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History Paralleled, Darkly

On February 27th, 1969 Clarence Brandenburg v. the State of Ohio took place. The appellant, Brandenburg, leader of the Ku Klux Klan, was convicted under the Ohio Criminal Syndicalism Statute for “advocat(ing) the duty, necessity, or propriety of crime, sabotage, violence, or unlawful methods of terrorism as a means of accomplishing industrial or political reform' and for 'voluntarily assembl(ing) with any society, group, or assemblage of persons formed to teach or advocate the doctrines of criminal syndicalism.” The prosecution’s case rested on a series of films and testimony which identified Brandenburg attending and participating in a KKK rally. One film specifically, showed 12 hooded figures, some of whom carried firearms. They were gathered around a large wooden cross, which they burned. The appellant was fined $1000 and sentenced to 10 years of imprisonment. Brandenburg, with the assistance of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), among others, appealed to the Ohio intermediate appeal court, whereby the decision was ultimately upheld.


On June 26th, 2020, James Brown was arrested in Arlington, Virginia, and charged with a criminal complaint for lying about his involvement in burning a cross on the lawn of an African American woman’s home. The charge also included criminal interference with fair housing based upon the victim’s race. Brown’s lies were discovered through an investigation of the incident, where through investigations others clarified Brown admitted to the cross burning as well as using racial slurs when referring to the African American family. The case has yet to convict and while Brown allegedly admitted to the cross burning and has ultimately been charged with lying to federal agents and criminal interference, a criminal complaint is merely an accusation.

When considering these two cases, nearly 50 years apart, the resonance is significant. A crime from 50 years ago has occurred in the present. A racially driven crime to terrorize a black family was utilized in the year 2020. Even after so long, the tactics and fear-mongering are still serving the continued membership of a terrorist group. Perhaps they are not out in the open or wearing the robes and hoods of the KKK but the tactics, the actions, and the intentions are the same and are an ever-present stain of our history and our present day. The parallel of something so racially charged is baffling, though it is also--morbidly--interesting that in the 1969 case the conviction was upheld even though it was decided just one year after the official end of the Civil Rights Movement. Perhaps the recent movement inspired the need to uphold the decision or perhaps they were more inclined to follow precedent with the evidence provided. Either way, the sentence was still carried out. Whether that sentence was acceptable I personally cannot say. I am not versed in the Ohio Criminal Syndicalism Statute nor am I a lawyer or judge. The mere fact that a leader of the KKK was actually convicted and sentenced is significant. What I find most interesting, if it is the right word, is that the emphasis of Brown’s charge was on the fact that he lied to federal agents, not necessarily the act of burning the cross on the lawn. In 1969, the Ohio state court charged and convicted Brandenburg under a statute that encompassed the crime of “advocating the unlawful methods of terrorism.” A leader of a terrorist group one year after the conclusion of the Civil Rights Movement was actually charged and convicted of terrorism; while the act of terrorism in the year 2020 was merely given a charge of lying to federal agents and a criminal complaint pertaining to criminal interference with fair housing.


Overall, the actions of both men, who performed the same crime of burning a cross to promote a racist ideology (a crime that I would assume is also extremely sacrilegious?). One man was a leader of the KKK, the second man a bigot who wanted to terrorize a black family with tactics of the past. One was sentenced for the specific act of terrorism, the second was not even specifically charged with that exact crime. One court case was decided and upheld in 1969, the second court case began in 2020. While the outcome and further charges, if any, have not been determined for the 2020 case the emphasis on lying to federal agents not necessarily the actual crime of burning a cross into a black family’s home is a significant disregard to the race-driven crime and the actual damage inflicted. Ignoring the real problem only establishes the precedent that such a thing is accepted. The similarity of these court cases is astonishing, but the difference is even more so twisted.


George Santayana once said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” But I instead often see that the past is not necessarily repeated, rather, the past is reflected within the present, paralleled unless we are aware and attempt to change course ourselves. These two cases, separated by decades of history, are one of those many darkly paralleled moments.

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