John Abarr, a kleagle of the United Klans of America out of Great Falls, Mont., at an Aug. 31 meeting with leaders of the NAACP Casper branch in Casper, Wyo. It was the first known meeting between leaders of the two groups.Alan Rogers/AP
Local leaders of the Ku Klux Klan and the NAACP had a face-to-face meeting in Casper, Wyo., on Saturday, which is believed to be the first time the two groups have ever met peacefully.
Jimmy Simmons, president of the Casper branch of the NAACP, reached out to John Abarr of the KKK group United Klans of America in June to try to organize the meeting, according to the Casper Star-Tribune, which first reported the story.
The meeting was postponed until numerous ground rules were set, such as agreeing to meet under heavy security. The meeting was organized so the two groups could discuss a recent wave of violence against black men in the area as well as KKK pamphlets that had recently been distributed.
Simmons, who described his NAACP chapter to Al Jazeera as "about 50 members" in a "remote" area of Wyoming, organized the meeting and said the national NAACP office was aware of it.
"There's been hate crimes committed out here, and we feel that authorities weren't responding properly. So if you want to know about hate, you have to go to somebody who knows about hate."
Simmons sent a letter to the Klan in May requesting to put a meeting together, and Abbar responded, setting the wheels in motion.
But Rosemary Lytle, president of the NAACP's Colorado, Montana, Wyoming state conference, said otherwise.
"I did not know that the meeting would happen, our national office did not know that the meeting would happen," She said. "As such, the state conference has now been charged with investigating how it happened and why, and reporting back to the national office."
Lytle said the chapter had been specifically advised against conducting the meeting.
"There is an internal structure for dealing with those who do not adhere to directives and clearly articulated guidelines," Lytle said. "I cannot think of a time when it might be appropriate for an NAACP local unit to meet with leaders of a national hate group. Having been identified by the NAACP, by the FBI and by our partners SPLC (Southern Poverty Law Center) as a hate group."
Simmons said he was within his rights to conduct the meeting.
"I'm a branch president, and, as long as I have forums like that within the boundaries of my city, I don't have to ask for her (Lytle) or the national offices permission," he said.
The two men also discussed segregation and the KKK's desire to secede from the U.S. Abarr told Simmons that he saw an increase in new members in his Klan group when President Barack Obama was elected, and told Simmons why he likes being a member of the Klan.
"I like it because you wear robes, and get out and light crosses, and have secret handshakes," Abarr said, according to the Star-Tribune. "I like being in the Klan – I sort of like it that people think I'm some sort of outlaw."
But Abarr – who said he believes violence against black men is a hate crime and says his group is a non-violent religious organization that is focused on political issues – told Simmons that for some members, his branch of the KKK isn't hateful enough. Abarr said he likes to "recruit really radical kids, then calm them down after they join."
Both men said they weren't aware of any time the two groups have met previously, potentially making the meeting a historic first. According to Abarr, the United Klans of America's leader Bradley Jenkins was actually excited about the meeting with the NAACP and had to step in to overrule objections from other leaders in the group who were opposed to it.
"He lives in Alabama, and he told me he would love to sit down with the NAACP in Alabama and talk," Abarr told the Casper Star-Tribune. "People are going to call me names for coming down here," he said. "You know, I might not even have a group when I get back."
Despite Abarr's candor, local NAACP officials found it hard to believe Abarr was really knowledgeable about the history of his organization. The meeting ended with a surprise – Abarr joined the NAACP on the spot, and said he would be interested in meeting again. It's not clear whether anything will develop outside of the meeting.
But Rosemary Lytle, president of the NAACP's Colorado, Montana, Wyoming state conference, said she wasn’t sure what would happen with Abbar’s membership.
"I would challenge the Casper leadership to send in a membership for someone who so clearly does not agree with the mission of the NAACP," Lytle said. "This is not a group that we would partner with traditionally nor is there any history of the NAACP and the Klan working together."
"Those who join the NAACP do saying that they agree with the initiatives and the constitution of the NAACP and the national board of directors so what will happen with his membership, I just cannot tell you what can happen."
Dexter Mullins contributed to this report