A year after KKK flyers, Range town to rally for King holiday

PHOTO: Jerry Huddleston, Flickr CC

This Monday, Jan. 21, the city of Virginia, Minnesota, and Mesabi Range College will host a MLK Peace and Unity march and rally celebrating the legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

The march starts at noon on the west side of Virginia City Hall at 327 1st Street South with the 12:15 p.m. rally at the Virginia Public Schools Gym at the west end of 500 Block of 2nd Street South.

Normally, you might just chalk this up as an appropriate program for the King holiday. But this event takes on special significance. Around this time last year, supporters of the Ku Klux Klan distributed flyers to people in Virginia and other Iron Range communities.

I wrote about this last year in “Hate and Power on the Iron Range,” commending the swift, unified response by city officials in condemning the white supremacists’ message.

The history of the KKK on the Iron Range isn’t often discussed, but became a profoundly troubling experience for many early 20th Century immigrants. The late State Rep. Tom Rukavina, whose funeral is Saturday, spoke of it in his powerful final letter to the Tower Timberjay entitled “Hate helps no one, love solves everything.”

Rukavina wrote, in part:

… it’s puzzling to me that some of my friends and their children have forgotten that they are the children and grandchildren of immigrants. That they came to America for the same dream, to make life better for themselves and their families. And they were treated as badly as today’s immigrants. I can’t help but relay the story told to me by one of my dad’s best friends.

They had milk cows on the northside of Virginia and it was Bruno’s job, as a 12-year-old kid, to deliver the milk in the morning to the mining locations – Lincoln, Higgins and Minorca – which sat above the hill north of Virginia. One early morning on his way to deliver milk, he saw smoke coming from the top of one of the mine dumps, so on his way back after delivery he decided to climb up there and investigate. It was a smoldering cross put there by the Ku Klux Klan to intimidate the Slovenians and Croatians because they were Catholic, and the Finns who they claimed were radicals. He also happened to notice there was a little book on the ground. He picked up the book and put it in his pocket and he brought it home to his father.

His Italian father couldn’t read English so they brought it across the street to another Italian immigrant who could read English. The book contained the membership list of the Virginia KKK. Rinaldo got so scared he threw the book in the kitchen woodstove and burned it, because it contained the names of some very important “American” people in Virginia. To this day I still remember some of the names that were told to me that were in that book. Much to my surprise I’ve kept those names to myself, and all of you knowing my big mouth, it has been a chore to not blurt them out at times. But, among the descendants of those individuals were many good people.

My hope is that someday, the descendants of those people who are currently creating so much hardship for our new immigrants, will learn that people are people no matter their color, religion or country of origin. That they are good people coming to the land of the free for the same reason our ancestors did.

Immigrants aren’t the only targets of the KKK. No racial or religious minority escapes the judgmental scorn of white supremacists. Many times such messages escape into the mainstream to be passed along unwittingly by people who honestly don’t think they are white supremacists.

Fact is, white people like me — no matter who we are — have a hard time talking about the prejudice at the heart of American society without feeling defensive. Labels are unforgiving.

Nevertheless, Tom Rukavina’s simple plea for love, not hate, will suffice at first. So will listening. We celebrate Tom’s life on Saturday, but we also know where he would have wanted to be on Monday.

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