Captivating Klan rally photo gets new life via social media

It is a photograph not easily forgotten.

A black state trooper peers down at a tiny white boy in a crisp white Ku Klux Klan outfit as the child touches his reflection in the trooper’s riot shield.

Photographer Todd Robertson readily admits he captured the moment by simply being in the right place at the right time while covering a Klan rally in Gainesville for the local newspaper nearly 21 years ago.

“The picture sparked a lot of interest and conversation then,” Robertson said. “That’s what a picture is supposed to do.”

Now social media has given the image new life. After the picture appeared over the last year on photo blogs and in Facebook posts, an article by The Poynter Institute, a journalism training organization in Florida, brought the iconic image even more attention.

“I probably get one or two requests a month for a copy or someone asks to use it,” Robertson said.

Robertson, a 1991 graduate of the University of Georgia school of journalism, was freelancing for the Gainesville Times that day, shooting alongside a staff photographer and trying to build a portfolio that could lead to a full-time job.

Robertson recalls there wasn’t much action at the rally, which was attended by fewer than 100 Klan members and other white supremacists on the city’s downtown square. Law enforcement officers outnumbered the marchers three to one, according to news reports.

Robertson was standing a few feet away from the staff photographer, who was facing in the other direction, when he snapped the photo of the boy as he reached out to touch the trooper’s shield. Seconds later, a woman whisked away the child. Robertson did not get the name of the officer or the boy. The boy’s mother identified him only as “Josh.” The woman wore a black T-shirt with the words “Winder Knights.”

The Gainesville Times published the photo on its metro section front on Sept. 6, 1992. Other media outlets, including the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, ran the photo after it was carried by the Associated Press wire service. That brought more interest. Producers of the Sally Jessy Raphael Show called, wanting the mother and child to appear on the show, but Robertson didn’t know their identities. The photo ran in several European publications, according to Robertson. It won a state journalism award and seven years later, the Southern Poverty Law Center prominently featured the photo in one of its brochures.

Then the photo was largely forgotten, according to Robertson, who hung up his camera and his goal of being a full-time news photographer. He joined his father in his cabinet-making business, Area Decor, in Gainesville.

Like many people who see the photo, Robertson, now 45, said he has wondered over the years about the little boy, who would probably now be in his early 20s.

“I wondered what happened to him,” he said. “I felt sorry for the kid knowing he had to grow up in that environment and I felt sorry for the officer, knowing he had to be there protecting the rights of people who he knew didn’t care for him.”

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution was able to locate the officer, Allen Campbell, through the Georgia State Patrol. By interviewing and searching public records, the AJC was able to locate someone who may be the boy, now close to 24 years old, and his mother, but phone calls and emails left for this story were not returned.

Did state trooper Allen Campbell think of the boy after that day?

“No, I really didn’t,” he said. “I didn’t even know the photo had been taken until someone called to tell me it was in the paper.”

Campbell recalls the day the photo was taken as just another work day. As the Klan rally unfolded, Campbell said his mind was on the Labor Day cookout he was missing. Not race relations.

“I was ticked off. It was the last holiday of the summer. But here I am at a Ku Klux Klan rally in Gainesville, Georgia, protecting the rights of the Ku Klux Klan,” he said.

“I didn’t even see the boy at first,” said Campbell, a youthful 61-year-old with an easy laugh. “I was too busy thinking about my weekend being ruined. I looked down to see what on earth could be bumping on my riot shield.”

Campbell retired from the Georgia State Patrol in June 2009 after 30 years at the Gainesville post. He lives nearby in Gillsville with his wife. They have a son.

Campbell grew up in the small town of Lavonia, Ga. The son of a mechanic and a maid, Campbell recalls as a child being oblivious to the racism of that day.

“I was well taken care of,” he said. “Everything I wanted for Christmas, I got. That’s a good life.”

He said he got his first big dose of racism when the schools desegregated in 1967. He had to attend a predominantly white high school.

“It was culture shock,” Campbell said.

A good student, he found himself many times the only black student in the college-bound classes, he said.

“I worked hard in those classes,” he said. “I wasn’t the smartest kid, but I made sure I wasn’t the dumbest.”

After high school, he held down numerous jobs in the area, then moved to North Carolina where he had family and landed a job at Duke Power Co.

The unabashed mama’s boy said he returned to Lavonia after two years because he missed her. He recalls he easily landed the job with the state patrol and was assigned to Gainesville.

Over the years, Campbell covered numerous racial protests around Georgia, including the infamous Forsyth County demonstration in January 1987 when 75 marchers led by civil rights activist Hosea Williams were met by some 500 Klan members and sympathizers who overwhelmed police lines.

“Rocks and bottles were flying,” Campbell said. “We were not prepared. We didn’t have riot helmets. We didn’t have shields. I was focused then on what was a dangerous situation.” Campbell also worked the following weekend, when 20,000 people, including Coretta Scott King and Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young, returned to Forsyth County. He was among the 500 law enforcement officers and 1,700 National Guard members keeping the peace.

“Now those were some rough times,” he said.

The Gainesville rally of September 1992 “was more of an inconvenience,” he said. “But I was sworn to uphold their rights, their freedom of speech.”

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