Photo by Todd Robertson, courtesy of the Southern Poverty Law Center
How KKK rally image found new life 20 years after it was published
by David Griner
Jan. 9, 2013
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.
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?
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...