The White supremacist group has been terrorizing Black Americans for nearly 150 years. And now the KKK is poised for its first—and potentially worst—resurgence since the 1960s.
For the past few years, the we’ve been seeing the ominous signs: The Ku Klux Klan is enjoying a resurgence, actively galvanizing its members and recruiting new followers and supporters.
Most recently, the Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan have announced a plan to rally outside the South Carolina Statehouse on July 18 in support of the Confederate flag (though not endorsed by Governor Nikki Haley, they were granted approval to rally by state officials). In April, three Florida correction officers linked to the KKK were arrested for plotting to murder an African-American man. Another Klan group, the Traditionalist American Knights, appeared last year to threaten “lethal force” against protesters of Officer Darren Wilson’s killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. In several states, Klan leaders have been making “rebranding” efforts, claiming incongruously that the Klan does not represent hate, that they are not a violent, racist organization. They simply “want to stay White,” said Frank Ancona, the Imperial Wizard of the Traditionalist American Knights of Virginia. “It’s not a hateful thing to want to maintain White supremacy.” Newspapers around the country have been reporting the presence of Klan recruitment signs in men’s bathrooms and on telephone poles. While this would not be an effective way for them to organize, and some of these incidents may be pranks more than serious efforts, one thing is undeniable: The Klan’s presence can definitely be felt in a way it hasn’t in a long time.
And these incidents are all the more disturbing because they coincide with a dramatic increase in violence and threats of more violence against Black people and institutions that, while they have not been definitively connected to the Klan, bear the earmarks of Klan behavior. The terrorist massacre of nine people at the historic AME church in Charleston, South Carolina, by Dylann Roof was apparently not connected to a Klan group, yet the KKK not only praised Roof’s actions but parlayed it into a recruitment opportunity just days after the murders, covering residents’ lawns with KKK fliers and bags filled with candy. And though no one has claimed responsibility for the recent night-time burnings of seven Black churches—a terrifying and terrorizing KKK tradition that harks back to the 1820s—two are being investigated as arson, one as vandalism, and a fourth as “undetermined.” (The other three, officials believe, were caused by lightning or an electrical short.)
We are now living in a moment where there is a substantial danger that the intensifying racial violence and the increasing Klan activity will coalesce. Roof’s manifesto explains that he had sought out and not found a Ku Klux Klan. Black-church arsonists may be frustrated that their attacks have not gotten the media attention they would have wanted. The Ku Klux Klan has long been available as a powerful tool to justify and amplify racist violence, and to imbue the acts of White supremacists with a sense of tradition. There is a new generation of White supremacists who may be turning to them as a vehicle for their racism.
For 149 years now, the Ku Klux Klan has lived as a virus in the national blood. Usually it has been dormant, consisting of a few paragraphs in our history textbooks; an occasional dramatic appearance in a book, film, play, or work of art; stories adults pass along to their children, and some scattered and scheming angry White men who emerge to stage a feeble parade or, to make an isolated, but sometimes deadly, attack. But always it remains available to be picked up by White supremacists who want to justify their violent act or to couch their racial hatred in the language of tradition. Three times in our history, when Whites have felt particularly threatened by Black claims to rights and resources, this virus has become active. In the Reconstruction era, the 1920s, and the 1950s and 1960s, the Klan blew up into a large and dangerous force. As White racists feel increasingly besieged, we risk a new revival.
The first Klan began in 1866 in Pulaski, Tennessee, and spread through many parts of the South in 1868. Responding to efforts of newly liberated black Southerners, supported by the federal government, to take on the role of free people in the post-war society, the first Klan was of necessity a secretive movement. Wearing bizarre costumes which ranged from decorated white, red, or black robes and peaked hats; to masks with fake tongues, moustaches, and horns; to polka dotted or calico dresses; to masks made of squirrel skin, its adherents targeted those black people who were working most effectively to gain political power, property, respect, and influence. They killed many hundreds of Black Southerners and their White allies, raped Black women and children, whipped and maimed thousands, stole a great deal of property, forced countless officeholders to flee their positions, and drove thousands of families from their homes and land. Most Klan groups during this period were small and short-lived, which helped them to avoid arrest, though a few groups in the Carolinas grew into the hundreds. Klan groups remained active until the Klan collapsed in the face of federal enforcement efforts in 1871 and 1872.
After several inactive decades, the second Klan emerged in response to new perceived threats to White interests: Black northern migration and increased immigration. Those who chose to revive the Klan dramatically reshaped it to fit their own time. They benefitted from the massive popularity of the Birth of a Nation (1915), a pioneering full-length silent film which celebrated the Reconstruction-era Klan. Appropriate to the age of efficiency, the Klan of early 1920s was the most centralized and by far the largest of Klan revivals, with an estimated 3 million members. The age’s orderly aesthetic transformed bizarre costumes into mass-manufactured identical uniforms. It was this Klan that adopted Christian imagery like the burning cross and the Bible, and, very much unlike the first Klan, patriotic imagery like the American flag. More important was the change in its membership and deeds: at a time when racism was respectable, white supremacy taken for granted, and the federal government much less invested in protecting the interests of black Southerners, the Klan’s membership was respectably middle class and national in scope. With its massive and prosperous membership’s political and economic influence, the second Klan had only occasional need for private violence or secrecy. This Klan worked as a powerful force to celebrate and further spread racist ideology and to advocate for laws and practices benefitting Protestant white Americans. The bizarre acts of nighttime terror characteristic of Reconstruction morphed into massive daylight shows of force down Main Streets across the nation. The second Klan collapsed in internal dispute and scandal in 1925.
After another period of dormancy, a new set of rights claims by Black America in the form of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s once again menaced white supremacists. The third Klan was much less respectable and more Southern than the Klan of the 1920s. It was this Klan that adopted the Confederate flag as an emblem. While the Klan of this period was much smaller than the second Klan, Klan rallies in the hundreds and occasionally thousands dotted the South; the Klan’s most organized element, Robert Shelton’s United Klans of America, had as many as 20,000 to 30,000 members. While most Klansmen were content to express racial hatred and seek white solidarity, this third Klan also spawned and enabled those who committed violent attacks such as the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church, the 1964 murders of James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, and brutal large-scale attacks on Freedom Riders. These acts of violence were facilitated by local and state governments often sympathetic to the Klan and sometimes by a federal government which wavered between its desire to appease white Southerners and its emerging sympathy with black protesters. While Klan activity dramatically curtailed in the late 1960s, this Klan did not collapse as definitively as the first did in 1871 and 1872 and the second in 1925. The Klan’s existence from the 1970s to today has been relatively more vigorous than between the 1870s and 1910s or between the 1920s and 1940s.
The Klan has remained a powerful idea of U.S. history, always available to be appropriated and reworked by threatened white men seeking allies and identity. Dylann Roof complained that his apparently individual terrorist attack was made necessary because the Klan was not around, but that is not entirely true. The Southern Poverty Law Center lists more than 70 currently active Klan groups, and estimates that there are between 5,000 to 8,000 members, divided among different, often warring, organizations that use the Klan name. The vast bulk of these are apparently quite local and inactive, though some, like the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, the Brotherhood of Klans, the Loyal White Knights of the Klan, and the Imperial Klans of America, have more ambitious organizational structures.
As an extremist hate group, the Klan has always flourished when non-Whites have made plausible claims to rights and resources, causing a minority of White people to feel alienated and threatened. We are all witnessing America’s slow but inevitable transformation from a majority White to minority White society. As we hack out the terms under which this shift will occur: strengthening our border fences; deploring or justifying police-on-black violence; sometimes encouraging, sometime detaining migrant workers; taking the Confederate flags down but perhaps keeping the monuments; endlessly debating and litigating the terms of race-informed college admissions decisions, we create a fertile environment for the growth of White supremacist hate groups. Every concession of White privilege and dominance (and there will be many, regularly, for a long time to come), is a further blow to their already-crumbling fortification.
As white supremacists feel cornered, it is almost inevitable that a minority of them will become more active and violent. Some, like Roof, will fail to find, or fail to find necessary, a face-to-face community. But many will be more successful than he was in his search for a local group of fellow travelers. These groups would not have to take on the name “Klan.” The Klan competes with—and sometimes coordinates with—skinheads, survivalists, and other groups. Or some other new identity could be co-opted and reworked for White supremacist purposes. The Klan, however, seems the most likely identity for these supremacist groups to assume. As popular interest in the Nazis declines, the “Aryan” tag becomes less resonant. The foreign terror movements most recognizable here now are Islamist, which makes them seemingly unusable for White supremacists. Survivalist movements are most viable and active, but they still have nothing approaching the cultural traction that the Klan has built up over its many decades.
If a full-on Klan revival does occur in the next few years, it will take on a modern structure and change its actions to reflect the current shape of White supremacist anxieties. The first Klan targeted more successful Black Southerners and their White allies, and took on a guerilla form to respond to a military occupation. The second worked to stymie Black people from enjoying the benefits of a modernizing and urbanizing America, and then the KKK broadened its enemy scope to include Jews and Catholics. Increasingly earning broad widespread support, the Klan became a voluntary association. The third iteration—again largely narrowing their focus to target Black people claiming rights and dignity—has been a marriage of revival meeting and a terrorist cell.
What currently exists as an on-the-ground Klan infrastructure seems to be fundamentally fractured and decentralized, each group with its own Grant Dragon. And this structure would likely persist. As the state has increased its capacity to monitor social organizations, groups like the Klan have proven particularly easy to infiltrate and expose. And hate groups face many of the same obstacles as other voluntary organizations in the last few decades: physical groups have declined as white supremacist energy has shifted to internet forums. While occasional public shows of force would serve to publicize the movement, small, independent, secretive groups, drawing sustenance from the ideological work of online forums, would more effectively evade government surveillance then larger or better-networked groups.
Reflecting current white supremacist ideology, some of these revived Klan groups would almost certainly expand to attack people beyond black Americans, though black Americans would likely remain their central target. Depending on their location and the prejudices of their membership, Klan groups could take on anti-immigration, anti-Gay, anti-Semitic, or anti-Islamic commitments.
A new Klan would likely manifest levels of violence on par with or greater than that of the third Klan. The proliferation of weapons suited to mass killing, combined with the ideological support and logistical information available on the internet, has made terrorism efficient. White supremacists’ have the elevated sense of urgency and threat that inspires extreme behavior. And, as would-be Klansmen see on the news along with the rest of us, that is the shape that terrorism, globally, is taking today. It will never, however, reach anything like the devastating level of the first Klan. That Klan’s reign of terror occurred at a time when civil government had been thrown in disarray by the war and the government was wary about the use of military force after the battles had ceased. The situation is very different now. If the government does not have the capacity to prevent any meaningful resurgence of the Klan—and it may—it is more than capable of quickly finding and stopping any Klan once it has become violent and any organizing work once it becomes effective. As the Klan approaches its 150th year, it is crucial to recognize the still-dangerous potential of the hate group that has never quite gone away.
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