As the election approaches, a reporter and a photographer set out for Washington, D.C., via America. We tell stories from seven towns, touching on seven issues from politics and real life.
ZINC, Ark. — The phone is ringing inside the Ku Klux Klan's national headquarters, on a remote mountainside here, and a volunteer hustles across the room to answer it.
"You got another call on the Obama thing," she says.
The klan's spokeswoman, Rachel Pendergraft, rolls her eyes.
"Surprising," she says.
The calls haven't stopped since February, when a satirical British publication called the Daily Squib ran a story suggesting the KKK had endorsed Barack Obama for president:
Imperial Wizard, Ronald Edwards has stated that, "anything is better than Hillary Clinton."
White Christian Supremacist group the Ku Klux Klan has endorsed Barack Obama to be the next President of the United States of America.
Speaking from his Kentucky office in Dawson Springs, the Imperial Wizard exclaimed that anything or anyone is better than having that "crazy a-- (expletive)" as President.
Not to the klan.
To get to the KKK compound in Zinc, population 81, you have to cross the railroad tracks outside Harrison, then take a narrow, winding, gravel road for 2 miles through the mountains, past a hog farm and, if it's raining, through two creeks.
The driveway is lined with KKK flags, and the headquarters, a small building with a foyer, several offices and a gift shop (lots of Confederate memorabilia), is near a small church and school building.
The grounds are placid and calm, guarded by only a pink-collared pug.
Ever since the satirical Obama story, the place has a new buzz.
After the story was posted on the Daily Squib, it became a chain e-mail and quickly found believers. It popped up on blogs and Web sites and forced the klan to respond to the publicity.
"There have been legitimate newspapers that have run the story," Pendergraft says. "And I'm like, where do you get your information?"
Volunteers have fielded about 300 e-mails a day. The klan's Web site tries to correct the record with a post headlined "Ku Klux Klan DOES NOT Endorse Barack Obama for President."
But Pendergraft, also the daughter of Knights party national director Thomas Robb, is savvy.
"There's no such thing as bad press," she says.
So for a group already on the fringe, in a country largely enamored of its first black major party nominee, the fake story brought an opportunity to polish a musty message. The klan, like the rest of the country, can't help but evolve.
The group has morphed since the 1960s and is trying to shake its violent history. Members don't wear the white robes anymore, except to one cross-burning ceremony a year. And the klan doesn't hate black people, Pendergraft says. "We just love white people more."
She would not bring back lynchings or disenfranchisement. She believes in a flat tax, and in government helping those who need it, regardless of color. She believes races should be separate, and that government should stop "social engineering," like forced desegregation of public schools.
There are things she admires about African-Americans.
"They have a bigger will to survive than we do," she says. "And they have more compassion for their own people than we do. White people feel so guilty about being white that they only want to help those in other races."
She's 39, a stay-at-home mom who homeschools her kids. She's married to a klan member, and her teenage daughters play in a white power music group called Heritage Connection. Pendergraft spends more than 40 hours a week dealing with klan business, all volunteer, and preaches at her father's church every fourth Sunday.
Does she pull in a crowd?
"As much as any racist preacher could," she says.
"Who's racist?" asks a volunteer.
They both laugh.
No, she doesn't have any black friends, she says, but she did room with a black woman for two months. The woman was her boss at Wal-Mart, and she needed a place to stay. "It was fine," she says.
She says it's not Obama's skin color that turns her off.
"I wish white people were more willing to stand up for their own people like he's willing to stand up for black people. I don't want him to stand up for black people at the cost of white people, but I admire that he is standing up for his race."
The problem with both large-party candidates, she says, is that they don't do enough to help white people. She likes Sarah Palin's rural roots, but she's leaning toward Ralph Nader. Someone needs to pave the way for a major third party. A white people party.
"There's going to come a time when white people are going to wake up and look around and say, 'Oh my gosh, the world is getting smaller, and we've been swallowed up.' And then who's going to support them? The Ku Klux Klan."
"I realize it's a long shot," she says.
She has a picture on her office wall. A wading bird has a frog in its mouth. The frog is trying to strangle the bird. Never Give Up, it says.
Ben Montgomery can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8650.