WE SEE them fleetingly. Men dressed in white sheets, paunchy figures in
survival gear, throwing their Hitler salutes, almost unreal. We laugh
or shake our heads, turn the page, and move on to less depressing or ridiculous
Like you, so I once thought. Sniggering at the TV, safe and comfortable,
the world reduced to bite-sized headlines. After all, what have skinheads,
hooligans and Nazi fanatics to do with the rest of us?
But what if just if these people represented something
larger? Leading ordinary lives in and among us, with the same problems
and fears. Not so different after all.
Contrary to popular opinion, much of the world of right-wing extremism
is made of up of such ordinary-looking folk. I know: I spent six years
travelling among them writing my book Homeland and working on the
TV drama England Expects, meeting everyone from members of the
British National Party (BNP) to US Presidential candidates and an alliance
of far-right and militant Islamic Holocaust deniers.
But for some reason the stereotype of the white sheet still
lurks. The mere mention of the words far right calls forth
an image of tattooed boneheads or the spectre of the notorious
Ku Klux Klan (KKK). Almost everyone knows those three letters. For many
of us the far right remains locked into the image of the KKK, regardless
of whether millions now vote for extremist parties across Europe. The
pointed hats, robes and burning crosses have become almost iconic. They
speak of an America and the Klan is nothing if not American
many thought long past: that of racial segregation, lynchings,
the deep conservatism of the South, the desire for a neo-Confederacy
and Martin Luther Kings civil rights battles in the 1960s. Surely
now, though, the KKK must have disappeared into myth?
Well, not quite. Whilst the white supremacist can today choose from a
myriad of groups from hooligan gangs to suave ultra-nationalist
politicians such as Frances Jean-Marie Le Pen the KKK still
maintains a presence in many an American backwater.
Living with the BNPs man in America, I travelled to a conference
of the Council of Conservative Citizens, a white collar version of the
Klan which was born out of the segregation and schooling battles of the
1950s and 1960s. I met the founder and owner of Stormfront,
the worlds most notorious neo-nazi website, who was himself a former
Texan Klan leader. And I passed off as a fellow extremist at a KKK barbecue
deep in the Virginia countryside, surrounded by gun-wielding bikers and
youths in Adolf Hitler t-shirts.
I even discovered that BNP leader Nick Griffin is close friends with modern
Americas most notorious Klan leader and anti-semite: David
Duke. As Grand Wizard of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan in the
1970s, the charismatic Duke urged Klan members to get out of the
cow pasture and into hotel meeting rooms. Like Griffin he put on
the suit and tie and reinvented himself as a white rights
politician, very nearly being elected as Governor of Louisiana in the
process. So whilst it might seem a historical anomaly, the reach of the
Klan is larger than mere numbers.
True, it is no longer a single entity, nor possess the power it once had.
But for a certain slice of blue-collar, white frustrated America, the
Klan and its Klaverns maintains a powerful call. In fact, buoyed by rising
numbers of skinhead and Klan organisations, the American radical right
staged something of a comeback. This followed a tumultuous period that
saw the destruction or hobbling of some of the nation's leading hate groups.
There was a large number of Klan rallies, cross-burnings, and other events
across America last year. Several new groups appeared on the scene, too,
many with fanciful names such as the Orion (for "our race is our
nation") Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, the Cleveland Knights of the
Ku Klux Klan or the Georgia-based Southern White Knights.
For years, though, the KKK has been in serious decline, mocked by more
serious racial nationalists as a haven for misfits and weirdoes.
Many acts of violence have been associated with Klan members but little
in the way of mass orchestrated activity. The last such incident was the
1981 lynching and hanging of Michael Donald near a court house in rural
Alabama, a warning about the failure of a case involving the murder of
a policeman. Today the Klan is often more associated with bungling and
ridiculous fraternity-style rituals than anything else.
"Oh my God, I shot little brother!" was the first thing Gregory
Allen Freeman said after he accidentally shot a fellow Klansman in the
head during a November 23 initiation in Johnson City, Tennessee, for example.
The America's Invisible Empire Knights of the Ku Klux Klan ritual began
to go awry after Klan initiate Karl Mitchell III, 27, was strung to a
tree with a noose and made to stand on tiptoe while being pelted with
According to Chief Deputy Patrick Littleton of Washington County, Freeman
apparently meant to scare Mitchell with the sound of real gunfire by firing
his handgun near Mitchell's ear. But one of the paintballs apparently
struck Freeman, causing him to buckle and squeeze off a round in the direction
of Klan brother Jeffrey S. Murr, 24, who may have leaned forward after
being hit with a paintball as well. A 9mm bullet entered the top of Murr's
head and exited the bottom of his skull. Freeman's reaction wasn't very
helpful to his brother Klansman. A 45-year-old who goes by the nickname
"Rebel," he reportedly paced back and forth, hitting himself
in the head with his handgun over and over, before he fled the scene.
Luckily Murr survived.
Despite such bungling, Klan groups have recently been surging in number.
There are some 45 KKK organisations now in existence across the States.
Each has a different name and each claims to be the one true Klan,
says Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights organisation
which monitors and prosecutes the extreme right in the USA. They
usually spend much more energy attacking each other than anyone else.
Its very much a working class organisation, or organisations, very
different to the [original] Klan of the [post-Civil War] Reconstruction
or in the 1920s, when it had five million members.
For Potok and his colleagues, the Klan is a kind of welfare system
for its leaders, providing serious money-making ventures so that few of
them actually work for a living. But there is no significant figure
in the Klan now, he adds. David Duke was the last such person.
The bare facts about the birth of the Ku Klux Klan and its revival half
a century later are baffling to most people today. It grew out of the
resentment and hatred many white Southerners felt in the aftermath of
the Civil War. Blacks, having won the struggle for freedom from slavery,
were now faced with a new struggle against widespread racism and
Little more than a year after it was founded, the secret society thundered
across the war-torn South, sabotaged Reconstruction governments and imposed
a reign of terror and violence that lasted three or four years. And then
as rapidly as it had spread, the Klan faded into the history books.
After World War I a new version of the Klan sputtered to life and brought
many parts of the nation under its paralysing grip of racism and bloodshed.
Then, having grown to be a major force for the second time, the Klan again
receded into the background. This time it never quite disappeared, but
it never again commanded such widespread support.
Today it seems incredible that an organisation so violent, so opposed
to the American principles of justice and equality, could twice in the
nation's history have held such power.
The answers do not lie on the surface of American history: they are deeper
than the events of the turbulent 1960s, the parades and cross burnings
and lynching of the 1920s, beyond even the Reconstruction era and the
Civil War. The story begins, really, on the frontier, where successive
generations of Americans learned hard lessons about survival. Those lessons
produced some of the qualities of life for which the nation is most admired:
fierce individualism, enterprising inventiveness and the freedom to be
whatever a person wants to be and go wherever a
new road leads.
But the frontier spirit included other traits as well, and one was a stubborn
reliance on "frontier justice" an instant, private, and
often violent method of settling differences without involving lawyers
or courts. Vigilante justice became the motivation for many who later
rode with the KKK.
A more obvious explanation of the South's widespread acceptance of the
Klan is found in the institution of slavery. Freedom for slaves represented
for many white Southerners a bitter defeat. It was an age-old nightmare
come true, for early in Southern life whites in general and plantation
owners in particular had begun to view the large number of slaves living
among them as a potential threat to their property and their lives.
A series of bloody slave revolts in Virginia and other parts of the South
led to the widespread practice of night patrols white men specially
deputised for the purpose of prowling Southern roads enforcing the curfew
for slaves, looking for runaways, and guarding rural areas against the
threat of black uprisings. They were authorised by law to give a specific
number of lashes to any violators they caught. The memory of these legal
night riders and their whips was still fresh in the minds of both defeated
Southerners and liberated blacks when the first Klansmen took to those
same roads in 1866.
The origin of the Ku Klux Klan was a carefully guarded secret for years,
although there were many theories to explain its beginnings. In fact there
was nothing as sinister, subversive or ancient as the theories supposed.
It was the boredom of small-town life that led six young Confederate veterans
to gather around a fireplace one December evening in 1865 and form a social
club. The place was Pulaski, Tennessee, near the Alabama border.
When they reassembled a week later, the six young men were full of ideas
for their new society. It would be secret, to heighten the amusement of
the thing, and the titles for the various officers were to have names
as preposterous-sounding as possible, partly for the fun of it and partly
to avoid any military or political implications.
Thus, the head of the group was called the Grand Cyclops. His assistant
was the Grand Magi; there was to be a Grand Turk to greet all candidates
for admission; a Grand Scribe to act as secretary; Night Hawks for messengers;
and a Lictor to be the guard. The members, when the six young men found
some to join, would be called Ghouls. But what name to call the
society itself? The founders were determined to come up with something
unusual and mysterious. Being well-educated, they turned to Greek. After
tossing around a number of ideas, Richard R. Reed suggested the word "kuklos,"
from which the English words "circle and "cycle"
are derived. Another member, Captain John B. Kennedy, had an ear for alliteration
and added the word "clam." After tinkering with the sound for
a while, group settled on the "Ku Klux Klan."
Much of the early Klan activities were based on mischief. But as the Reconstruction
era took hold of the South, KKK chapters became increasingly violent.
All the now-familiar tactics of the Klan date from this period: the threats
delivered to blacks, radicals and other enemies, the night raids on individuals
they singled out for rougher treatment, and the mass demonstrations of
masked and robed Klansmen designed to cast fear over a troubled community.
As the violence escalated, it turned to general lawlessness and some Klan
groups even began fighting each other. By 1869 this has torn apart the
organisation and it ceased to exist. But mass immigration from Europe
during the late 19th and early 20th centuries sparked strong anti-Catholic
sentiments. The other major event which prepared the ground for the Klan's
return was World War I. On the European battlefields, blacks served in
the uniform of their country and saw a new world open up before them.
The KKK sputtered back to life, growing to huge size and characterised
by lynchings and mob behaviour. A series of financial scandals, newspaper
exposés and internal feuds (both physical and legal) eventually
sunk the Klan of the Twenties, despite its political power.
The civil rights battles of the 1950s and 1960s saw the Klan raise its
ugly head once more, when it transformed from a mainly fraternal order
back towards extreme violence, leading to the murder of several civil
rights activists. Even so, it never had more than 60,000 members at this
point, and since then has continued on a long, slow decline.
Whilst there are quite a few rallies, I dont think the Klan
is significant any more as a political movement, says the Southern
Poverty Law Centers Mark Potok. I would look instead to the
neo-nazis, the bomb makers and lone extremists for where the real action
Now even moderately successful Klan leaders struggle with the associations
of old, attempt (and often fail) to sponsor civic activities and more
often than not struggle to contain the violence so evident in their frustrated
and alienated members. Even the former Klan leader who escorted me to
the KKK gathering in Virginia grimaced as we watched those around us stumble
and slur their words, peppering the night air with fucking niggers
and fucking Jews, threatening to wipe out all who opposed
My guide admitted that the KKK was now full of white trash
and no longer relevant as a political movement. Maybe not all white
folks should have kids! he said, in wry comment. But for now the
Klan seems here to stay.
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