A speaker who came to talk about social justice and promoting diversity warmed her crowd Sunday afternoon at the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library with an anecdote about a hate group's comeuppance.
Lecia Brooks, director of outreach for the Southern Poverty Law Center in Alabama, told the audience about a white supremacist group that assaulted an American Indian woman and her son when her car broke down near the group's headquarters in Idaho in 2000.
She sued the Aryan Nations and was awarded $6.3 million, forcing the group to give up its Idaho compound and file for bankruptcy, a story that brought chuckles and applause from the crowd of about 40.
Tennessee has 39 hate groups and none are headquartered (in Memphis) that we know about, but there are some that are close.
Brooks' appearance was sponsored by the Memphis Freethought Alliance, a nonprofit organization that seeks to promote secular government.
Brooks said her organization doesn't focus on actual poverty, but social justice, which was referred to as poverty law in the 1970s. It targets hate groups and discrimination based on race or sexual orientation, and promotes helping children at risk, teaching tolerance, and immigration justice.
"Tennessee has 39 hate groups and none are headquartered (in Memphis) that we know about, but there are some that are close," Brooks said.
There has been a 70 percent rise in the number of hate groups since 2000, Brooks said, attributing the increase in part to the growth of minorities and the economic recession.
"When people experience economic downturn they have to find a scapegoat," she said, which helps hate groups breed.
Audience member Jason Myers, 27, said he was shocked to learn of the increase in the number of hate groups in the last decade.
"I'm disappointed," he said. "(Memphis) isn't as bad as some places, but that doesn't mean we don't have room to grow."
He said being trained as a Marine taught him not to see color, only people, so he can't understand how those in hate groups think.
"The browning of America is common in places like my home state, California," Brooks said. "Now, it's starting to affect the South and Middle America and, quite frankly, people are freaking out."
Brooks noted that California leads the country in the hate group count.
She used photos of a 1980 lynching in Alabama and recent Ole Miss protests over the re-election of President Barack Obama to show different forms of hate, then encouraged white people in the audience to discuss race more.
"You do your kids an injustice by saying not anything and promoting this color-blind behavior," she said.
Audience member Allison Wannamaker, 38, said the speech was interesting to her as a citizen, voter and immigration lawyer.
"The fight for immigration is part of a larger civil rights struggle," she said.
"I hope that one day there will be no clear majority," Brooks said. "Then we can be the great melting pot we hoped for. I can say that we'll never get to that point unless we work together."
Distributed by MCT Information Services
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