Earlier this summer, residents of this Polk County town were shocked by the abrupt firing of the popular city manager. Lake Wales is normally a quiet place not accustomed to controversy. Banners proclaim its “vintage charm,” evident in the stately lakefront homes, the soaring Bok Tower, the renowned Chalet Suzanne inn and restaurant. But the firing of Tony Otte, praised for his efforts to improve race relations, seemed to refute the other part of the town’s slogan: “progressive vision.” And what disturbed many of the 12,000 residents — black and white — was that one of the commissioners who voted to oust Otte was John Paul Rogers, former grand dragon of the United Klans of Florida, a faction of the notoriously racist and anti-Semitic Ku Klux Klan.
“It’s embarrassing,” says lawyer Howard Kay, one of the town’s few Jewish residents. “I’m a very liberal person, but I don’t think anybody would want this type of person on the City Commission.”
Rogers, a barber, gun dealer and real estate broker, was elected last year with the help of a black friend and an unusually large number of absentee ballots.
Now 68, with a bit of a paunch framed by blue suspenders, he appears far different from the hooded figure once feared by Lake Wales’ black citizens. His supporters, including the mayor, say he has been a hard-working commissioner who is always polite and fair.
Even his detractors say he comes across as soft-spoken, charming, even gentlemanly.
But they also note that Rogers has never renounced his racist past. Talk of a recall has begun, fueled by concern that the last thing a Southern town needs as it struggles to attract new businesses is a city government that includes an ex-leader of the Ku Klux Klan.
“I think his background is a major issue,” says Jessica Bray, who moved from Connecticut a few years ago to open a restaurant and bed-and-breakfast. “It tells me about someone’s judgment and values, and those are not the judgments and values I want overseeing my town.”
New image for klan
Acquitted in 1980 of beating up a group of dissident klan members, Rogers has never been implicated in other violence. But he spent nearly 25 years in an organization that dates to the chaotic aftermath of the Civil War, when white “night riders” in the South began killing and terrorizing newly freed blacks.
The KKK was disbanded by federal law in the 1870s, then sprang back to life after World War I as blacks and immigrants challenged Northern whites for factory jobs. The klan also flourished in Florida, where resistance to unionization and school desegregation boosted membership as high as 30,000 by 1957.
Rogers joined the klan around 1964, the year of the landmark Civil Rights Act.
“I don’t discuss anything in the past at all,” he now says. “I have a hard enough time keeping up with today and tomorrow.”
But a few years ago, Rogers did talk — to state agents investigating the unsolved 1951 bombing in Brevard County that killed the executive director of the Florida NAACP and his wife.
Rogers, who was 11 at the time, said he knew nothing about the case except what he had read. He acknowledged there had been “a lot of bombing and violence” in Florida in the ’40s and ’50s, but blamed it largely on “some renegades” within the klan.
“Mr. Rogers continued by saying that while he was the state head, there was a push for a more positive image of the KKK and not one of being involved in inappropriate or violent activities,” the agents wrote in their report.
As grand dragon, Rogers traveled throughout Florida. He once spoke to a class taught by Darryl Paulson, a now-retired University of South Florida professor and an expert on the klan.
“A lot of (students) thought he’d come in and espouse some very racist views, but he didn’t do that in a classroom setting,” Paulson recalls. “He was asked a lot of tough questions and he gave very simplistic responses. It showed through — at least to the better students — that a lot was missing.”
In researching the klan, Paulson attended a few meetings. There, Rogers’ rhetoric was very different.
“He frequently spoke of “n——” and made reference to people with thick lips and watermelons,” Paulson says. “As far as I know, he didn’t engage in violent behavior, but I know they had a number of rallies throughout Central Florida, including over to the Tampa Bay area.”
In 1983, Rogers incorporated a sportsmen’s club whose directors included “Bob Shelton of Tuscaloosa, Ala.” To outsiders he was better known as Robert Shelton, grand wizard of the United Klans of America, the nation’s largest and most violent Klan faction.
“I think he was a truly evil man,” Morris Dees, founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center, said in Shelton’s New York Times obituary six years ago.
The center represented the mother of Michael Donald, a black teenager beaten to death by klan members and hanged from a tree in Mobile, Ala. In 1987, a federal jury awarded her a $7 million judgment against the United Klans of America.
The verdict bankrupted the organization and ended Shelton’s klan activism. Rogers’, too.
“I retired,” he told the Lakeland Ledger.
‘People got snookered’
In the ’90s, Rogers ran unsuccessfully for secretary of state and the state House. More recently, he served on Lake Wales’ zoning appeals board, positioning himself to run for City Commission on a platform of fiscal prudence.
Many newcomers were unaware of Rogers’ klan history. He didn’t mention it. And some of those who knew didn’t bring it up because they never thought he would win.
“I went to a candidate forum and I feel I let myself down by not asking: Do you still have the same racist views? Will you tell the black community you’re sorry?” says Kay, the Jewish lawyer.
“But nobody raised that as a question. It’s embarrassing to those of us who care that we didn’t make it known.”
In regular balloting, Rogers’ 179 votes put him third in a field of four. But he got 282 absentee votes — 43 percent of the total and far more than any other candidate. Word had it that he was helped by a black friend, 79-year-old Booker Young, who purportedly encouraged many elderly blacks to request absentee ballots and vote for Rogers.
“Half of them don’t read or write that well,” says Clinton Horne, a black community activist. “People got snookered.”
Rogers denies talk that he paid Young to round up votes. (Young didn’t return calls for comment.) And Paulson notes that other staunch segregationists, including the late U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond, successfully curried support from blacks.
“You had these political opportunists who clearly saw the winds of change blowing and knew they either had to adjust or be out.”
A controversial firing
Tony Otte had been Lake Wales city manager since 2001. He pushed for redevelopment of Lincoln Avenue, the once vibrant black business district now reduced to a few struggling stores. He also arranged to have part of Walker Street renamed after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a move that didn’t sit well with Bill Walker, owner of the barber shop where Rogers works.
“It bothered me and a lot of people in town,” says Walker, whose family has been in Lake Wales for generations. “I had one commissioner say, ‘Well, Bill, you’ve got to forget them old people, they’re all dead and gone.’ I said, ‘Martin Luther is dead and gone.’ ”
In June, Mayor Jack Van Sickle introduced a resolution to fire Otte. It said the commission had “lost faith” in him even though he had received good evaluations from everyone but the mayor.
“I was blind-sided,” Otte says.
At a packed public hearing July 29, Rogers insisted he didn’t have a “personal vendetta” against the city manager. But, he said, he was concerned that Otte hadn’t gotten the commission’s okay before using some leftover, city-owned asphalt to repave the parking lot of a local public school.
Eight members of the audience spoke in favor of firing, claiming employee morale was bad and that Otte had mismanaged some projects. But nearly three times as many spoke in support of the city manager, praising his community involvement, his integrity and his hard work.
The last to rise was Narvel Peterson, a black Polk County sheriff’s deputy. As a boy he had seen crosses burning in black neighborhoods. As a deputy, he had warned black youth to stay away from klan rallies for fear of fights — or worse. As a voter, he had been sorely disappointed by Rogers’ election.
Now Peterson looked straight at him.
“Since I was a small kid, I feared what you stood for,” Peterson said. “It’s a new day and I plan to be involved here.”
Victim of bigotry?
It is a Monday afternoon at the City Barber Shop, where Rogers is running his clippers up the thick neck of an alligator trapper.
The TV is tuned to Fox News. In one corner is a stack of Civil War Times, in another a few pistols and rifles for sale. They’re harder to get now, Rogers says, because demand shot up after the 2008 election on fears that an Obama presidency would lead to stricter gun control.
Black residents don’t come in here for haircuts. Neither did the city manager.
“He was a very nice fellow,” Rogers says, “but it was time for a change.”
A month after the 3-2 vote to fire Otte, Rogers is aware of the controversy and the fact that critics will be scrutinizing his every move. He shrugs it off.
“You have a lot of bigots maybe prejudiced against me, very liberal-type people that think anybody who doesn’t agree with them shouldn’t hold public office. I just stand on my record, six years on the board of appeal, a year and a half on the commission. Nobody can say I mistreated anyone.”
Does he have any regrets about his past?
“I think I’d rather have been born rich rather than pretty.”