They can't carry guns or wear masks, but the Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan will be permitted to rally next month to protest the renaming of city parks, which will no longer honor Confederate icons.
On Tuesday, the city of Memphis issued a permit for the group to rally March 30 on the steps of a downtown courthouse.
Memphis Police Director Toney Armstrong said at a media conference following the announcement that issuing the permit gives city officials the ability to control and formulate a plan for the KKK demonstration, which was triggered by a decision by the Memphis City Council to rename three Confederate-themed parks earlier this month.
"We will be more than prepared for this," said Armstrong, noting that the city's police department handles far larger special events and festivals.
Even so, the police director said that the Shelby County Sheriff's Office has agreed to help police the Klan demonstration and that he will contact other local law enforcement agencies for similar help.
A KKK rally in January 1998 at the same Shelby County Courthouse, protesting the Martin Luther King Jr. national holiday, led to Memphis police use of tear gas against anti-Klan protesters, window-breaking and about two dozen people taken into custody.
The Imperial Wizard of the Loyal White Knights, Chris Barker of Pelham, N.C., said he still is unsure how many people will take part in the rally, but said, "Every hotel in town has told us they would give us a discount rate."
The Klan group pointed to the Memphis city council's renaming of three parks -- (Nathan Bedford) Forrest Park in the Medical Center, and Jefferson Davis and Confederate parks Downtown -- on Feb. 5 as the cause for the demonstration.
Following controversy about a granite Forrest Park marker installed by the Sons of Confederate Veterans and supporters, and fearing that a bill in the state legislature would block future action, the council renamed the parks and appointed a committee to the study the issues.
Armstrong said that one of the conditions police set for the KKK is that no guns will be allowed, even for those holding Tennessee handgun carry permits. In addition, no masks will be worn, although he said that restriction may face a challenge.
He said he learned from and was exposed to tear gas during the department's response 15 years ago, and that an undisclosed number of Memphis officers are receiving riot training in advance of the KKK rally. Still, Armstrong he said he doesn't foresee any problems with ensuring public safety.
"I honestly believe that you're going to see more police officers than participants," he said.
The police director said he had spoken to one representative of the Loyal White Knights who said on various days that he had joined the group by telephone, decided to quit it and yet had been promoted to a higher position.
Armstrong pointed to such conversations to illustrate why he wouldn't estimate how many Klan members might appear, saying that the group "apparently is not a very organized organization."
"I'm not even sure that they know" how many Loyal White Knights might rally, he said.
The group's permit application, filed with the city on Valentine's Day, estimated that 180 would participate.