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October 30, 2013, 12:00 AM

Thoughts on Leith, ND and white supremacy

[In 2013, members of this congregation joined other North Dakotans to protest the attempted takeover of the village of Leith, ND by white supremacists. Author of this entry is unknown.]


Where in the the world is Leith, North Dakota? I've traveled considerably in the state and I could not have said - until the tiny community became a household word in ND as a result of a newer resident who was buying up lots in town and, as we sadly learned, planning to invite others who believe as he does to come and live there also. He is identified as a 'white supremacist' in most of the stories.

So then we knew where Leith was, and we were more than unhappy, appalled, at what could happen there. But not much seemed to happen for some months.

Then a interesting confluence of events occurred.

On the eve of a history conference in Bismarck focused on civil rights and featuring a speaker who was one of the nine black students who integrated Little Rock Central High School in 1957, it was announced that the national leader of a white supremacist organization would visit Leith to support the man who had moved there previously.

A protest was planned. Residents of Leith asked for support. Two young men, former North Dakotans, I understand, began an online organizing project to bring people to Leith on the day of the visit.

The Friday before, I attended the presentation of the documentary film The Road to Little Rock. It focuses on Judge Ronald Davies of Fargo and the role he played in ruling to enforce the Supreme Court order to integrate the school. And while Davies was a key figure, the story is really about the beyond belief courage of the nine young black people who made it all real.

In his remarks that evening, Dr. Terence Roberts spoke calmly yet passionately about the experience. One phrase that stayed with me was his reference to 'putting fear in your pocket.' I decided then that we had to go to Leith.

Interestingly, Sunday morning's Parade magazine included an interview with Tom Hanks and the captain of a freighter who was held hostage by pirates for 5 days before being rescued by Navy SEALS. Tom Hanks is playing the role in a movie. In the interview, Captain Phillips also talked about fear and commented that in such a situation you have to let your fear sit with you. It is there, and it has to be acknowledged, but one can't let it be paralyzing.

So, I have to be clear and completely transparent here. Nothing in my life has been even remotely as fear inducing as what these men have experienced. And my imagination is not equal to thinking of any situation I could ever face that might reach the level of those faced by either of these brave men.

I did not feel fearful or even worried as we set off for Leith on Sunday. Stephen and me, Don, Lisa, Molly. I was not worried as we arrived, in spite of the significant law enforcement presence and the information as we came to the turn off to the town that all other roads were blocked. There was one way in and one way out. I was not worried as we parked and passed through the gate that had been installed at the south end of the street. I was not worried as we walked past the dilapidated buildings, down the rutted dirt road that passes for the main street of Leith to join the growing group of protestors. Official estimates said there were 350 people in Leith that day. The atmosphere seemed strained, but restrained.

The sight of colorful flags along a side lane and more along the west side of the street struck at my senses and made me very sad, as they included the swastika symbol known mostly as the emblem of the Nazi party in World War II Germany. The other prominent sign / message was 'Anti-racism is code for anti-white.' 

Highway Patrol and other law enforcement lined the west side of the street. Those of us 'protesting' were kept to the east side of the street. The man's home was on the west side. There were many more of us than of them.

I had moments of uncertainty - probably the greatest when I saw the group of black clad men with face covering helmets marching in military fashion from a side lane into the main street only to stand there. And stand there. And stand there. After a bit, Molly walked off that way and ascertained that they were, indeed, law enforcement. We learned later they were HP riot squad - I was relieved to know they were not part of the hate group. That would have worried me.

Which brings me to the conflict I had with the way the day played out. While it was peaceful, there were at times, very non-peaceful names and comments being hurled at the white supremacist people. It seemed clear there were a few in the crowd who were ready - perhaps eager - for engagement and physical confrontation. Wearing, as we were, our Standing on the side of Love shirts, it was hard for me to reconcile the anger and vitriol with why I had come. It seems to me, if we meet hate and discrimination with more of the same, we are brought down; we do not maintain our integrity and our purpose; we lose sight of our first principle - the inherent worth and dignity of every person. Because even though I may abhor everything they stand for and believe, I must acknowledge their humanity, their inherent worth and dignity as human beings. Even in the the face of their denying it to others. Especially in the face of their denying it to others?

And so, the afternoon passed. In many ways a typical late summer day on the northern prairie. Some sun, some clouds, a steady breeze. People hoping to change the world...

Leaving felt quite anti-climactic. Not because I wanted something to happen and it didn't but because what did happen didn't feel done right or complete. It was good to demonstrate that we are not in favor of racism, hatred, or discrimination.

I would have wished for some sort of a more positive message to the day, however. For those of us on the east side of the street to have connected with each other, to share stories about why we came, to honor each other's inherent worth and dignity, to discover a deeper, richer understanding of our common interests, and to actively engage in the quest for peace, with justice, equity and compassion.

Epilogue: Two additional observations...

First - In one or another or the news reports about the discussion at the town hall meeting (which I did not attend), I noted the group's statement that they are not 'white supremacists' but rather, 'white civil rights activists' - advancing and protecting the rights of white people as other organizations do for people of color. This worries me. We live in a sound bite society where research and thoughtful reflection are increasingly rare, and where people may have limited understanding of history and, being assaulted by loud voices proclaiming something often enough that it begins to sound true, could start to believe that by raising up those who have been oppressed, others must be oppressed in their stead. In my view, we must recognize that if one among us is not doing well, none of us can do well.

Second - I note in his own words, the comment of the new Leith resident in response to the crowd of protesters, "They’re loud, so what? They’re literally not human to me,” he said. “I feel good.”

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