Town Hall is a hub of activity throughout the course of a year.
Forget about what’s happening day-to-day on the inside of the building, whether it be the town’s business during work hours or important government meetings after-hours. The front of Town Hall is often the preferred site for rallies, demonstrations, or gatherings designed to bring attention to different issues or causes. Supporters show up with signs and slogans, hoping to get a few supportive honks from passing motorists and spark a little interest in anyone who happens by.
Most of these rallies are cordial and non-controversial. Even the ones organized around hot-button topics remain rather tame, rarely resulting in tension. The organizers arrive, plant themselves in front of Town Hall for a while, then leave, often before dinnertime.
But one demonstration planned 40 years ago looked and felt decidedly different — and could easily have turned violent.
It happened in July of 1981, on a hot summer day in Cheshire on the sidewalk in front of Town Hall. The demonstrators claimed to be there for recruitment purposes, trying to entice anyone who happened by to join their ranks. What they were really selling was hate, and they had no buyers on this particular day.
The headline in the July 16, 1981, Cheshire Herald explains the situation: “Ku Klux Klan Gets Cool Reception In Brief Demonstration At Town Hall.” The infamous group had been, during that summer, making the rounds in Connecticut, demonstrating and “recruiting” to try and bolster their ranks. A previous rally in Meriden had turned violent, according to The Herald’s reporting, with counter-protestors shouting at the Klan members and debris being thrown amongst the crowd.
As The Herald’s article went on to explain, one of the reasons why the Klan’s stop in Cheshire was so docile in comparison could be credited to the preparation taken by Cheshire police:
“We went to Meriden Saturday to observe,” said Police Chief George Merriam. “It was four hours of on-the-job training at the command post, staffed by Meriden police, state police, and a SWAT team.”
Chief Merriam also arranged a face-to-face meeting with KKK state chieftan James Farrands in Meriden. Ground rules for the Sunday demonstration were given to Ferrands by Merriam.
“We had advance notice that the group planned a recruiting demonstration in Cheshire,” said Merriam. “We told Klan members exactly what we expected of them.”
Merriam mobilized most of the 32-member police force. All were equipped with tactical gear, At exactly 11:42 a.m., he met with Ferrands and Kleagle John Dillon and escorted the 17 hooded and robed white supremacists to the front of Town Hall.
Without realizing it, Klan members became screen stars. The entire episode was being videotaped by police personnel.
Merriam’s plan called for confining KKK members to 100-square foot area on the sidewalk. Traffic on Route 10 was rerouted over Academy Road and Cornwall Avenue and 100 spectators watched from the Green.
“If we learned anything in Meriden it was that proximity — putting the Klan close to spectators — can be explosive,” Merriam explained. “Stringent protection measures are necessary. We saw a peaceful demonstration go to pot in Meriden in two minutes.”
The Herald’s story makes clear that members of the Klan were, unsurprisingly, upset with their “treatment” at the hands of Cheshire police. The article explains that Ferrands, the leader of the group, suggested that the Klan had been “fenced in” while also complaining that traffic had not been allowed to flow freely up and down Route 10 so the Klan could hand out leaflets with their inscribed message.
Merriam ensured that traffic was rerouted and, after the event, he expressed an opinion that was likely mirrored by most in the community:
“There were no injuries, no arrests, and no property damage,” said Merriam. “The Klan’s first visit to Cheshire hopefully will be its last.”
According to The Herald, a crowd of spectators on the green across from Town Hall at one point grew to approximately 200 people, yet no violence occurred and there were no altercations, verbal or otherwise. Yet the visit from the infamous hate group, dedicated to a vision of white supremacy, had obviously touched a nerve within the community, as demonstrated by some of the letters submitted to The Herald that week, including one from Carol-Ann Guilfor, who saw the police presence and preparation as perhaps the biggest reason for the peaceful conclusion to the potentially volatile situation:
I think the people in this town are so lucky to have a police force so well equipped to handle such a situation and keep it peaceful. But also to have a police chief who has the capability to handle a delicate situation. … a big thank you to everyone for a job well done.
But The Herald’s editorial that week, while equally effusive of the job done by the police in limiting the Klan’s time in town and squashing any potential for violence, saw something else at play for why KKK members found no new members or warm welcome in Cheshire:
Only a handful of Cheshire residents saw a recruiting demonstration of the Ku Klux Klan at Town Hall last Sunday. Those who got second-hand reports on it were astonished to hear that the hooded white supremacists had perceived this town as a fertile area for attracting new members.
… We believe the vast majority of Cheshire residents will echo Chief Merriam’s hope that the Klan’s first visit here will be its last. The belief of Klan leaders that this town offers good recruiting possibilities is baseless.
However, The Herald admitted that, while the demonstration had been short-lived, producing no new members and zero community-wide support, it had been successful in one aspect: providing the Klan what The Herald described as its “craving for the spotlight.” That, however, did not change the fact that, in the paper’s eyes, the town had honorably flown its true colors for all to see:
If the Klan takes a closer look at Cheshire, the hooded visitors will find that what they are trying to sell is alien to this town, which is proud of its rich religious and ethnic mix. The descendants of the early Yankee settlers live in harmony with the newer citizens from all parts of Europe and Asia. The ecumenical movement flourishes here. Cheshire is a poor market for the peddlers of religious and racial discord.
It is, to put it bluntly, somewhat shocking to think that the KKK was so openly out-and-about in Cheshire and Connecticut as a whole as recently as 1981. While now four decades in the past, it is by no means ancient history, and it’s telling that, though the group reportedly found no reception here in Cheshire, members still felt bold enough to put themselves out in the public spotlight, albeit with hoods firmly on.
Yet, it also shows that the state has come a long way in that relatively short period of time. No one could imagine such a demonstration occurring today and the site of hooded and robed KKK members would be as shocking as Nazi-flag-flying protestors marching down Route 10.
Hate, unfortunately, will still find homes and new recruits. That will never change. But it is good to know that, when such hate showed up on Cheshire’s doorstep in 1981, it was turned away unceremoniously.