After 150 years, Ku Klux Klan sees opportunities in U.S. political trends
Members of the Ku Klux Klan take part in a “white pride” rally in Rome, Ga., in April. Klan leaders say they believe U.S. politics are going their way, as a nationalist, us-against-them mentality deepens across the nation.(John Bazemore / Associated Press)
Klan members march around the town square in Swainsboro, Ga., on Feb. 3, 1948.(Associated Press)
A Klan rally in Tampa, Fla., on Jan. 30, 1939.(Associated Press)
Young recruits at a Klan rally in Benson, N.C., in 1980.(Associated Press)
Brent Waller, Mississippi grand dragon and spokesman for the Tennessee-based Ku Klos Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, in April. He has since become the imperial wizard of the United Dixie White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.(Jay Reeves / Associated Press)
A police officer speaks to a man protesting a Klan rally in Rome, Ga., in April.(Mike Stewart / Associated Press)
A rally at Stone Mountain Park in Stone Mountain, Ga.(John Bazemore / Associated Press)
Klan members warn black voters to stay away from polling places in Miami in 1939.(Associated Press)
Ku Klux Klan member Stetson Kennedy, 30, of Jacksonville, Fla., at the U.S. Capitol in 1947.(Associated Press)
Ku Klux Klan members hold a ceremonial meeting near Los Angeles in 1925.(Associated Press)
People protest a Klan rally in Rome, Ga., in April.(Mike Stewart / Associated Press)
Protesters at a Klan rally in Rome, Ga., in April.(Mike Stewart / Associated Press)
A Klan ceremony in Georgia in April.(Mike Stewart / Associated Press)
A Georgia Klan rally in April.(John Bazemore / Associated Press)
A cross-burning in Georgia in April.(John Bazemore / Associated Press)
A cross and swastika burn in Georgia.(Mike Stewart / Associated Press)
Loyal White Knights Grand Dragon Will Quigg of Anaheim shouts at protesters in Rome, Ga.(Mike Stewart / Associated Press)
A Klan rally in Georgia in April.(John Bazemore / Associated Press)
Born in the ashes of the smoldering South after the Civil War, the Ku Klux Klan died and was reborn before losing the fight against civil rights in the 1960s. Membership dwindled, a unified group fractured and one-time members went to prison for a string of murderous attacks against blacks. Many assumed the group was dead, a white-robed ghost of hate and violence.
Yet today, the KKK is still alive and dreams of restoring itself to what it once was: an invisible white supremacist empire spreading its tentacles throughout society. As it marks 150 years of existence, the Klan is trying to reshape itself for a new era.
Klan members still gather by the dozens under starry Southern skies to set fire to crosses in the dead of night, and KKK leaflets have shown up in suburban neighborhoods from the Deep South to the Northeast in recent months. Perhaps most unwelcome to opponents, some independent Klan organizations say they are merging with larger groups to build strength.
“We will work on a unified Klan and/or alliance this summer,” said Brent Waller, imperial wizard of the United Dixie White Knights in Mississippi.
In a series of interviews with the Associated Press, Klan leaders said they feel that U.S. politics are going their way, as a nationalist, us-against-them mentality deepens across the nation. Stopping or limiting immigration — a desire of the Klan dating back to the 1920s — is more of a cause than ever. And leaders say membership has gone up at the twilight of President Obama’s second term in office, though few would provide numbers.
Joining the Klan is as easy as filling out an online form — provided you’re white and Christian. Members can visit an online store to buy one of the Klan’s trademark white cotton robes for $145, though many splurge on the $165 satin version.
While the Klan has terrorized minorities during much of the past century, its leaders now present a public front that is more virulent than violent. Leaders from several Klan groups all said they have rules against violence, aside from self-defense, and even opponents agree the KKK has toned itself down after a string of members went to prison years after the fact for deadly arson attacks, beatings, bombings and shootings.
The idea of unifying the Klan like it was in the ’20s is a persistent dream of the Klan, but it’s not happening.
Mark Potok, Southern Poverty Law Center
“While today’s Klan has still been involved in atrocities, there is no way it is as violent as the Klan of the ’60s,” said Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center, an advocacy group that tracks activity by groups it considers extremist. “That does not mean it is some benign group that does not engage in political violence,” he added.
Historian David Cunningham, author of “Klansville, U.S.A.: The Rise and Fall of the Civil Rights-Era Ku Klux Klan,” notes that while the Klan generally doesn’t openly advocate violence, “I do think we have the sort of ‘other’ model of violence, which is creating a culture that supports the commission of violence in the name of these ideas.”
Klan leaders told the AP that most of today’s groups remain small and operate independently, kept apart by disagreements over such issues as whether to associate with neo-Nazis, hold public rallies or wear the KKK’s trademark robes in colors other than white.
A Ku Klux Klansman, left, struggles with a protester for an American flag after members of the KKK tried to start a “White Lives Matter” rally at Pearson Park in Anaheim on Saturday. Three people were treated at the scene for stab wounds, and 13 people were arrested.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
A Ku Klux Klansman is kicked in the face by an angry protester after members of the KKK tried to start a “White Lives Matter” rally at Pearson Park in Anaheim.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Protesters scuffle with a Ku Klux Klansman after members of the KKK tried to start a “White Lives Matter” rally at Pearson Park in Anaheim. The event quickly escalated into violence.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Protesters taunt an injured Ku Klux Klansman after members of the KKK tried to start a “White Lives Matter” rally at Pearson Park in Anaheim. Witnesses said the Klansmen used the point of a flagpole as a weapon while fighting with protesters.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Paramedics tend to a protester who was stabbed during the KKK rally in Anaheim. Many people at the park were demanding to know why police did not have a larger presence at the scene before the violence broke out.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
A Ku Klux Klansman is subdued and handcuffed by police. “I was expecting violence – but it’s disgusting,” said Nick Keeton, 18, of Anahiem. “I feel like this is 1953 and we’re in Kentucky.”
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
A Ku Klux Klansman is subdued and handcuffed. All of the 13 people arrested could face charges of assault with a deadly weapon, though a police spokesman said “some people could have a self-defense claim.”
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
A protester lies on the ground after being stabbed in an altercation with KKK members. Klansmen were once the dominant political force in Anaheim, holding four of five City Council seats before a recall effort led to their ouster in 1924.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
So-called “traditional” Klan groups avoid public displays and practice rituals dating back a century; others post Web videos dedicated to preaching against racial diversity and warning of a coming “white genocide.” Women are voting members in some groups, but not in others. Some leaders will not speak openly with the media, but others do, articulating ambitious plans that include quietly building political strength.
Some groups hold annual conventions, just like civic clubs. Members gather in meeting rooms to discuss strategies that include electing Klan members to local political offices and recruiting new blood through the Internet.
It’s impossible to say how many members the Klan counts today because groups don’t reveal that information, but leaders claim adherents in the thousands among scores of local groups called Klaverns. Waller said his group is growing, as did Chris Barker, imperial wizard of the Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan in Eden, N.C.
“Most Klan groups I talk to could hold a meeting in the bathroom in McDonald’s,” Barker said. As for his Klavern, he said, “Right now, I’m close to 3,800 members in my group alone.”
The Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law Center says there’s no evidence the Klan is returning to the strength of its heyday. It estimates the Klan has about 190 chapters nationally with no more than 6,000 members total, which would be a mere shadow of its estimated 2 million to 5 million members in the 1920s.
“The idea of unifying the Klan like it was in the ’20s is a persistent dream of the Klan, but it’s not happening,” Potok said.
Formed just months after the end of the Civil War by six former Confederate officers in Pulaski, Tenn., the Klan originally seemed more like a college fraternity, with ceremonial robes and odd titles for its officers. But soon, freed blacks were being terrorized, and the Klan was blamed. Hundreds of people were assaulted or killed within the span of a few years as whites tried to regain control of the defeated Confederacy. Congress effectively outlawed the Klan in 1871, leading to martial law in some places and thousands of arrests, and the group died.
The Klan seemed relegated to history until World War I, when it was resurrected. It grew as waves of immigrants arrived aboard ships from Europe and elsewhere, and it grew further as the NAACP challenged Jim Crow laws in the South in the 1920s. Millions joined, including community leaders such as bankers and lawyers.
That momentum declined, however, and best estimates place Klan membership at about 40,000 by the mid-’60s, the height of the civil rights movement. Klan members were convicted of using murder as a weapon against equality in states including Mississippi and Alabama, where one Klansman remains imprisoned for planting the bomb that killed four black girls in a Birmingham church in 1963.
Cunningham, the historian, said the Klan dwindled to nearly nothing during the 1970s and ’80s, when the Southern Poverty Law Center sued the Alabama-based United Klans of America over the 1981 murder of Michael Donald, a black man whose beaten, slashed body was hanged from a tree. In an odd twist, Donald’s mother wound up with the title to the Klan’s headquarters near Tuscaloosa, Ala., because the group didn’t have the money to pay the $7 million judgment awarded in the lawsuit.
Associated Press writer Ryan Phillips in Stone Mountain, Ga., and AP photographer Mike Stewart in Rome, Ga., contributed to this report.
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