The KKK and Fontana
FONTANA Although it’s been nearly 20 years since men in white robes last marched in the streets of Fontana , this growing community still has to live with the memory of having once been a Ku Klux Klan town.
Even if the Klan itself has fled, the perception that white supremacists once called Fontana home is a history that some people would like to erase.
“We can get rid of that stigma Fontana has had in the past by communicating with each other,” said Pastor Morris Buchanan of the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church. “People are people, and if there is a dialogue, there can be reconciliation.”
Fontana recorded a lower rate of hate crimes in 1995 than many other cities – five per 100,000 population, less than the rates of 10 per 100,000 for Redlands or nine per 100,000 for Riverside.
However, there have been racial incidents. For example, someone lit a cross on the front lawn of an interracial couple living just outside the city limits in January, a threatening gesture long practiced by the KKK . Local resident Gary Lee Padgett, 31, was charged in the crime but has been ruled incompetent to stand trial. A court will send him to a mental institution next month.
Some local minority leaders believe the Klan has only undergone a facelift. Its members aren’t throwing Molotov cocktails, but they’re still out there, said Kerry Allison, an associate pastor of the Loveland Church, an active black congregation in Fontana .
“These people can thrive openly here,” agreed Draymond Crawford, a black associate pastor at Loveland Church, who moved with his parents to Fontana in 1946. “A lot of people tend to have similar philosophies, but they’re hidden.”
Nationally known white supremacist Tom Metzger, a state KKK leader who is active in Fontana Klan activities, went a step further.
“It’s more secretive than the old Klan was because we have so many individuals who do not identify themselves and don’t wear uniforms and don’t go to marches,” Metzger said. “(But) that undercurrent is still there” in Fontana .
The Klan in Fontana
Fontana has a rich history as a blue-collar community. With Kaiser’s steel mill came an influx of white, conservative, working-class folks who often shunned those of different ethnic backgrounds, say some of the city’s minority leaders.
“You had a mix of people move into that community,” said Hispanic activist Armando Navarro, an associate professor of ethnic studies at the University of California, Riverside. “A lot of the people that came in were basically of that political persuasion . . . conservative, redneck.”
Metzger agreed the city’s KKK heritage stemmed from the steel mill.
“One of the main reasons for it ( KKK activity) was because it wasn’t long before the steel plant closed down,” he said. “There was a lot of integration of the neighborhoods going on and there were a lot of blue-collar white people there.”
Metzger, who lives in Fallbrook, a community in San Diego’s North County, said Fontana ‘s predominantly white population made for a perfect Klan target, which at one point grew close to 100 members strong.
“They had quite a bit of influence in the jobs and in the community,” he said.
That white population rarely mixed with minorities. Not many in the black community, for example, lived south of Baseline Road, a pattern still seen today.
Newspaper clippings from the late 1970s to 1980 tell of a Fontana in which Ku Klux Klan members marched on City Hall, held organized meetings and even burned crosses in rallies held on the property of one of its leaders.
“They were visibly here,” Crawford said. The pastor worked at a downtown bank at the time of the marches and said the activity made him so angry he walked to the local newspaper office and told the publisher to stop giving the Klan so much ink.
Fontana became a locus of Klan activity in the 1970s with resident George Pepper, the group’s area director, ran for mayor and the City Council. He was closely tied to White Aryan Resistance founder Metzger, with whom he organized marches and rallies in Fontana . At the time, Metzger was the self-appointed grand dragon of the California KKK .
In 1980, Metzger, a television repairman, stunned the political establishment when he won the Democratic Party nomination to the 43rd Congressional District. Although he ultimately lost the race to Republican Clair Burgener, his victory in the primaries shook the foundation of the Democratic Party and earned the Klansmen plenty of publicity.
The Klan activity in Fontana sparked a counter-movement. Residents of all ethnic backgrounds formed the group known as PAR – People Against Racism – headed by Navarro. He said the group wanted Fontana to move beyond its “redneck” mentality and get used to people of all colors.
The ” Fontana Five,” a group of Klan opponents, organized a march and rally in 1980 to speak against the rash of Klan activities in the town. City officials charged the five with parading without a permit as required by a city ordinance, but a judge ruled that the ordinance was unconstitutional.
A tarnished image
How do you attract residents and businesses to a city that’s known to many as a Klan town?
City boosters acknowledge the image problem, but point out the city is drawing new residents anyway. In newer developments such as Southridge and Village of Heritage, many of the new families simply aren’t familiar with the town’s history, some say.
Councilman Mark Nuaimi, who moved to Village of Heritage close to eight years ago, said home builders weren’t naive about Fontana ‘s reputation when they decided to build homes in the middle-to upper-middle-class range in the northern part of the city.
“Builders aren’t stupid,” he said. “We were moving to Village of Heritage. They didn’t mention Fontana .”
Nuaimi, who said he was unaware of the Klan’s activities in the city until after he moved in, said the city has to progress if it expects to rid itself of its bad reputation.
“We did have a checkered past, but to me it doesn’t matter,” he said. “I moved into my neighborhood and started my family. (Neighbors) don’t care about what happened 20 years ago.”
Fontana ‘s past hasn’t seemed to discourage businesses from relocating to the city, either.
” Fontana has picked up a reputation over the years because the Hell’s Angels and KKK have been there,” said Robert Traister, executive director of the Fontana Chamber of Commerce. He noted, however, that the city is working to clean up its image and make Fontana attractive to businesses and prospective residents.
City Manager Greg Devereaux agreed. “I never worry about changing an image; I worry about changing reality. If you change reality, the image will follow.”
Press-Enterprise, The (Riverside, CA) – Sunday, April 13, 1997