How the South outgrew the Klan

Christian Science Monitor/May 4, 2001
By Kris Axtman

A Klansman's conviction in a 1963 bombing points up the KKK's pariah status. But other hate groups take root.

They still cause uproar when they apply for a permit for a street march. They stir outrage when they ask to adopt a roadside-cleanup project or sponsor a National Public Radio broadcast.

But that may be the main signature of the Ku Klux Klan today - publicity stunts. The group that was formed in the lingering animus after the Civil War is today a wisp of its former self - particularly in the South.

This week's guilty verdict of former Klansman Thomas Blanton Jr. in a 1963 church-bombing here is largely a symbolic blow to the KKK, but the case is also a poignant reminder of just how deadly hate groups can become. Though the KKK has faded as a force, other white-supremacy groups that many experts consider even more insidious have risen in the South.

"The problem with the Klan is that it has 136 years of bad history to contend with," says Mark Pitcavage of the Anti-Defamation League. "There's a lot of stigma attached to it, and the rituals and the clothing seem ... a little more goofy" to today's hate-group adherents.

But it's hard to overlook the import of America's first hate group. From its frivolous beginnings in 1865, the Klan has waxed and waned several times, and its history is marked by periods of terror and violence.

>From 5 million members in its heyday in the 1920s, the Klan has declined steadily since the mid-1980s to today's 6,000 members.

"The sad truth - well, not so sad - is that the Klan today is almost universally despised," says Mark Potok, editor of the Intelligence Report of the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala., which tracks hate groups. "Even the radical right sees them as ... a sorry bunch of fools sitting in cow pastures with dunce caps on their heads."

It may come as a surprise that the KKK's stronghold is no longer in the South. The 50 named Klan groups operating today are more likely to draw members from steel mills and auto plants in western Pennsylvania and northern Indiana than from Alabama or Mississippi.

In the South, meanwhile, the residue of racial bias finds expression these days in less blatant, more genteel groups. Former Klan sympathizers have shifted either toward antigovernment groups or militias, or neo-Confederate groups that promote white Southern heritage.

One on-the-rise neo-Confederate group is the Council of Conservative Citizens in St. Louis, says Mr. Pitcavage. "They don't dress up in hoods and sheets. They dress in suits and ties, and get active politically," he says. "They have much the same rhetoric as the Ku Klux Klan, but it's expressed in softer tones."

Experts estimate that about 200,000 Americans are active in hate groups, and 1 million more are sympathizers. The Southern Poverty Law Center lists 602 groups, including the KKK, neo-Confederates, neo-Nazis, racist skinheads, black separatists, and Christian Identity religions.

They are by no means a Southern phenomenon. The most active Klan group is in Indiana, for instance. The Aryan Nation's stronghold is in Idaho. The World Church of the Creator is based in Illinois.

Evolution of a social club

The Ku Klux Klan grew out of the South's anger over the Civil War and the Reconstruction. As recounted in "A Hundred Years of Terror," a report on the KKK by the Southern Poverty Law Center, it began in 1865, when six Confederate veterans gathered in Pulaski, Tenn., to form a social club for entertainment. They settled on the name Ku Klux Klan after the Greek word "kulkos," meaning "circle" or "cycle."

"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," says the report. The club began initiating new members and, disguised in sheets, galloping their horses through the streets. The night rides soon centered on threatening local blacks.

"It didn't take long for the threats to be converted into violence against blacks who insisted on exercising their new rights," says the report. But in the early 1870s, the Klan faded as quickly as it bloomed. White Southerners had gained political control and enacted "separate but equal" laws that would last for nearly a century. The Klan "faded because it was no longer needed," says Pitcavage.

The secret society rose again in the 1920s, as immigrants poured into the United States, this time spreading across the country. And it used its strength in numbers to help elect governors. Texas even sent a Klansman to the US Senate.

Interest in the Klan waned again as the Great Depression monopolized Americans' attention. By the civil rights movement in the 1960s, membership was down to 45,000 - mostly in the South. But protected by state and local police, its members were able to carry out many violent acts that were never prosecuted.

A message that resonates

"Their ideas sound very strange today," says Chip Berlet of Political Research Associates in Somerville, Mass., a specialist in right-wing extremist groups. "But in the mid-1960s, a lot of what the Klan was saying was pretty much popular wisdom: that race-mixing was bad, that civil rights demonstrators were too pushy."

For Mr. Berlet, the Birmingham verdict has implications far beyond an old man going to prison for life. Studies show hate crimes decrease when politicians and citizens strongly denounce it. "It's a teaching moment," he says of the church-bombing prosecution. "It's showing people where we stand as Americans, what the limits are, and to what lengths we will go to punish what is unacceptable."

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