The Ku Klux Klan had its beginning in the South immediately following the Civil War; its original purpose was to prevent freed slaves from gaining full rights of citizenship. Revived in the early years of the 20th century, the Klan expanded its campaign of hate and violence to include newer immigrants, particularly from Eastern Europe, and especially Jews and Catholics. Spreading into all parts of America, the Klan attempted to infiltrate small towns and enlist members by creating fear of those who are "different" and professing to embrace truly "American" values.
Witness tells the story of the Klan's attempt to recruit members in a small town in Vermont in 1924. Leanora Sutter, a young black girl, feels isolated by racial prejudice and her mother's recent death. She is befriended by Esther Hirsh, a younger Jewish girl, whose innocence and natural optimism provides a sharp contrast to the other characters.
The Klan's hate-filled message of white supremacy is voiced by Merlin, a teenager, and Johnny Reeves, a minister in the town, who both become members. Other characters — the town constable and newspaper editor — try to walk a careful line of neutrality until they realize the importance of taking a stand. Over the course of many months, residents are affected in many ways by pressures that build in the community, leading up to a climactic moment of violence.
In the voices of 11 residents of the town, we experience this series of events from many different points of view, in the form of a poetic play in five acts. As the characters speak directly to the reader and relate the juxtaposition of acts of hate and love, violence and peace, terror and kindness, they illuminate the full range of human strengths and weaknesses in one small town.