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Once a zealot of racism, now a messenger of reconciliation

OKLAHOMA CITY (BP)–The jangling phone woke Johnny Lee Clary in the middle of the night.

A voice on the other end threatened, “I want you to know I am in town and I’m going to murder you. You will die before the end of this weekend. I’m giving you a couple of days notice, because you are never going to see it coming. I want you to sweat and be afraid and wonder when the bullet is coming. But rest assured, it is coming.”

The caller became irate at Clary’s response, challenging him to explain why he was laughing at the threat.

Clary, former national grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, who now is a leader in speaking out against racism, told the caller, “If you were going to rob a bank, would you call 20 minutes before and tell them what you were going to do? Now you know I’m going to be ready for you.”

The caller repeated that Clary should be afraid.

“I’m not afraid because God has not given me the spirit of fear, but the power of love and a sound mind,” Clary replied. “You think you’re going to scare me by sending me to heaven? That is one of the most stupid things I’ve heard, because if you put a bullet in me, I get to walk the streets of glory, but you get to burn in hell for eternity where there will be fire, brimstone, weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

With that, the caller hung up.

This is just one example of the threats and taunts Clary tells of receiving since he turned his back on the Klan, rededicated his life to God and surrendered to the ministry.

Because he is what the Klansmen call a racist traitor, he is at the top of the Klansmen’s “list,” Clary noted, adding that he gets hate letters over the Internet, letters through the mail and the occasional visit by Klansmen at his preaching engagements.

“Most of the Klansmen weren’t even in the movement when I was; they were just little kids,” Clary observed. “But, because I’m listed as one of the worst race traitors of all time, they are raised up to hate me.”

In Clary’s experience, Klansmen got promoted every time they did something spectacular in the movement. He suspects that some must feel they will win a promotion if they do something to him, even if it’s just throwing a punch at him.

“And some are so fanatical they would be happy to go to prison for killing me,” he said.

Clary doesn’t live in fear, although he acknowledges keeping his eyes open, being cautious and taking measures to defend himself.

“But my biggest defense is Isaiah 54:17 which says ‘no weapon formed against me will prosper,'” Clary said. “I know God didn’t bring me this far to end my life. And whether I live just another year or until I’m 95, I’m only going home when God is ready for me to go home.”

Clary related a recent call from a man still involved in the movement, but who is friendly to him. This friend warned of a neo-Nazi skinhead in Tulsa, where Clary makes his home, who said he had a machine gun and was going to kill Clary.

Told that he would go to prison if he killed Clary, the militant retorted that he would go down as a martyr and a hero to the movement and wouldn’t mind going to prison for killing “that racist traitor scumbag.”

Some of Clary’s antagonists even show up at his meetings, usually sitting in the back trying to stare him down. Other encounters involve those within the church, he reports.

In an Alabama church on one occasion, one of the deacons walked up to shake his hand and gave him the secret Klan handshake.

“I asked him how long he’d been out of the Klan, and he said he wasn’t out but hadn’t been active for awhile,” Clary said. “He and another deacon kept using the “N’ word, so the next time I stepped to the pulpit, I started talking about how wrong the Klan is and how wrong it is to use the ‘N’ word.”

He phoned the pastor of the church a few weeks after the meeting and was greeted coolly. The pastor accused Clary of “running off his two best deacons.”

However, some encounters are worth all the confrontations and disruptions, Clary said.

During one of Clary’s meetings in England, three neo-Nazis came in the back door, clicked their heels together and put their hands up in the Hitler salute.

Immediately the ushers started toward the men and the Nazis went into a fighting stance. Clary instructed the ushers to leave the three alone and he invited the Nazis to stay if they behaved themselves.

“As they stood there with folded arms, I continued sharing, and when I gave the invitation, all three of them came to the altar,” Clary rejoiced. “Everyone was concerned about what they were going to do, but they took their toboggan caps off, bowed their heads, said a prayer and gave their lives to Christ.”

The organization that calls itself the Ku Klux Klan, as far as Clary can tell, is not growing, although there are still people joining.

“If they only have 10 people, that’s 10 too many,” he asserted.

What is growing, he said, are front organizations that believe the same way, but don’t call themselves the Klan.

“I feel kind of responsible for this, because it was my idea,” Clary admitted. “Before I left the Klan, I told them our membership was not as large as it was in the 1960s and early 1970s, and we needed to create front groups and indoctrinate them, and once they were indoctrinated, they would not have any qualms about putting on the sheet.”

Lamenting that the Klan took the idea and carried through with it, he noted that today there are numerous groups that have the same philosophy as the Klan, whether they call themselves the Militia of Montana, Patriots of Bakersfield or Minute Men.

He referenced recent statistics by the Southern Poverty Law Center that in 1984 these groups had fewer than 10,000 hard-core members, but today membership is approaching 1 million.

“There are not 1 million Klansmen,” Clary noted, “but a person who joins one of these groups is just as dangerous as a Klansman, because he is still reading the literature that says the Jew is a varmint and the spawn of the devil and the black is the beast of the earth, and we must protect the rights of the white people and arm ourselves and prepare for an all-out race war.”

These people won’t be seen marching in the streets with white sheets, Clary said, because they’ve traded in the sheets for overalls, ball caps, T-shirts and jeans.

“This way they fit into society, and you never know when you’re sitting next to one,” Clary said. “And that is scary.”

The message he now shares as he travels around the world is racial reconciliation.

“This type of message will never die,” he explained. “Racism is huge. You have all kinds of discrimination in this country. It isn’t just white people hating all these other races. It’s the other races showing hatred too.”

The KKK’s main thrust in the old days was separation, he says, but now it is the creation of an all-white world.

“I thought we could all get along as long as we had segregation,” Clary reflected of his time in the Klan. “But the Klan has changed, and they are no different than the Nazis. Their goal is to create the ‘Rahowa,’ which stands for racial holy war. They envision a world where there’s all this race trouble and the white people come out on top. They want an all-white world, and there is no room for any other thinking, any other ideas or other races in the world.”

Clary says he is in negotiations with Hollywood producers to make a movie about his life.

“I want it to be a secular movie so we can take the message of Christ and reach a secular world,” Clary maintained.

In the meantime, he intends to travel to the ends of the earth fighting the prejudice that formerly gripped him and sharing the message that changed him from a zealot of racism into a messenger of reconciliation.

    About the Author

  • Dana Williamson