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Auction of Klan items causes a rift in Michigan

Leaders say city needs to shake racist image

HOWELL, Mich. -- Gary Gray says he will be offering pieces of history today when he sells seven Ku Klux Klan robes and other KKK paraphernalia at his auction house.

But the uniforms, knives, books, and buttons are reminders of a past some people in this nearly all-white Michigan city would rather forget.

"This goes against everything we've tried to accomplish," said Victor Lopez, a Hispanic accountant from Howell and president of Livingston 2001 Diversity Council, a group aimed at promoting tolerance.

Howell leaders say the city's racist reputation is undeserved, and they have been trying to shake it for years. They trace it to one man -- Robert Miles, a KKK leader who lived on a farm outside Howell until his death in 1992.

Miles was convicted of conspiring to burn school buses during an integration fight in Pontiac and was found guilty in the tarring and feathering of an Ypsilanti-area school principal.

Gray, a white man who owns the Ole' Gray Nash Auction Gallery, said the auction is not about promoting racism. He said it is about education and business, a potentially lucrative departure from his standard auction fare of antiques, coins, and books. "This is just a part of history we're selling," said Gray, 51.

Howell is a growing city of more than 9,000 people, 55 miles west of Detroit. It is in Livingston County, one of Michigan's least diverse counties.

About 97 percent of the county's 157,000 residents in the 2000 Census were white. Only a half-percent, fewer than 800 people, were black. In Howell, only 29 blacks were counted.

Howell business groups acknowledge that they have had trouble attracting minorities.

But community leaders say they are making progress promoting diversity, and they do not want the news of the auction to undermine the efforts.

Because of the Miles connection, Howell leaders say their community attracts additional media attention for incidents that may be just as likely to happen in other Midwestern cities of similar size and makeup.

For example, a white man was convicted in a 2001 assault on a black, off-duty state trooper who was dancing with a white woman at a Howell-area bar. In 1988, a cross was burned outside the home of a black Howell-area woman -- the incident that led to the creation of the diversity council.

The NAACP branch in neighboring Oakland County and other civil rights groups in Michigan have blasted the auction as insensitive, and protesters plan to be outside today. The diversity council is raising money to buy a robe at the auction, then ship it out of the city to an antiracism museum exhibit.

The auction originally was scheduled for Jan. 15 but was delayed after Gray learned it was the birthday of Martin Luther King. Since the first robe was consigned for sale in early January, dozens more items have poured into the gallery because of the media attention.

Now, long tables covered in black felt hold books, movies, and recordings.

Silver pocketknives are engraved "KKK -- God, Duty, Honor." Buttons promote George Wallace's 1968 presidential campaign and a Senate bid by David Duke. Fading stickers for the National Socialist White People's Party lie near decades-old cards reading "Join White Power Today or Live Under Jewish Communism Tomorrow."

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