Adopt-a-Highway programs are understandably popular. Government officials support them because they provide roadside litter cleanup at little or no cost. Organizations like them because it allows members to work together to benefit communities. Residents like them because roadways are more pleasing to the eye. The only problem with the program, it seems, is that sometimes a group many people find objectionable wants to participate. That's the case in Georgia now, where the Ku Klux Klan wants to adopt a stretch of road to patrol.
Given the Klan's history of racial hatred and violence, it's easy to understand why the group's application to adopt a one-mile stretch of Route 515 near the North Carolina border raised a ruckus. Civil rights leaders and others promptly asked the Georgia Department of Transportation, which reviews program applications, to reject the Klan request. Given legal precedent, that rejection, which came late Tuesday, will be hard to sustain.
A Klan group in Missouri made a similar request in 2005. The state department of transportation there denied it. The Klan - with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union - sued, and won. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment barred Missouri from denying the request because it disagreed with the Klan's political and social agenda.
Given that, it seems that Georgia officials seemingly had two choices. They could have allowed the Klan to join the program and put up the familiar signs announcing the group's adoption. Or they could have ended the Adopt-a-Highway program, effectively rejecting the Klan request, a preference many Georgians initially seemed to prefer. They chose a surprising third option.
That will please State Rep. Tyrone Brooks, who experienced the Klan's racism and violence as a civil rights activist in the fight to end segregation in Georgia and who is now head of the Georgia Association of Black Elected Officials. When informed of the KKK request, he said, "They [the GDOT] have to say no. If it brings a lawsuit, so be it. If it ends the program, so be it," Brooks told the Atlanta-Constitution Journal.
Members of the Klan seem surprised by all the furor. "We just want to clean up the doggone road," said Harley Hanson, the exalted cyclops of the Klan's Realm of Georgia. Another Klan member said she wasn't sure why anyone would be "offended" by the request. Brooks can tell her.
"Your organization tried to kill me," he says he would tell her. That is sufficient reason, of course, for Brooks and others to find the Klan's request and the possibility of a roadside sign identifying the Klan as a civic group to be "insulting and insane."
There is, for those who look, a middle ground available in the controversy should the courts overrule Tuesday's decision. It would allow the Klan to participate in the program and provide satisfaction to those who strongly object to such participation. Missouri shows the way.
When that state lost its battle to halt Klan participation, the legislature made its objections known in a subtle and effective way. It named the stretch of road adopted by the KKK after Rosa Parks, the civil rights leader. If the courts overrule GDOT's Tuesday decision, Georgia will have to follow suit. It should grant the Klan permission to adopt a portion of Route 515 and then rename it in honor of one of the many state victims of the hatreds inspired by the Klan. The names of Mary Turner, a pregnant black woman lynched in Valdosta in 1918, and Leo Frank, a Jewish businessman lynched in 1915 in Marietta, are two that come to mind.