he didn't know that part of his Civil War history. His cousin gave him the shirt, he said, and he was attracted to it because of the Rebel flag, which just happens to be the symbol of the high school's Rebel sports teams.
The principal took the patch and gave the boy a short lecture on the insensitivity of bringing such hate-inspired material to school and mentioned that she was aware of the booth selling "inappropriate" merchandise at the festival. She sent the student back to class with instructions to apologize to his classmates and explain why.
The Klan was bad, the boy said, because they "hated black people" and you shouldn't hate someone for the color of their skin.
Many of the students' comments were troubling
I decided then to forego the planned lesson for an impromptu discussion about the Klan, the Apple Festival booth and civil rights in general. Many of the comments from the students were troubling to me. While no student endorsed the Klan outright, there were several who expressed thoughts misguided enough to warm an imperial wizard's black heart.
"Well, there's a black KKK, isn't there?" one girl asked. "How come black people can have one and we can't?"
Another student said his father stopped by the booth and picked up recruitment papers for a Klan-type organization, which, the boy said, his father eventually tore up and threw away.
One girl matter-of-factly stated that she thought "all Mexicans are ugly and perverts." Others chimed in that Mexicans shouldn't be here because they're taking all the jobs and all they do is get drunk and leer at women.
Though some of the eighth graders in that class condemned such thinking as racist and wrong, the majority seemed to harbor a lot of Klan-sympathetic notions and weren't shy about sharing them. By the time the bell rang, I was fairly stunned.
Perhaps I shouldn't have been. I've lived in Casey County, off and on, since 1972, after moving from Illinois. I graduated from Casey County High School in 1977. There may have been 10 black people in all of Casey County back then. There may be 10 black people in all of Casey County now.
That lack of diversity might help explain how prejudice has bred prejudice from one generation to the next in such a culturally isolated, insulated place as Casey County. It might help explain how an eighth-grade student could bring a KKK patch to school, voluntarily show it to a teacher and hear the views implicit in that patch win approval from many of his classmates.
And it certainly explains why Klan merchandisers and recruiters would find the Apple Festival a fertile ground for their efforts.
Why were they allowed to set up shop?