What would happen if hate groups descended on McHenry County? It happened here 22 years ago. And history shows how the community responded. Those who lived through those events in the summer of 1995 said some good actually came out of ordeal, but not everyone is convinced the same would happen today.
Many residents and elected officials tried to stop the Ku Klux Klan from holding a public rally that summer in McHenry County.
County leaders, facing the threat of a lawsuit, ultimately backed down. A dozen or so members of a KKK group based in Michigan gathered Aug. 19, 1995, at the McHenry County Government Center in Woodstock. An earlier Klan rally to be held in June of that year at a farm outside Richmond never materialized. The Klan’s 90-minute Woodstock rally was undercut by peaceful demonstrations and counterprotests – and later helped start community discussions about race relations and establish human rights groups here.
McHenry County Board members tried to stop the Klan from coming to town by requiring the group to get a $1 million liability insurance policy. When the Klan threatened to sue, the board backed down to avoid a costly legal battle on the advice from the McHenry County State’s Attorney’s Office, according to Northwest Herald reports from the time. Board member Jim Frisch cast the only dissenting vote, urging the county not to “cave in,” the paper reported.
Police from nine agencies, including some on horseback, kept almost everyone in check. However, seven people were arrested for mob action, aggravated battery or resisting police. Four of the seven were from Chicago; a fifth was from Elk Grove Village. No address was listed for the only woman arrested that day; a Rockford boy named in a juvenile petition for fighting was released to his parents.
“Obviously, this rally went off relatively smoothly,” Sheriff Bill Mullen told the newspaper. “Had not the police presence been as strong as it was, I believe it could have gotten way out of hand.”
Here’s how Northwest Herald reporters Kurt Begalka and Greg Rivara described the events in the Sunday, Aug. 20, 1995, edition of the Northwest Herald: “The Ku Klux Klan rally at the courthouse Saturday hosted a wealth of blustery speech and minor skirmishes, but little violence, seven arrests and only three injuries.”
The article continued: “The hatred and fear, however, were impossible to escape. About 150 pro- and anti-Klan factions mingled together and screamed epithets at each other. A 5-foot-high fence line surrounding most of the west parking lot separated the throng from about a dozen Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, who are based in Michigan.”
Begalka, now administrator of the McHenry County Historical Society, said his overriding memory of the event more than two decades later was of the number of law enforcement officers there.
“Police were everywhere,” said Begalka, who added that he remembered the Klan members staying calm while protesters, including some from Chicago-based socialist and workers’ party groups, tried to instigate fights.
The city of Woodstock later said it spent $35,422 to handle the rally. Most of that money went to pay for police training, special equipment, salaries and overtime. The Woodstock Public Works Department spent $18,500 on labor and equipment, putting up fencing, no parking signs and other amenities aimed to keep people safe, according to Northwest Herald reports from the time.
Dan Larsen, a Congregational Unitarian Church minister in Woodstock, remembered being part of the peace gathering at the time. Larsen, now 80 and retired, said the peace group came together as soon as it became clear the Klan was coming to McHenry County.
“We learned the KKK was coming to town, and we felt there ought to be something peaceful,” he said in a phone interview Friday from his Woodstock home. “It went pretty well – it wasn’t anything like what happened in Charlottesville.”
A car plowed into a group of people who were protesting a white nationalist rally Aug. 12 in Charlottesville, Virginia, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer. Two state troopers – Lt. H. Jay Cullen and Trooper Berke M. M. Bates – watching the demonstrations died in a helicopter crash. Thirty-four people were injured in clashes, according to media reports.
Larsen said he didn’t know what would happen if the Klan or similar groups returned to McHenry County today.
“The country is divided now – it’s very different. The level of fear has risen so far,” he said. “I blame a whole lot of it on [President Donald] Trump.”
Stew Cohen of Star 105.5 WSZR-FM gave a welcome and announcements at the beginning of the Peace and Justice Festival that day in 1995. Later in the day, he covered the Klan rally. Many people were shocked the Klan had picked McHenry County, he said.
“There was a lot of concern in the run up to the event,” Cohen said Friday. “People were thinking back to the neo-Nazis in Skokie.”
Cohen said the peace group met on the Woodstock Square.
“The atmosphere was good – it showed the good side of people in McHenry County,” he said.
Cohen said he thinks the same thing would happen today if hate groups returned to the county.
“The people who live here are good,” he said. “They are peaceful.”
Patrick Murfin, a member of the Tree of Life Social Justice Team who worked closely with Larsen to help organize a peaceful response to the Klan, agreed with Cohen.
He said the Klan’s rally ended up bringing together the community in positive ways.
“When the Klan came in 1995, we decided to respond by staging an alternative event – we put on a peace festival in the Square while the Klan was at the new courthouse,” Murfin said.
That event later turned into Diversity Day, which brought people to the Square each summer for 13 years to reflect on a variety of topics.
Before the Klan’s rally, few people in the community were talking about racial problems in McHenry County, Murfin said.
“It got the conversation started,” he said. “It helped spur a lot of cooperation.”
Murfin said the events of the summer of 1995 helped, indirectly, to establish a number of human relations commissions in towns throughout the county.