Around the time of the inauguration, a black and white photo of a banner with the motto “Hate does not grow well in the rocky soil of Vermont” began to circulate on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms. It was quickly adopted by “Indivisible” groups around the state. The grass-roots groups oppose Trump administration policies, including policies that are aimed at refugees and undocumented immigrants. Deerfield Valley Indivisible member Kit Cincotta says her group uses the photo on their Facebook group page because “We thought it was a great parallel to use these words again, in opposition to Donald Trump’s cowardly and dangerous Muslim ban. It represents for us, as Vermonters, the huge heart we have for tolerance, and we thought it was a good time to re-emphasize that in resistance to Trump’s hate messages.”
Although few who saw the banner on social media outside the valley may have guessed, the original banner was created by Wilmington residents and draped over Main Street to protest a May 1982 rally planned by New England KKK members that drew national attention. Essentially, Wilmington residents were telling the KKK that their racist doctrine would not find fertile soil here. Wilmington may seem like a strange place for the Ku Klux Klan to begin a Vermont recruitment effort, but the choice was propitious; the town’s measured reaction and local residents’ unity in their opposition to the group’s message effectively undercut the Klan’s strategy.
James Farrands, the grand dragon of the Connecticut KKK, set his sights on Vermont as early as 1981. The Klan’s plan to expand into Vermont was no secret, and several months earlier the Vermont Legislature passed a resolution condemning the clan as a racist hate group.
Agostinho “Augie” Fernandes, Wilmington Police Chief at the time, says he could hardly believe his ears when he heard the news, not from any official bulletin, but from a reporter. “I was contacted by a reporter from an out-of-state media outlet who wanted to interview me about the Klan coming to Wilmington,” Fernandes said. ‘I said you’ve got to be kidding me.’”
Local reaction to the announcement was swift, and the Klan’s planned rally was universally condemned. Although the initial reaction was “not here,” local authorities soon realized that any attempt to deny KKK members their constitutional rights would offer the group a legal, and moral, advantage.
Fernandes, town manager Sonia (DeLury) Alexander, and the Wilmington Selectboard presented a unified front. Fernandes was appointed as the town’s sole media contact on the subject – a move that Fernandes says was key to keeping the town’s message on point. Their message? Don’t give the clan the confrontation they seek.
Nonviolent protests were planned around the state, from Brattleboro to Burlington, coinciding with the Klan rally in Wilmington. Protest organizers asked people not to go to Wilmington to directly confront the Klan.
Wilmington residents found ways to voice their displeasure and let Klan members know how they felt about their choice of venue for the rally. There were numerous letters to the editor, and residents interviewed by the eager national media expressed strong opinions.
A group of local residents, led by Verne Howe, asked for, and received, the selectboard’s permission to raise a banner over Route 9, suspended between the town office and the Wilmington Home Center. Local cable television company owner Cliff Duncan was enlisted to hang the banner – he can be seen at the top of a ladder in the photo. Klan members coming into town couldn’t avoid seeing the banner’s message, “Hate doesn’t grow well in the rocky soil of Vermont.”
In preparation for the day of the rally, Fernandes enlisted manpower from local and state law enforcement. Even local firefighters were asked to stand by with their high pressure fire hoses to assist with crowd control. “They not only agreed to do it, they actually drilled on it, to see how long it would take them to put water on the field once they got the call,” Fernandes recalls.
It was the town’s high school students that Fernandes says may have had the greatest impact on the outcome of the day of the rally. The Klan’s event was to take place on Baker Field which, although the rally was to be held on a Saturday, was in the shadow of Wilmington Middle/High School.
Students at the school came up with a simple and effective graphic message: they superimposed the familiar international “no” symbol, a red circle with a line through it, over the letters “KKK.” The message was printed on dozens of posters and, after securing special permission from the utility companies, students plastered them on utility poles around the village.
The posters proved to be the Klan’s downfall. The evening before the Klan rally, Wilmington police were patrolling the town conducting surveillance in the village. At about 1:30 am police discovered a group of four Klan members taking down students’ “no KKK” signs and throwing them in the street. The infraction was enough to give police a good reason to take a closer look at the four men.
When police spoke with the men, they discovered they were carrying a loaded weapon – a .22 rifle – in the passenger compartment of their car. One of the Klan members was carrying a loaded handgun. While Vermont has no prohibition on carrying handguns, it is illegal under state fish and wildlife laws to carry a loaded rifle or shotgun in a vehicle. The law is intended to discourage poaching, but that evening the law dealt a critical blow to the KKK’s plans. Police arrested all four men, one of whom was none other than Farrands, the Klan leader and rally organizer. Fernandes calls Wilmington High School students “silent heroes” in the town’s subtle resistance effort.
Without Farrands’ presence, the day of the rally was almost anticlimactic. In the May 20, 1982 edition of The Deerfield Valley News, publisher Don Albano described the Klan’s arrival: “At about 1:20 pm three aging automobiles and a pickup truck bearing Connecticut plates pulled into Baker Field escorted by four state police cars. The automobiles were escorted to a place behind a cordon of over 50 heavily-armed state troopers strategically placed between the surging anti-Klan protestors and the newly arrived Klansmen.
“Nine men and six women emerged from the automobiles and proceeded to don Klan robes from carefully packed plastic garment bags. Taunted by the anti-Klan protestors, the Klansmen began to address the crowd only to be met with threats and chants. After an hour, the Klansmen were escorted from the field.”
The Klan might have stayed longer, but Fernandes says he gave them an incentive to leave – either they left with police, or the 16 Klan members would face more than 100 angry demonstrators on their own. “We told them ‘If you want to stay around, that’s fine, but we’re going to leave.’ The decision to pack up and leave was the only stroke of wisdom they showed.’”
Press reports trumpeted the “nonviolent” Klan rally in Wilmington. The town and Fernandes were praised for their wisdom and restraint.
Cincotta notes that the banner has been remade by a Brattleboro group, and her group hopes to borrow it to hang once more over Wilmington’s Main Street.