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Faces of the Tea Party - 'We are not the KKK'

Emery McClendon is a husband, father, Air Force retiree, Christian, a FedEx driver, amateur radio guy and photographer. In general, his race is beside the point.

But this series is about the Tea Party, a movement that struggles to persuade some observers that it is not merely a racist reaction to a black president. The 59-year-old McClendon, as can clearly be seen in James Cheng’s photo, is a black man. He is also a prominent voice in the Tea Party movement.

McClendon was among the highlighted speakers at a recent rally in administration against the health-care package, adding his voice to the chorus with this message: the Tea Party movement has nothing to do with race.

“We are not the KKK,” he boomed with rhetorical flourish. “We are patriots.”

McClendon was raised at a time when the black population was overwhelmingly Democratic. It wasn’t easy to “come out” as a conservative Republican.

“I grew up in a household where they would break your neck if you voted any other way,” says McClendon. “But they were very conservative. My parents really didn’t know how conservative they were.”

The Fort Wayne native served in the Air Force for four years then joined the Indiana Air Guard. His 23 years as a FedEx driver paid the bills while he and his wife, Queenie, raised their three sons.

Over time McClendon decided that his views on abortion, limited government and taxation - principles he says he learned from his parents - just didn’t match liberal views.

“I ended up thinking I wasn’t a Democrat or a Republican, but more of a Reagan conservative,” he says, and he has voted accordingly since the election of George H.W. Bush.

By the time McClendon established the local Tea Party chapter last year, he had a network of conservative friends. At the group’s first rally in front of the Fort Wayne courthouse, former conservative presidential candidate Alan Keyes delivered the keynote address.

Since then, McClendon has frequently been invited to speak at Tea Party events in Indiana and elsewhere. Public speaking comes easily to him, he says, because as a child he used to travel with his uncle, a bishop for the Church of God in Christ, listening to preachers and talking morals and values.

The warm reception he receives at Tea Party events isn’t universal, even among family members.
“I’ve been called an Uncle Tom,” he says. “They say (I) should support the president because he’s the first black president. I support the president. I just don’t agree with his beliefs.”

If you get right down to it, McClendon is pretty disgusted by President Obama - even writing that Obama’s election was the saddest day of his life.

“I never thought the American people would fall for a person they didn’t know anything about,” says McClendon. “He has Socialist views and, even worse, Marxist…. He goes around the world bowing to leaders and talks about how the market system doesn’t work.”

In McClendon’s view, this show of presidential humility doesn’t mesh with the notion of “American exceptionalism” that is embraced by the Tea Party.

“We stand above because of our morals, our Constitution,” says McClendon.

“(The Tea Party) is a group of individuals who love their country and feel they are losing their country. They are finding out there are other people who are standing up for principles…. When we return to those principles, we will return to exceptionalism.”

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