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For over 40 years, Howard Wilkinson has been covering the campaigns, personalities, scandals, and business of politics on a local, state and national level. He's interviewed mayors, council members, county commissioners, governors, senators, and representatives.With so many years covering so many politicians, there must be stories to tell, right?Look for a new Tales from the Trail column every Friday.

The Worst Wilkinson I've Ever Met Thankfully Bears No Relation

hello my name is tag

I would never claim that my ancestors on the Wilkinson side of my family were all saints; if you go back far enough, you'll find a ne'er do well in nearly every family tree.

I can vouch for the Wilkinsons of the past few generations – good, hardworking, honest folks who were model citizens and gave back to the country which has been so good to them.

But I wonder sometimes why it is that the other Wilkinsons I have encountered – either in my reading of history or in my reporting going back nearly half a century – were such scoundrels.

Gen. James Wilkinson, a Revolutionary War officer, was probably the worst of the lot. Theodore Roosevelt, a student of American history, once said that "in all our history, there is no more despicable character" than Gen. Wilkinson.

Treason was one of the worst of his sins; it turned out that he was a highly paid spy for the Spanish Empire. He had no apparent redeeming qualities. He was one of the Revolutionary War officers who was granted the land on which my hometown, Dayton, Ohio, now stands, although he never visited his property.

Nonetheless, there is a major street in downtown Dayton called Wilkinson Street. My own family had better qualifications for having a street named after them – my grandfather, Walter Wilkinson, who was a decorated veteran of World War I and the chief mechanic of the city motor pool; or my father, Eugene Wilkinson, a World War II veteran who made his living as a public servant, a health inspector for over 30 years.

Instead, the street is named after this bum.

All I can say in our family's defense is that there is no evidence any of the bad actors like the general were directly related to my branch of the Wilkinson clan.

I'm especially glad that one in particular was no kin to me, although, as a young reporter, I met him and was appalled by him and despised every rotten lie he perpetrated.

His name was Bill Wilkinson of Denham Spring, Louisiana. From 1975 to 1981, he was the Imperial Wizard of the Invisible Empire, Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. A long title which translates to Chief Hatemonger.

bill wilkinson
Credit AP
Bill Wilkinson, state grand dragon of the “Invisible Empire Knights of the Ku Klux Klan” and an armed body guard look over the dedication site for a KKK headquarters at Bogalusa, Louisiana, April 16, 1976.

I could have lived a perfectly good life without ever having met this Klown had it not been for the fact that in 1978, while I was working for the Troy (Ohio) Daily News, I volunteered to cover the Klan activity that was fomenting in Middletown and Butler County in those days.

By 1980, I was still covering Klan rallies in Middletown – one of which came very close to a flash point of violent confrontation between the hooded klansmen and their opponents in a Middletown park.

Middletown is 46 miles south of Troy on I-75, and was outside of the little Troy Daily News' circulation range, but I had pretty much carte blanche to cover stories all over Ohio and beyond – a fringe benefit of working for a small town newspaper that had, at the time, an eccentric millionaire owner.

The first appearance of the infamous Bill Wilkinson in Middletown came in November 1978.

His Klan organization had used sleight-of-hand to rent a large meeting room in a perfectly respectable Howard Johnson Motor Lodge that sat in those days on State Route 122, just west of Interstate 75.

Wilkinson's local minions had rented the room under the name of the Empire Publishing Company, which sounds innocent enough. It was, in fact, a business arm of the Klan.

When the management of the motor lodge found out that they had rented a meeting room to the Ku Klux Klan, they were appalled and cancelled the reservation. The motel also returned the money to the Klan.

Of course, Wilkinson, the globe-trotting imperial wizard, showed up one Saturday night, vowing to forcibly enter the motel with 20 white-robed Klan members, waving American, Confederate and klan flags.

Warren County Sheriff Roy Wallace was there to meet them in the motel parking lot, with plenty of uniformed deputies in tow.

"You will leave this property or you will all be arrested for trespassing,'' Wallace told Wilkinson and his minions.

Wilkinson didn't seem to mind, but there were enough of his local klansmen who decided they hadn't signed on to spend the night in the Warren County jail; and the flag-waving klansmen backed to the edge of the motel access road, where Wilkinson, hollering over a bullhorn, spewed venom to a crowd of about 300 supporters, media and curiosity-seekers who had gathered just off of motel property.

The Imperial Wizard said it didn't matter that they were denied access to the motel room "because obviously we couldn't fit this crowd in there anyways."

After Wilkinson got done expelling gas into the night sky, the crowd grew weary and slunk away quietly – including the car with Alabama plates that Wilkinson said was packed with his "SWAT team." It rumbled off to I-75 with a loudspeaker attached to the roof that was blaring "Dixie Land."

Round one was over. Round two, which took place in July 1979 in Middletown's Dixie Heights Park, nearly burst out into a full-fledged riot.

The klansmen, with a crowd of about 1,000 supporters gathered around them, had Wilkinson back in town to lead them. They torched a 20-foot tall wooden cross, the sight of which enraged the nearly 100 anti-Klan protestors on the other side of the park.

At one point, more than 100 police officers were on hand, but they could not keep the two sides apart; their ranks were stretched too thin. The two sides were standing nearly face-to-face, heckling each other. Beer bottles and eggs started flying through the air.

A klan supporter and a protestor began fighting with sticks, ninja-style. The fight began attracting attention and, soon, several hundred klan supporters charged across the field and began chasing the protestors to the edge of the park.

I got caught up in the stampede and was knocked down. Fights were breaking out all over.

Middletown police chief Russell Dwyer later called it a "touchy situation. Our sole function was to protect the people."

With great effort, police got the melee under control. There was only one arrest – a Middletown man who was charged with concealing a weapon. It wasn't clear which side he was on.

Bill Wilkinson, of course, moved on to foment chaos elsewhere.

But Middletown was not done with him.

About a year later, in June 1980, he was back in Middletown's Dixie Heights Park, wearing a black business suit and escorted into the park by about three dozen klansmen in robes.

The Middletown Police and the Butler County sheriff had learned their lesson. This time the two sides were separated – with the Klan in the park and the Middletown Anti-Klan Network holding its rally nearby.

There were about 225 officers from Butler County and surrounding counties in the park; and everyone who entered the park was searched by officers.

Wilkinson bloviated to the crowd for well over an hour before being marched out by his escorts and into a waiting car. If he had meant to start trouble, it didn't work. The crowd listening to him this time seemed weary of the whole thing.

And that was the last of Bill Wilkinson in Butler County, Ohio.

By 1984, he had resigned as Imperial Wizard. He disappeared from the scene after allegations that he was snitching to the FBI – something he denied vehemently.

Several years ago, a British newspaper, The Daily Mail, discovered that he was living in Belize where he owned a luxury resort and seemed to be getting along fine with the black population there.

Have a nice time, Bill. Don't come back. There are too many people spewing hate these days back home without having you back in the mix.

tales from the trail
Credit Jim Nolan / WVXU

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