A family of hate

The Klan in Michiana

South Bend Tribune/May 7, 2001
By Carol Draeger and Nancy Sulok

Osceola -- Ruth Collins collected decorative owls like some people stockpile Beanie Babies, filling every corner of her small ranch farmhouse with her pastime. And like any 56-year-old grandmother, photographs of her grandchildren and family adorned the paneled walls; blue ribbons from her early days as a horse show woman covered a wall near her dining room table.

Only the miniature Confederate flags on an end table hinted at her ultra-right convictions of white supremacy. On the surface, Collins' tranquil Ash Road home just outside Osceola never blatantly advertised what it has now apparently become: the national headquarters for the Church of the National Knights, a faction of the Ku Klux Klan.

As a top official in the Klan, Collins played host to rallies at the farm over the last three years. The only people who knew about the 60-foot cross burnings were neighbors and Klan members.

Collins, the group's secretary and spokeswoman who went by the Klan name Ruth Larsen, liked it that way. She never thought the Klan should be "preaching or marching on street corners" or disturbing the peace. But that philosophy is gone, now that Collins is gone. Collins died in January, a few weeks after she pulled the plug on her oxygen machine. She suffered a degenerative lung disease -- the same disease that also killed her husband, John, in 1997.

With Ruth Collins' passing went the authoritative but grandmotherly order she doled out, which kept the radical wing of her Klan in check. Her beloved Peruvian horses, which once grazed in a field behind her back yard, have been sold.

Now, backstops and targets have been set up on the side lawn and back field of the property. Based on interviews she gave The Tribune before her death, Collins probably would not have approved of the shooting range. When she was alive, a neighbor reported only one instance of seeing guns on the property, when a small group was posing for photos.

However, during this spring alone, police have been called to the property at least 11 times by frightened neighbors who reported gunfire. The property has one other, more noticeable change: a sign strapped to the front gate declaring the 5-acre homestead "The Church of the National Knights." Collins would have favored that change. In drawing up a new will shortly before her death and bequeathing her property to her brother, Railton Loy -- the National Knights' leader -- Collins was setting into motion her fondest wish for the future of her land.

That it would become the designated headquarters for the National Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. All in the family Although Loy now owns his sister's farm on the St. Joseph-Elkhart County border, he lives in a quiet neighborhood on East 10th Street on Mishawaka's south side. Loy, 62, a former railroad worker who goes by the Klan name Ray Larsen, is the international imperial wizard of the National Knights. As the highest-ranking member, the imperial wizard commands one of the smaller KKK factions, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala. Collins said her brother received the title in the early 1990s from then-imperial wizard James Venable.

Venable's property in Stone Mountain, Ga., had been the site of many Klan rallies that not only drew members from the National Knights but also other Klan factions. Venable died in 1993. "My brother took over for Mr. Venable because Ray was the closest person to him and he knew he would carry it (the group) on," Collins said. "He (Venable) was not a violent person. He wouldn't even eat meat."

Collins believed her family had a key role in the National Knights' survival, which is why she designated her home as the site for its headquarters. She even traced her heritage in the National Knights, now in its fifth era, or generation, of existence.

"My great-great-grandfather was killed in the Civil War, and his son was a Klansman," she said. Her mother was a Pentecostal minister, and her father was a deacon in the Assemblies of God Church. They both belonged to the Klan. In a recent interview with The Tribune, Loy also acknowledged his family's roots are deeply embedded in the Klan.

His family, originally named Lloyd, came to the United States as indentured slaves, Loy said. His granddaddy was a kleagle, an organizer of the Klan, in Tennessee, and his father also was a Klan leader. Although Loy has been in the Klan all his life, he didn't join formally until 1961. His son, Richard Loy, also started out in the Klan, although he left in 1990 to become a Skinhead.

"I never left my religion," he said, but "as a younger man, I was much more militant." Richard Loy has since returned to the Klan and now serves as grand dragon, or the state chapter leader, of the Indiana National Knights, a position his father once held. Richard Loy also was one of Klansman arrested for disorderly conduct Saturday after the rally in South Bend. The younger Loy, 32, who lives on Calvert Street in South Bend but intends to move into the farmhouse this summer, says he hopes national Klan rallies will take place at the farm, attracting as many as 3,000 to 10,000 people.

Although some Klan members are quick to throw out figures for expected attendance at rallies, other Klan organizers keep a tight lid on membership numbers.Collins, who had refused to disclose the number of members in the National Knights, admitted she sent out 50 letters per week to prospective recruits she had met on the Internet.

'Seat-of-the-pants' operation

Police agencies who track the Klan say these organizations tend to make a lot of assertions, but very little are based in fact. Lt. Steven King of the Indiana State Police in Indianapolis, who investigates criminal activity by hate groups in Indiana, said membership in hate groups has declined in the last five decades.

About 6 million people were active Klan members in the 1920s, he said. Ohio and Indiana recorded the most members -- about 300,000 to 400,000 each -- beating out Southern states, where the Klan originated. Current membership is hard to even estimate, King said, but the numbers are nowhere near the figures of the 1950s.

King points out that rallies like the one in Gary on March 10 by the American Knights of the Ku Klux Klan drew only about 25 supporters. With more than 150 anti-Klan protesters at the event, they outnumbered the KKK 6-to-1, a scenario that is not uncommon at marches, King said. Saturday's rally in South Bend was similar. About 35 Klan supporters showed up, while more than 100 protesters gathered at the courthouse. More than 200 protesters marched to Howard Park, by design, to stay far enough away from the Klan's rally.

Another favorite Klan boast is that prominent people in the community are sympathizers. It's an assertion that Jeff Berry of Butler, Ind., the imperial wizard of the American Knights -- a Klan faction that is larger than the National Knights -- makes. But it's just not so, King said.

"Jeff Berry will tell you that a lot of prominent business people, judges, police officers, are members," King said. "I'm sure there may be some who are members, but it's nowhere near the number they would like us to believe." King also said that if the National Knights are now christening Collins' Osceola farm as its headquarters, no one can dispute it.

"If they say they are, then they are," King said, adding, "I mean, this isn't like starting a civic club, where you write to the national headquarters to get a charter." Members of the old Klan used to adhere to secret rituals called Klan craft. Younger Klan members who have never studied the customs create their own rules, King said: "The Klan won't like it if I say this, but they pretty much fly by the seat of their pants."

While current Klan activity pales to the violent lynchings and terror of the 1950s, in the past few years, there has been a noticeable resurgence in hate groups that include traditional Klan organizations, "pro-South" neo-Confederate organizations and anti-immigration groups. According to the Intelligence Project, a report compiled by the Southern Poverty Law Center, hate groups have increased by 10 percent in 2000 for a total of 602 groups in the United States.

A special agent with the FBI in Indianapolis would not discuss whether the FBI tracks the National Knights. "Whether or not any group is under investigation, I can't tell you," said Doug Garrison, special agent with the FBI in Indianapolis.

"To the extent a particular group -- any political group -- advocates force, whether it is to create a nation of white Americans or create a nation of black Americans, they are of interest to us," Garrison said.

Spreading the word

When Railton Loy took over the National Knights, he had to start from scratch, Collins said before she died. "Mr. Venable's sister burned her brother's Klan robes and member records after his death," she said. Collins persuaded her brother to drum up support via the Internet. >From a chat room, Collins espoused what she called the "Christian" view of the National Knights and its intent to keep the Aryan race pure.

She advocated that Caucasians not marry people of other races. "We don't preach hate, and we're not violent," she said. She pulled verses from the Bible to highlight and defend her beliefs. One of the claims the group believes is that blacks' descendants were not humans.

It's an idea Railton Loy expounds on in a master's thesis he wrote when he was studying to become an ordained minister in a church he created. And it's those kinds of rudimentary racist ideas that link the contemporary Klan with the Klan of the '40s, King said.

"She's probably right in that they don't have acts of violence," King said about the National Knights. "In that respect the Klan has changed. It's nowhere near like it was in the second era -- the late teens to the mid- to late-'30s -- when they were at the highest levels of activity."

King said the Klan may have become less physically active in the past few decades, but the group has not deviated from its pro-white themes. "The message is the same as it's been over the years, but the vehicle in which the message is carried has changed," King said. "We don't see midnight rides anymore." Collins was not cut from the same white cloth of the old Klan.

Her "Christian" Klan message was tempered to appeal to the mainstream, but it was the same ideology wrapped in a contemporary robe -- or no robe at all. In fact, Collins never believed in wearing a hood or robe. She called them "silly."

In that respect, she was a disciple of the modern-day Klan member, best represented by David Duke, who changed the appearance of the modern Klan in the 1970s when, as a Louisiana state representative, he lost a congressional bid. "He envisioned a Klan that would be acceptable to mainstream America," King said.

Duke did away with the title of imperial wizard and asked to be called the group's executive director, King said. "Instead of wearing a hood and religious garments, he appeared on talk shows wearing a suit and tie." Convergence The National Knights are not the only ones visiting Ruth Collins' farm.

American Klansmen, Skinheads and Nazis have all visited the Collins property in recent weeks, Richard Loy said. Goshen resident Jean Null, the Indiana grand dragon of Berry's American Knights, said she hopes to reach out to members of the National Knights to strengthen the Klan's mission.

The Klans' goal is to change laws, for example, that require the KKK to pay for permits to march in some cities. The American Knights are embroiled in a lawsuit with the city of Gary over the issue.

Railton Loy portrayed himself as a controlling force for the property near Osceola. He said he has tried to control the firing of weapons out there, and he said he doesn't think a firing range should be set up so close to homes. It was his son's decision to set one up, he said.

"You guys ought to be grateful that I'm here," Railton Loy told one reporter, because "we got some harebrains, I'll tell you." He said he has three Klan members known as Knight Hawks guarding the land right now, and "I tell the Knight Hawks to be respectful."

Richard Loy said he sees perfectly eye to eye with his father on issues of race and religion but acknowledged that he differs with his father on some issues, such as how the Klansmen conduct themselves and whether they should be doing firearms training at the Osceola farm.

Richard said his father tends to be less confrontational. "He wants warriors, not martyrs," the younger Loy said. The father did not approve of Saturday's march through downtown South Bend, thinking it was too risky. But the son countered, "if you're not willing to bleed" for your beliefs, you don't belong with them.

Indeed, the Klan sees itself engaged in a holy war for white supremacy, believing that is the way God intended. "I don't live a lot of my life by the rules of man," Richard said, "but I live by the rules of God." Furthermore, he said, "I truly believe in cleansing this country by ethnic cleansing." More to come Saturday's march in downtown South Bend and the rally that followed it in Osceola are part of a series of events planned for this year, Richard Loy said.

Rallies are planned for early June and September. The June rally also will serve as a memorial to the late Collins. Collins used to refer to the KKK network as her "family," and it was her concern for the welfare of Klan members that made her popular in wooing women into the Klan.

What's uncertain now is whether Collins' grandmotherly influence and insistence on nonviolence will continue now that the National Knights' torch has been passed to a new generation.

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