Taking on the KlanAnd there's more! She was in Memphis when Martin Luther King was assassinated, after driving her father there to attend the Klan rally opposing King.
One summer night in 1965, 12-year-old Carolyn Wagner watched as Klansmen bound a young black man to a tree in her father's field, accused him of violating the "sundown" rules in nearby Booneville, Ark., that forbade blacks from staying in town after dark, and lashed him a few times with a bullwhip as he cried out in pain and fear.
It was no different from beatings at other Klan gatherings her father had attended, but what happened next remains vivid in her memory: the Klansmen decided to tie the man to the railroad tracks below the pasture. When they were done, they ambled back to the field to discuss crops and politics. Wagner, a reluctant witness to her father's Klan meetings, couldn't stand it anymore. She stole down to the tracks, used a knife she kept in her boot to slash the rope that bound the man, and told him he could follow the tracks to Fort Smith, the nearest large town.
"That was a turning point," recalled Wagner, now 56 and living in Tulsa, Okla. "I felt like I had made a difference when I was able to cut that man free. I realized I can make a choice to be a passive observer or I can become involved to diminish the harm that they're doing. And that's what I did from that night on, and that's what I'm still doing."
In April 1968, Wagner drove him to Memphis to take part in a Klan protest during the sanitation workers strike made famous by the appearance of Martin Luther King Jr. She was there when the civil rights leader was assassinated. In a Memphis newspaper, she read that the Department of Justice was planning a crackdown on the perpetrators of civil-rights era violence. After the assassination of Robert Kennedy two months later, Wagner, then 15, wrote a letter to the FBI accompanied by a list of names and addresses she'd copied from her father's Klan directory. She wanted to get them all arrested. "I included my dad on that list," she said.Carolyn is in bad health right now. So, everyone who reads this blog, please keep her in your thoughts. I'm so happy I have this moment to cherish, thanks to Teddy Witherington, Kathleen McGuire and the rest of the San Franciso Gay Men's Chorus:
Wagner, who used her maternal grandparents' home as the return address, never heard back from the FBI.
And then, there's William's Song sung by the chorus: