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Extreme Measures

Many thought the Ku Klux Klan long consigned to memory. But is it on the rise once more? Author Nick Ryan spent six years travelling among racial extremists and reports here on the return of the KKK.


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 news.

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 King’s 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 France’s Jean-Marie Le Pen – the KKK still maintains a presence in many an American backwater.
Living with the BNP’s 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 world’s 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 America’s 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 paintballs.

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. It’s 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 the terrorism.

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 don’t think the Klan is significant any more as a political movement,” says the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Mark Potok. “I would look instead to the neo-nazis, the bomb makers and lone extremists for where the real action is at.”

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 them.

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.

This story was commissioned for Scotland on Sunday © 2004



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