Outside, frogs peeped and crickets chirped through the thick summer night with its jasmine fragrance, while inside the little wood-framed church a preacher addressed the fearful and faithful.
If the FBI man seated on the altar ever walked across the nearby Pearl River, the preacher said, his feet would never touch bottom for all the bones. Ministerial hyperbole, but reflective of truths held by people of color in the little pinebelt town. The FBI agent was in the church because a young black man was found hanged in a pecan tree in that year of 2000. Black people said it was a lynching because their collective experience said that was all it could be. The authorities disagreed and, in the end, those authorities were mostly proved out. I asked some of the church ladies whether, if I showed them the evidence, they could accept that 16-year-old Raynard Johnson in all probability died by his own hand.
They said they could. I then asked, if that was the case, what was left for us to do? What should we do next?
"I could accept it," one woman said. "And then you still need to find who killed him."
What I learned then, in Kokomo, Miss., was how thoroughly the campaign of terror waged by the Ku Klux Klan and its sympathizers over generations had warped the consciousness of a people, how effective it had been, and in some places how effective it remains. You won't know this unless you visit the people in their kitchens and living rooms and hear their family stories, which I have done over a career spanning decades.
And so I read with great interest the fascinating story written by a colleague, Tim O'Hara, which says the original charter of the Ku Klux Klan of the Florida Keys, dated 1921, bearing the signatures of a dozen men, had been located and gifted to the Monroe County Library. Tim then related the story of Key West's only known lynching, the killing of one Manuel Cabeza, which occurred 10 months after that charter was signed. There were no arrests, so no trials, and therefore no convictions. Whether the dozen people on the Keys Klan roll were involved is strictly a matter of speculation. Some of Cabeza's descendants still live here and, it is believed, those of at least some Keys Klan charter members.
It is tempting to file the newly found document in our collective conscience as one more artifact of a time long gone by. But Mississippi and other states where the various Klans have operated, sometimes with official involvement and unspoken sanction, hold no patents on hate, any more than Key West holds one on tolerance.
So as we attempt to place the newly discovered document in context, it is important to remember that while hate may be a motive for Klan membership and the motive for its members' misdeeds, it is not the legacy.
The real legacy of the Klan is fear, the successful byproduct of its terrorist history.
The legacy is not new to people of color here, some of whom told me this weekend of how the presence of local Klan sympathizers in Key West during their own lifetimes resulted in telephoned threats of violence and other unpleasantness, with more fear the result.
So now is a good time to affirm that we must do more in the name of justice than just pat ourselves on the back for adopting the One Human Family slogan. We must remain ever-vigilant against the people and events that spread the fear. We must test our tolerance by acknowledging that if some people find it difficult to forgive or shake off the fear, then such is the right they have earned by their experience.
Just as Florida's laws concerning government require that it be visible in the sunshine, so too must even the most shameful aspects of our history always be exposed and open, recalling what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in his letter from the Birmingham jail.
"Like a boil that can never be cured as long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its pus-flowing ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must likewise be exposed, with all of the tension its exposing creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured."
Discovery and public ownership of the 1921 Keys Klan roll is one more step, however small, in a healing process that all of us must continue to embrace.
John DeSantis, who covers city government for The Citizen, is the author of "For the Color of His Skin: The Murder of Yusuf Hawkins and the Trial of Bensonhurst" and has extensively covered hate groups and racial injustice in the Northeast and the Deep South. His column, Keystrokes, appears every Monday.