Disturbing KKK photographs featured at USM exhibit

HATTIESBURG, MS (WLOX) - South Mississippi photographer James Edward Bates spent the past 13 years documenting the Ku Klux Klan.

The University of Southern Mississippi, his alma mater, is exhibiting the photographs at the main library on the Hattiesburg campus. On Thursday Bates gave a lecture to students about his documentary work.

It took a lot of hard work, but Bates managed to earn the trust of a Klan leader in Alabama more than 13 years ago. That leader agreed to give the photographer extraordinary access to "cross burnings" and other Klan activities.

Over the years, he's had a rifle pointed at his head and received numerous threats. But his perseverance has helped produce some incredible images.

James Edward Bates showed a behind-the-scenes video to his student audience. But while the movie may have grabbed their attention, it's the powerful black and white images that provide the real impact.

"Racism is something that we all deal with, on a personal level sometimes. In our workforce, in our community, in our neighborhood and perhaps even in our own family.  So, my hope is that people will take a closer look and give some deeper thought to our interactions on a daily basis related to race relations in our country," said Bates.

The chilling picture of a child with a hanging doll is the one which prompted a father to point a rifle at Bates and threaten to kill him.

"He was there when I took the photograph. But six months later, his demeanor had changed and he was obviously upset that I'd taken the photograph. And let me know he did not care to see another photograph of his son," said Bates.

The images of children are among the most disturbing in the exhibit.  But that focus is intentional, since the documentary is called "Passing the Torch."

Curtis Austin is director of the black studies program at USM.

"To attempt to sweep something under the rug just because it might be controversial or distasteful, would really be going against our mission of educating our students and the community at large. So, it's important, because we get to learn from it," said Austin.

"The message I try to deliver after talking about the Klan specifically, is just to ask people to take a moment to understand that the Klan doesn't represent all the racism that exists in our country," says Bates.

"It's amazing work. It's absolutely wonderful work. And the breadth of time he's been working on it talks to his dedication about documenting the issue, the organization. He plays a very important role in making us all smarter," said Clarence Williams, who directs the USM photojournalism department.

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