How to honor MLK legacy in Whitefish, Montana

Story highlights

  • Kenneth Stern: A neo-Nazi group in Montana is planning an anti-Semitic march on Martin Luther King Day
  • Opponents of hate are using Project Lemonade, a technique developed to turn KKK marches into fundraisers for inclusive groups, he says

Kenneth Stern is the executive director of the Justus & Karin Rosenberg Foundation, which works to combat hatred and anti-Semitism. The views expressed in this commentary are solely his.

(CNN)The Daily Stormer, a website led by neo-Nazi Andrew Anglin, recently announced a plan to march heavily armed in Whitefish, Montana -- hometown of white supremacist Richard Spencer -- as part of their campaign against residents whom they call "criminal Jews."

The march was scheduled for this upcoming Monday, Dr. Martin Luther King Day -- which they called "James Earl Ray Day" to honor King's assassin.
I was 15 when King was gunned down in Memphis in April 1968. The next day at school, a teacher asked my class, "How many of you would have marched with Dr. King if he were still alive?" Most of us raised our hands. "He was alive yesterday," he retorted. "How many of you marched with him then?"
    Kenneth Stern
    No one responded. I have never felt more a hypocrite than at that moment. If King were alive and someone asked him what to do about Whitefish, he would likely have underscored the lesson my teacher intended -- we're all responsible for each other, and that hate unchecked will surely grow.
    Whether the march will occur on Monday or not is unclear -- some white supremacists have threatened to show up Monday anyway, without a permit. Yesterday the organizers, whose application for a permit for the march was deemed incomplete by the city manager, announced they were rescheduling the march, "probably for some time in February, and the march will be bigger and have more guns and special guests than we originally planned."
    Their campaign of hate is about more than the march itself. These neo-Nazis have also directly targeted Jews in the Whitefish area, putting their home and email addresses, phone numbers and pictures (including of a Jewish child) online, asking supporters to "Hit Em Up." They've also targeted human rights activists who came to the Jews' defense.
    As King said in 1965, "Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter." What can any of us do to avoid being silent about this community targeted by hate? For most of us Whitefish, with a population under 10,000, is a small community far away.
    First, we must avoid giving the neo-Nazis what they crave most -- attention in the form of unrest. Some have suggested a counter-demonstration whenever the white supremacists assemble. That idea is problematic. Too often violence erupts. In any event, the local human rights groups are holding their long-planned annual Martin Luther King Day events, which are all the more important this year.
    Recent history yields a better approach. In the 1990s, folks in Boyerstown, Pennsylvania, faced with a Ku Klux Klan rally, tried something called "Project Lemonade" -- a technique developed by Bill and Lindy Seltzer in 1994 to counter a Klan rally in their own community of Springfield, Illinois. Rather than engage in a First Amendment debate, or stage a counter-protest, they decided to respect the KKK's free speech rights, but make the haters' speech cost them dearly -- while also helping others.
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    Out of the "lemons" of racist activity in their community, they made the lemonade of support for worthy causes. They solicited donations tied to how long the rally lasted, with the funds going to programs Klan members would detest, such community projects organized to oppose hatred.
    Other communities have used it successfully. It also avoids dividing opponents of white supremacy into those who support, and those who oppose, the free speech rights of the haters. So the Justus & Karin Rosenberg Foundation, which I direct, suggested this model to our friends in the human rights community in Whitefish: Love Lives Here, a local non-profit that works for inclusivity, and Montana Human Rights Network, a statewide organization with a similar mission.
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    Both groups readily agreed. The Montana Human Rights Network is accepting the pledges, and will donate any funds raised for anti-hate community projects. We are proud to have made the first pledge of $10 per minute (up to a limit of $2,500). As of January 11, if the neo-Nazis march, they will have raised $800 per minute (and $51,000 if they march for 3 hours) for things they abhor, such as support for the people threatened, community education about hate and white supremacy, and increased police and community training in handling hate crimes.
    Ultimately on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, we hope the white supremacists stay away from Whitefish. Now they know if they march, they'll be fundraising for projects which will promote King's vision for America, not theirs.
    We can try to influence what white supremacists decide to do in this way, but in the end they will either show up to march in Whitefish or they won't. What's more important is what the rest of us do to help the people targeted in Whitefish to recover and build stronger institutions to reject hatred. Those actions will continue to make a difference once the march, if it happens, is a distant memory.
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    I recently spoke with a Montanan who wanted to reach out and help on the ground in Whitefish, but didn't know how. She told me she loved the Project Lemonade approach, since it "gives people something positive to do." She also appreciated that it helps the community overall, because it shows that people elsewhere care.
    Project Lemonade feels more important now than ever before. As much as I'm concerned about the people in Whitefish, I'm also worried that the racist right, which feels empowered by the election of Donald Trump and the notoriety of figures like Richard Spencer, will victimize other communities if they succeed in Montana.
    Unlike in 1968, you don't have to go to a march to support people being threatened by hate. You can stand up with a simple pledge. Please do. As Martin Luther King said, it matters.