How KKK rally image found new life 20 years after it was published

Buried on Page B1, alongside the hum-drum headline “KKK march calm,” a powerful image of race relations in the southern United States was nearly lost. In fact, it almost wasn’t published at all.

And in the 20 years since, this emotionally complex photograph of a Klan-robed toddler playfully touching the riot shield of a bemused African-American state trooper has gone uncelebrated and largely unknown.

Photo by Todd Robertson, courtesy of the Southern Poverty Law Center

Now, thanks to a few twists of fate, the photo has been granted a second life through social media, where each viewer seems to read something different into the image. Is it disturbing? Hopeful? Humorous? Touching? Heartbreaking?

Many who have shared the photo online admit they know little about its origins, which is understandable. Aside from a few basic details, such as the photographer’s name and a rough guess on the year, the full story behind this photo has never appeared online until today.

After first seeing the photo shared on Facebook a month ago, I decided to track down the photographer, who now describes himself as “a 45-year-old cabinet designer who has nothing to do with pictures.” In a recent phone interview, Todd Robertson shared the full story, which proved even more interesting than I’d imagined.

Of course, it all begins on the day the image was captured: Sept. 5, 1992.

The Ku Klux Klan was holding a rally in the northeast Georgia community of Gainesville, where the white supremacist group hoped to breathe some life into its flagging revival campaign of the late 1980s and early ’90s.

Assigned as a backup photographer for the local daily, The Gainesville Times, was Robertson, a 1991 graduate of the University of Georgia’s Grady School of Journalism. He had a few recurring gigs, including shooting high school football for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, but a full-time photojournalism job had proved elusive.

At the Klan rally, there wasn’t a tremendous amount of action for Robertson to record. According to news reports from the day, there were 66 KKK representatives, encircled by three times as many law enforcement personnel. The downtown square was otherwise empty, with about 100 observers at the fringe, mostly there to demonstrate against the Klan.

The white supremacists were out-of-towners with no real local support in Gainesville. “Many people who came to these Klan events were not from here,” recalls Gainesville Times new media editor Michael Beard in an email to me about the photo’s history. “I’ve lived here all my life and can only recall seeing someone in a Klan outfit one single time, standing alone at an intersection trying to hand out papers.”

While reporters and the staff photographer focused on the speakers at the rally and watched for potential signs of conflict, Robertson chose to follow a mother and her two young boys, dressed in white robes and the KKK’s iconic pointy hats.

One of the boys approached a black state trooper, who was holding his riot shield on the ground. Seeing his reflection, the boy reached for the shield, and Robertson snapped the photo. Almost immediately, the mother swooped in and took away the toddler, whom she identified to Robertson as “Josh.” The moment was fleeting, and almost no one noticed it, but Robertson had captured it on film.

And a roll of film seemed to be where it was destined to stay. Back at the newspaper office, Robertson was told his photos weren’t worth developing because the staff photographer had come back with plenty of good images from the rally. A photograph of a Klan leader was selected to be the primary shot for the Local section cover.

On his own initiative, Robertson took his film to a local one-hour photo developer and brought a stack of 4×6 prints back to the newspaper office. He was showing the photo of the young boy and the trooper to a few reporters when the managing editor walked by.

“He grabbed it up, walked directly to the photo guy and said, ‘This picture’s running in the paper,’” Robertson says. “That staff photographer and I are still friends, but we weren’t that day.”

While it only appeared in black-and-white on Page B1 of a small community newspaper, the photo also hit the Associated Press wire, where it sparked some unexpected attention.

Robertson was soon contacted by producers for “The Sally Jessy Raphael Show,” which wanted to feature the young boy and his mother. As with many such requests since then, Robertson wasn’t able to provide any contact information for the family, which he guessed lived in or around Winder, Ga., because of their affiliation with the Klan’s Winder Knights sect.

It’s hard to know where else the photograph ran in those initial days, though Robertson heard of it appearing in several European tabloids.

Gainesville Times editors submitted the shot for a state Associated Press award, which it won in the Feature Photo category. But that, Robertson says, was the photo’s only official recognition.

By all logic, the photo’s legacy should have ended there. The newspaper wasn’t yet posting content to the Internet, so the photo would only live on microfilm. (As recently as December 2012, the newspaper’s editors said they were unsure where to find the original article because the exact date of the rally had been forgotten. Luckily, the Hall County Library was able to help me dig up the scan of the photo’s original appearance in print.)

As for Robertson, he soon decided to give up his dream of being a professional photographer and join his father’s local cabinetry business, Area Decor, where he is now a project manager. He got married, had twins, kept himself plenty busy. When the family travels, he refuses to take along any camera larger than a point-and-shoot, to keep himself from “going overboard and crawling around on the ground trying to get a shot.”

But fate still had plans for Robertson’s photography. In 1999, seven years after the Klan rally photograph was captured, the Southern Poverty Law Center decided to feature it prominently in a new pamphlet called “Ten Ways to Fight Hate: A Community Response Guide.”

Even those involved with the original publication don’t remember why or how they dug up Robertson’s photo, but once it was unearthed from the anti-hate organization’s extensive archive of news clippings, everyone knew it was a perfect fit for the publication, where it appears in full color across the booklet’s second page.

“I don’t know who found it or where it came up,” says Penny Weaver, longtime public affairs coordinator for the Alabama-based SPLC, in a phone interview for this story. “But that’s how it’s gotten wide distribution, because we have given away lots and lots of that handbook over the years.”

The nonprofit licensed the photo with Robertson for publication, and he provided them an uncropped color version, which is now prominently displayed in the group’s office. As the pamphlet circulated through multiple printings over the years, Weaver says her group was often contacted by admirers of the photo who wanted to order a poster version or learn more about it. She would refer all inquiries to Robertson, who says he responded to some but not all of the requests.

As online photo sharing exploded in 2011, the photograph appeared (with no caption other than “Awwwww”) on a popular photo blog called The Meta Picture. Right away, commenters began to have a debate that’s now a standard byproduct of the image: Is it cute, sad or disturbing?

“Not *awww*, this kid is the next white supremacist generation,” notes the first commenter.

“You’re completely missing the point,” responds another. “This kid has no idea how to hate yet. It’s cute. If he becomes ‘the next white supremacist generation’ it won’t be his fault.”

Other bloggers shared the photo and added what little context they could find. Robertson noticed the spike in activity and, in July 2012, even posted his first-ever statement about the photograph as a comment on the blog 22 Words. “I will never be able to live without someone finding this picture,” Robertson wrote, then gave a few reflections on the events of that day.

The slow burn of the photo’s digital rebirth continues to flare up in seemingly random places. On Dec. 10, 2012, the image was shared on Facebook by a gay-rights page called “Have a Gay Day.” The image sparked 1,700 likes and 850 shares in one day.

“I have stared at this picture and wondered what must have been going through that Trooper’s mind,” wrote the gay-rights advocate who posted it to Facebook. “Before the Trooper is an innocent child who is being taught to hate him because of the color of his skin. The child doesn’t understand what he is being taught, and at this point he doesn’t seem to care.”

This comment captures what makes Robertson’s photo so compelling. It’s a fleeting moment, but one that you could spend hours reflecting on, finding different nuances and interpretations. It becomes a sort of Rorschach test for each commenter’s worldview. It might leave you hopeful that hate isn’t a trait we’re born with. Or it might make you depressed about the fact that many children are destined to be corrupted and psychologically misshapen.

Ball State University even built a one-hour lesson plan around the photograph for high school educators as part of the college’s “Learning from a Legacy of Hate” teacher toolkit. Called the “Kiddie Klan Exercise,” it includes questions such as “What do you think is going on in the officer’s head at this moment? What are his facial expressions saying?” and “Would you feel differently about this picture if the officer that ‘Josh’ is interacting with was not African-American?”

“The whole key to that picture is the expression on that trooper’s face,” says the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Penny Weaver. “I think that expression is … what’s the word to describe it? It’s like a sort of sadness.”

Robertson himself interprets the trooper’s reaction as a mix of “disgust and sorrow.”

“They felt sorry for the kid,” he says. “You could tell that kid did not know the difference between that day and Halloween.”

The photo’s online revival has had a complicated effect on Robertson, who thought he had moved past his photojournalism life many years ago. He enjoys seeing the comments and wishes he could help the many viewers who want to know what ever happened to “Josh.” But at the same time, it can feel strange reflecting back on one moment two decades ago.

“I just really don’t even know what to say about it. It seems like it was a whole world ago. It’s almost like another life that I lived 20 years ago.

“I was looking in the right direction, I guess.”

Update: Photographer, trooper from Klan rally image meet

David Griner is a contributing editor for Adweek.com and VP/Director of Digital Content for Alabama-based marketing agency Luckie & Company. He previously served as city editor for a community newspaper in Northern California and as a reporter and political columnist in Fort Wayne, Indiana. He can be reached by email or on Twitter at @Griner.

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  • http://www.thesocialpath.com/ DavidGriner

    Thanks, Robert, I saw that, along with a similar piece in the Gainesville paper that originally ran the photo. I have to give all the credit to the original photographer, Todd Robertson, who dug through his archives after our interview and found the trooper’s name, then tracked him down for the newspaper interviews. Still got the knack for journalism after all these years!

  • http://www.thesocialpath.com/ DavidGriner

    That’s very kind of you to say, and I’m excited to hear that you have a passion for journalistic storytelling. Reading the NYT’s “Snow Fall” – http://www.nytimes.com/projects/2012/snow-fall/#/?part=tunnel-creek – I was similarly energized about the future of great narratives in a world that seemed lulled into a sound-bite culture. Best of luck in your education and career!

  • http://www.facebook.com/leanne.haas Leanne Marie Haas

    Dear David,
    I stumbled upon your story intentionally searching for a good feature story. I am 16 years old and editor-in-chief of my high school newspaper. I love writing feature stories like this, and writers like you really inspire me! I am reminded that stories such as this are not dead, but alive and thriving in the world of journalism. It only takes a talented and dedicate writer. I am more hopeful than ever for my future career in journalism. Thank you,
    Leanne

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000786032316 Shawn Nee

    Don’t forget this great photo taken in 1983 during a KKK rally in Austin, TX.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/guyr/382481723/in/faves-discarted/

  • Kimm Ryland

    upto I saw the bank draft that said $5575, I have faith …that…my best friend realie bringing home money part-time at their computer.. there moms best frend had bean doing this for less than and recently cleard the morgage on there place and purchased a brand new Aston Martin DB5. this is where I went, jump15.comCHECK IT OUT

  • JTFloore

    this pix reminds me of a song written back in the 1970s, i think it was, by noted nashville songwriter Bobby Braddock, “the kute klux klan,” a biting satire about indoctrinating kids with hate.

  • http://twitter.com/wereviking Warren Hately

    That was way longer than it needed to be.

  • bicyclebill

    nit-picker.

  • http://twitter.com/christ_sux Jebus Christo

    White folks… always looking for the sad darkie story. Who cares what the Trooper felt. He was a sworn officer of the law, armed and on-duty. I doubt he felt an existential threat from a white baby. You should be doing research to find that kid’s parents, and/or the lady who sewed that little Klan outfit. These are the people with attitudes that may teach you something. The Black Man was just doing his job. Your attempts to force him into your noble victim stereotype are evidence of your racial bias.

  • http://twitter.com/camwizeusa CameraWize

    What a really interesting piece. I think the quality of the picture is the sense that it is open to so many interpretations. Many published photos these days illustrate rather than illuminate and so lead the viewer to a particular interpretation which, of course, would reflect the tenor of the adjoining article. In fact, my first response was to look for a caption so that I could understand what was happening exactly. By leaving it for personal interpretation, it opens up various perspectives and allows empathy for both the main characters in the image.

  • Tim Connors

    I wouldn’t want to find out, because it’s not likely a good outcome. It’s very hard to recover from that. Unless he’s now at university, he’s working in a small time hicksville shop with hateful views that his parents fed him. If he went to university, he’d be about 4 years in by now, and might just be mirroring where I was 4 years into my uni education. Good luck to him!

  • http://www.thesocialpath.com/ DavidGriner

    Thanks for the good catch. Fixed that. Glad you enjoyed the piece, Ellen.

  • e. erickson

    Thank you, Mr. Griner, on a compelling piece of journalism. Thank you Poytner for making this widely available.

  • Edmund Singleton

    In the digital age the image would have been deleted, not so in the age of film, thank you Mr. Kodak…

  • http://twitter.com/moosebump RichardL

    Even more interesting would be to find out how Josh turned out!

  • http://www.facebook.com/ellen.r.shelton Ellen Rachel

    “I’ve lived here all my life and can only recall seeing someone in a Klan outfit one single time, standing alone at any intersection trying to hand out papers.”

    I may be mistaken, but I suspect this is supposed to say “alone at an intersection,” not “any.”

    This is a great article and story! One of those rare pieces that make you glad someone took the time to research and write. Thank you!

  • http://www.facebook.com/mwmoon Michael Moon

    Guy, you should stop. You’re being ridiculous.

    I hope I am using the right word. What I mean is that your behavior is deserving or inviting derision or mockery. You are being absurd.

  • thx2600

    A journalism website whose visitors will settle for misinformation and mediocrity isn’t one worth visiting.

  • http://www.facebook.com/leigh.a.doss Leigh Ann Doss

    I remember that small rally as a joke in our town, but it really wasn’t. I know Todd Robertson from high school and think it’s amazing that he captured this poignant moment on film. We’ve since moved away, but racism is not exclusive to the south. This photograph speaks to humanity. I truly hope this image might be published and shared with a wider audience. It really is amazing.
    Leigh Ann Doss
    Washington DC

  • http://www.thesocialpath.com/ DavidGriner

    Thank you, Donald.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Guy-Reynolds/1489120075 Guy Reynolds

    internet age: gotta love it. this old one of mine got 100K views in a matter of days after I put it on Flickr and was blogged worldwide and garnered a similar mixed and heated response in the comments. There’s nothing quite like the KKK to stir up the emotions. Austin, TX 1983 http://www.flickr.com/photos/guyr/382481723/

  • http://twitter.com/donaldrwinslow Donald R. Winslow

    David, great reporting and storytelling. Thank you! -Donald

  • http://www.thesocialpath.com/ DavidGriner

    I agree it would be great to reach the trooper. If I find a way, I’ll definitely follow up.

  • http://www.thesocialpath.com/ DavidGriner

    Thank you both for your feedback. I’m glad you enjoyed it.

  • http://www.thesocialpath.com/ DavidGriner

    Unfortunately, I don’t. Would definitely love to get a hold of him, though.

  • http://www.thesocialpath.com/ DavidGriner

    Thanks, I updated the phrasing a bit. I appreciate the feedback.

  • http://twitter.com/getrealchump Get Real

    I agree, this is some fabulous writing. Using the story as a lense to speak about the photo, without speaking for it, is fantastic.

  • http://twitter.com/getrealchump Get Real

    His use is correct. Read the ENTIRE sentence, all the way up to that dot at the end, which we call a “period”. ” There was no Internet for the photo to be shared on…” The Internet of the 60′s, 70′s, 80′s, and even 90′s wasn’t a place where photos could be widely shared. FTP, Archie, Veronica and BBS sites were not public photo sharing sites. Eventually we will have an Internet that allows us to share actual objects which can be rendered on 3D printers. We don’t have that now.

  • Bruce

    I am not a journalist. I understood his meaning. Journalists are supposed to COMMUNICATE, which he did. Get over thyself already.

  • http://about.me/susannaspeier Susanna Speier

    The authorial ambivalence regarding interpretations and responses to the photo is what makes it such a gem. David Griner does justice to Todd Robertson’s disturbingly timeless photograph.

  • Felixi

    Thank you for writing this, David. I am curious – do you have contact information on the officer in the photo? I am interested in his reaction at that moment …

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=7719542 Katie Booher Ayers

    I’d be curious to know if anyone’s ever tried to contact the police officer. Surely there’s got to be some old-timers who remember this rally and maybe who the officer was?

  • http://www.thesocialpath.com/ DavidGriner

    Thanks, Steve. Appreciate the kind words.

  • thx2600

    His use is incorrect. The Internet is the network; the World Wide Web runs on the Internet. They’re not the same thing. Journalists are supposed to use precise language. Not language that “kind of works.”

  • http://www.facebook.com/JerelaMarshall Jerry Alexander

    I think his use still kind of works though. As in the Internet then was different then the one we have today.

  • thx2600

    David, about this part, “There was no Internet for the photo to be shared on…”

    The Internet has been around since the 1960s. Perhaps you mean the Web, which runs on the Internet? Two different things. I know that although these words are used interchangeably, they shouldn’t be.

  • http://www.facebook.com/steve.lotz.9 Steve Lotz

    Thank you for a well written and thought provoking article David.