The Day The KKK Came To Westport

The deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor brought the issue of killings of unarmed Black people into our national consciousness.

It’s been happening for years though — and not just in “other” places.

In 1981, a Meriden, Connecticut policeman shot and killed a Black man suspected of shoplifting. Several dozen Ku Klux Klan members demonstrated at City Hall in support of the officer. A far larger crowd protested the KKK.

But the men in robes — representing a faction called the Invisible Empire of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan — did not remain only in central Connecticut.

A year later, Chandra Niles Folsom was enjoying lunch at Soup’s On in Westport. The Staples High School graduate — a photojournalist who has been published internationally — looked up and saw several men with pointed hoods parading past on Main Street.

Oh my God! she thought. The KKK has come to Westport.

She grabbed her camera, and watched the group turn the corner to Parker Harding Plaza. She headed there the other way, to make sure she faced them as they marched by.

Outside Town Squire restaurant, they came toward her. They wore their intimidating white robes and hoods. But their faces were unmasked.

The KKK in 1982, at Parker Harding Plaza. (Photo copyright/Chandra Niles Folsom)

Chandra asked what they were doing. They strode silently past.

She was sure this was a big deal: The KKK was in town. No other journalists were there.

But, Chandra says, no newspapers or magazines wanted her photos.

In fact, one editor — someone she frequently wrote “society pages” for — said that if she published such a “controversial subject,” she’d be fired.

Chandra Niles Folsom

It took 20 years for Chandra’s photos to see the light of day. They eventually became part of a story she wrote called “Civil Rights and Wrongs,” with a Westport focus.

Her editor had to fight for its inclusion; the publisher said “nobody wants to see this at their cocktail parties.” The story ran — but Chandra says that’s the last time she was asked to write for them.

Chandra was happy to see the turnout for Westport’s recent Black Lives Matter protests.

“Everyone is talking now,” she says.

Unlike nearly 30 years ago, when the KKK marched in Westport.

And no one wanted to notice.

(For more history of the Ku Klux Klan in Connecticut, click here.)

Chandra Niles Folsom, at a Westport Black Lives Matter rally.

29 responses to “The Day The KKK Came To Westport

  1. Seth Goltzer

    I remember the 1981 Rally and opposed it being held, just as I opposed the Nazis marching in Illinois. I know it was considered protected speech under the 1sr amendment, but it’s a discussion to have when speech promotes violence, should it be allowed. Another fact not mentioned is that the KKK Awas the Militant arm of the Democrat Party founded to deprive newly freed Slaves of their rights. The late Sen, Robert Byrd was a prominent member.
    An inconvenient truth, often overlooked.

    • Jack Backiel

      Robert Byrd was in the Senate for 51 years from West Virginia. Instead of focusing on Byrd, maybe the focus should be on the residents who kept him in office for more than a half century.

    • Dick Lowenstein

      True, but Byrd subsequently denounced the organization. The same goes for Hugo Black, the great liberal supreme court justice, who also left the KKK. Peoples change, parties change, and bad ideas that start with one party can be embraced by another.

    • The “Dixiecrats,” such as J. Strom Thurmond, became Republicans. Don’t confuse them with the current Democratic Party.

    • Peter Gambaccini

      It’s not overelooked at all. It’s mentioned all of the time. And it’s a misleading “truth” intended to deflect from the fact that it is in no way representative of the political alignment of the two major parties for at least the last 50 years.

  2. Great story Dan!

  3. Rozanne Gates

    We are beginning to wake up. It may take a while to come out from under so many lies fed to us over the centuries but thanks to Chandra and to you Dan, we are beginning to expose the lies and hopefully are headed toward facing some very uncomfortable truths. Black Lives Matter very, very much.

  4. When more gutsy people speak up, maybe, just maybe, wee can make substantive changes on how we treat non-whites in America.

    And please, let’s stop arguing about ca ca and get some important changes made — some of us have been marching since the 60s and we’re tired.=

  5. The KKK was the original ISIS – a defeated army turned terrorists. Blacks, Jews, Catholics, immigrants are objects of their hatred. It is sad to think that they are still around.

  6. Jill Turner Odice

    I remember my older brother was living upstairs from Art’s Deli and I was visiting him, we looked out the window and saw several KKK members walking past Premier Mkt. Not something I had ever seen before, especially in Westport!

  7. Mara Gottlieb

    No one is EVER saying all lives don’t matter, but when you insist on responding with “All Lives Matter,” YOU’RE actually saying that all the lives of black people who are being disproportionately killed by police violence don’t matter. Is that really the side of this issue you want to be on? Blue lives matter, all lives matter, and there are black police officers and black people in the “all.” But it is black lives that are being threatened at higher rates right now, and who need that disparity to be addressed. I really hope you can try to understand that.

  8. Thank you, Dan, for keeping racism conversations and topics alive here. One of the huge benefits of white privilege is that we can choose to go numb, to say to ourselves, “I’m not racist and therefore racism doesn’t exist” and stay in our white bubble where we may not perceive being directly affected by racism. But there is no such thing as being non-racist: we are either actively anti-racist and figuring out what that looks like for ourselves, or we are complicit in and benefiting from racism.

    As a white-European woman who has lost or been denied jobs due to being openly and vocally anti-racist, I empathize with and commend Ms. Folsom’s actions. As another commenter wrote, hopefully the tides are turning and more white-European people are being the change we need for structural racism to end. I urge all white-European people to use our privilege by filming, photographing or otherwise documenting any public situation that involves discrimination against people with more melanin in their skin – it is our right to do that and has been the primary reason why the deaths of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery were not ignored.

    • Identifying as a non-white person doesn’t exempt you from racist bias, belief or action. We have all internalized racist biases and beliefs, regardless of skin color, which is definitely what you’re operating from when you try to defend saying “all lives matter” (at least 3 times, by the way – don’t you think you’ve made your point?).

      It’s a class privilege to live in Westport, Frank, not a white one. Unfortunately, people of color continue to be exploited as underpaid labor in this country, so more often that not, color and class may be overlaid, but there are Black people living in Westport and white folks living in Bridgeport.

      And by the way, if you “grew up in a communist country,” that would suggest you’re from an Eastern bloc country, which also means that in this country you get the privilege of “passing” as white whether it’s how you see yourself or not, and you benefit from those privileges whether you want to or not. You may or may not have class privilege or language privilege or a dozen other kinds of privilege, but if you “pass” as white, your life is not made more difficult or less safe by the color of your skin.

  9. Know your history, Frank. The Republicans and Democrats stood for the opposite of what they do now. But you probably do know that. What scares you so much about the democratic party? That women and immigrants and people of color might have the same access to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness that you do? Seriously, what are you so afraid of?

  10. For the same reason I said in my email to you: You did not use your full, real name. Feel free to repost using your name.

  11. I too remember that day. My daughter — who was in the sixth grade at the time — and I were about to walk out of Westport Pizza when we saw the KKK members marching by. It was terrifying then and remains so to this day!

  12. John McCarthy

    Japanese-Americans that were interned by the US government in WW II did receive reparations in 1988.

  13. Mary Schmerker

    There is so much to respond to here. I no longer live in Connecticut. I live outside of Houston Texas in what is now considered the most diverse county in the Country. About a six months ago I responded to someone in an e-mail: “Don’t ALL lives matter to God? The answer is of course they do but right now we are in a time where it is vital to realize that Black Lives Matter. It was explained to me by a former “white European Westporter” this way:
    When the bombing of the Boston Marathon took place we all rallied around Boston. After 9/11 we all were concerned about NYC and the first responders. After Hurricane Harvey left Houston under water we all rallied around the saying “Houston Strong”. With all the reports of injustice towards those of color we are finally taking notice. It is appropriate now that we realize that Black Lives do matter and that those of us with white skin often get “a pass” that others don’t receive. Now is the time to recognize that Black Lives Matter. We need to look for the solutions that should equalize treatment for everyone. We need to educate ourselves.

  14. This is beautiful. Thank you for writing.

  15. Art Lohman

    Nice to see more than one
    side or position discussed.

  16. The deletion of all my messages that count attack all white racists here shows how hypocritical you lefts are in terms so called diversity. It shows how you left white racists are just like communists. Thank god this country is not being run by you white racists and communists.


    • Frank, stop being such a snowflake. I emailed you several hours ago, asking you to provide proof that this is your full, real name — and provide proof of where you live. That is the same thing I do for any new commenter, when there is a possibility that he or she is not using a full, real name. You ignored my email, and did not respond.

      I am not picking on you, or censoring you. I left your comments up for several hours, hoping you would email me with the information I requested. You did not follow the rules. I have done the same with other people, of all political stripes. Stop complaining, and follow the rules.