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CINCINNATI - It wasn’t a statue or a plaque honoring Robert E. Lee that created a firestorm in Cincinnati 25 years ago.
It was a cross erected by the Ku Klux Klan on Fountain Square during the December holiday season that led to the same divisiveness and condemnation other American cities have been dealing with in the past few weeks.
Despite 24-hour police presence and a barricade around it, protesters knocked down or damaged the KKK’s cross six times during the 10 days it cast its dark shadow on the square. Ten people were arrested for attacking it. Thousands came to condemn it, even as a handful of Klansmen dutifully replaced or raised it back up each time it was felled.
Fountain Square turned into a racial, ideological and legal battleground – city vs. the courts; blacks and whites vs. racists; Jews and Christians vs. the KKK - in 1992 after a federal judge struck down the city’s attempt to bar a menorah during Hanukkah. The city had imposed new regulations that would have prohibited the menorah on the square between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. and required its hosts to remove it at night and put it back in the morning. U.S. District Court Judge Carl Rubin blocked that.
Once the city was forced to grant a permit to Rabbi Sholom Kalmanson, the KKK demanded one, too, and Mayor Dwight Tillery and city council said they legally had to oblige. A nativity scene soon followed.
A Klansman said they were putting up a cross to “put Christ back in Christmas.” A sign at the top of the cross read:
”John 3:16: For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whosoever believeth in Him would not perish but have everlasting life.”
On the day before the cross was to appear, 500 people came downtown in three separate protests. First, about 150 came to the square and shouted anti-Klan slogans. A second event, sponsored by Tillery and the Cincinnati Human Relations Commission, combined prayer and peaceful speeches at St. Peter in Chains Cathedral. At an evening rally, council member Tyrone Yates told the crowd: “The eyes of the nation are on Cincinnati tonight. We are here to say the Klan is not welcome in Cincinnati.”
WATCH: Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, city leaders, citizens protest Klan
The keynote speaker at Yates’ event was a famed civil rights leader and local pastor, the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth.
“Somebody is bad off if they need the Klan to put Christ in Christmas,” the Rev. Shuttlesworth said. “The Klan may have a legal right to put a cross here, but not a spiritual right. Their hate cross is supposed to be here 10 days, but the ‘Old Rugged Cross’ is forever.”
At 6:20 a.m. the next day, four KKK members came to the square under cover of darkness and put up an 8-foot white cross. The timing had been prearranged with police, who were hoping to avoid a violent confrontation.
It worked. There were 10 police officers on the square, 18 on standby, and no one else around to notice. The Klansmen were gone in a flash.
Within an hour, though, a 45-year-old attorney, James J. Slattery, became the first person to attempt to knock the cross down and was arrested, police reported.
At 10:30, David Miller, 44, of Loveland, slipped past the barricade and pulled the cross down. Miller also was arrested.
WATCH: David Miller tells why he knocked over Klan cross
"I just decided there's too many kids in this community. There's hundreds of thousands of kids in this community. They don't need something like this," Miller said.
The cross was damaged and splintered, and police Chief Michael Snowden declared it a safety hazard and had it hauled away to the police property room.
“There were nails protruding and children were playing on it,” Snowden said. He said the KKK could claim it and put it back up if they fixed it.
Ron Lee, vice president of the U.S. Knights of the KKK, vowed to do just that. The Klan had a 10-day permit lasting until Dec. 30.
“Some people in this country have rights and some don’t,” said Lee, 54. “White people in this country don’t have rights.
“I don’t like what they’re doing to Christians. That’s the main reason I put the robes on. This country was founded as a Christian nation. I can prove it,” Lee said.
Yates called the cross “a drawing card for extremists on both sides.”
Tillery said he was glad to see the cross come down, if only temporarily. “Obviously, I can’t encourage people to break the law,” Tillery said.
Three days later, the Klansmen were back with a new, stronger, reinforced cross weighted to the ground with cement-filled bags. By midnight, it also was toppled, and two Northern Kentucky men were arrested.
The cross was felled two more times, but local Klan watchers said the group got what it wanted.
WATCH: Klan leader, city councilmember argue about right to erect cross
“These guys would have trouble getting together 25 members, but they’re on national television getting millions of dollars worth of free publicity,” said Alan Katchen, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith.
“They want people to come in and knock down their cross,” Katchen said. “It creates good publicity for them. Good publicity, bad publicity, it doesn’t matter to them.”
“It’s a very clever tactic,” said William Madges of Xavier University’s theology department. “They want their cross viewed as a religious symbol, but they’re using it politically.
“It creates a strange turn of events – the Klan putting up a symbol of love and protesters tearing down a symbol of hate.”
There were no fights and no injuries reported while the Klan’s cross was on display. But Rabbi Kalmanson blamed police and city officials for allowing chaos on the square and letting the Klan take advantage of it.
“Other cities prove all this can be done without controversy,” he said. “There are 475 cities where menorahs are displayed and most of them are on public property. They don’t have the same problems.”
The city was stuck between a cross and a hard place, namely freedom of speech, city council member Nell Surber suggested. On the day after Christmas, she said she wanted council to ask Rubin to rescind his ruling that allowed the KKK cross on the square.
WATCH: Klan threatens to sue city for not protecting cross
“We’ve given Judge Rubin’s order a good try, but it’s been an unrewarding experience for everyone,” Surber said. “It’s caused ill feelings, created bad publicity for Cincinnati all across the country and really trashed up our beautiful Fountain Square.
“It’s been a terrible mistake,” Surber said. “We have not been able, short of shooting people on sight, to protect the cross.”
First Amendment attorney Louis Sirkin had another thought.
“Fountain Square is a nice place to have a public forum, as long as it’s handled correctly and people understand what it’s about,” Sirkin said.
“We have to learn to debate and not fight. There’s a real difference, as the Klan cross issue has pointed out. The peaceful vigil was a good way for people opposed to the Klan to speak out. But the mischief and damaging (of the Klan cross) went over the line,” Sirkin said.
The city went to the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which took less than a day to say it would not reconsider Rubin's ruling.
WATCH: Mayor wants city council to review how Fountain Square permits are awarded
The Klan cross remained until Dec. 30. Shortly before dawn, Klan members carried it off the dark and empty square and loaded it into a pickup truck.
Tillery filed a motion with city council to review the city's policy for handling permit applications for use of Fountain Square.
Currently, the city has strict rules governing use of the square. It probably would take another federal court order for the scene of 1992 to be repeated.
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