The Continuing Saga of the KKK
By Vanessa J. Gallman
Vol. 2, No. 1, 1979, pp. 18-21
Publisher’s Note: The Ku Klux Klan traced the famous “Selma to Montgomery” march last month. While predicting a group of 2,000, the Klan leaders had fewer than sixty followers on US. highway 80; none the less, KKK related violence has grown over the past year without strong opposition from local authorities. In fact there has been only one recent prosecution of misconduct relating to Klan violence in the South – and then only by a federal prosecutor. This article by a Black editor of the Charlotte Observer looks at the Klan’s activities and their meaning for present race relations.
Police rifles peered down from rooftops and a helicopter carrying emergency medical supplies hovered over the streets of Decatur, Alabama June 9 as 1,500 supporters of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) marched to city hall.
For more than a year before this day, SCLC supporters had persistently protested the conviction of Tommy Lee Hines, a retarded Black man convicted by an all-White jury of raping a White woman. The civil rights organization had even set up a “tent city” on the city hall grounds.
Klansmen had reacted by gathering 7,000 for cross burnings and yelling racial slurs and brandishing weapons at SCLC protestors until the tension between the two groups climaxed with a confrontation that left two Blacks and two Klansmen wounded.
SCLC would never march in Decatur again, Klansmen vowed. SCLC declared they would “march against repression” despite the threats and called in reinforcements from nearby states to swell their usual 75-member group.
On the sweltering June day of the march, two rows of helmeted National Guardsmen, with guns raised for easy aim, separated the marchers from about 50 Klansmen standing on a curb across from city hall. Straining like horses against bits, Klansmen waved sticks and yelled obscenities to a taped, instrumental version of “Dixie.” “Free James Earl Ray” was the chant that left many hoarse.
Earlier in the day, 150 robed Klansmen and an equal number of unrobed supporters rallied on the city hail steps denouncing an American government they claim has forsaken democracy, ignored the needs of White people and encouraged race-mixing.
Bill Ricco, the 22-year-old grand chaplain of the Alabama chapter of the Invisible Empire of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, trembled in his anger and hatred as he addressed the crowd. Bouncing on his heels, with jowls flapping and green eyes piercing, Ricco denounced integration as having put “Black apes in our high schools and elementary schools with our superior White children and forced them to mix. And the day a Black ape lays his Black paw on a little White girl, the Ku Klux Klan will move in and trim that paw back.”
Hostile racial slurs set the tone for the Klan rally but there were more haunting statements that rang painfully familiar – calls for the end of social service programs and affirmative action.
“I, for one, am sick of Negroes and other minorities being given the jobs I deserve,” Imperial Wizard Bill Wilkinson of Denham Springs, La., told the cheering crowd. “I’m sick of the government saying the next 40 troopers you hire in Alabama are going to be Black.
“If they have some Black people who qualify for the job, that’s one thing. But to spend our tax money out beating the bushes to find something that doesn’t exist, that’s another.”
The issues Wilkinson hammered at the crowd were the same concerns being expressed by many politicians and their legislation – Bakke, Proposition 13 and the attempt to outlaw forced busing.
Without his white robe, Wilkinson would merely be labeled “conservative.”
It is in conservative tones – “Negroes” instead of “niggers” – that Klansmen are presenting Blacks, Jews and organized labor as sacrifices for a floundering economy.
Klan demonstrations are not peculiar to Decatur. Crossburnings and the showing of the proKlan film, “Birth of a Nation” are commonplace occurences throughout the South. In the past year, the White supremist groups have become more forceful and vocal:
—Last November, 75,000 Black fans packed New Orleans for a football game between Louisiana’s two largest Black colleges and a weekend festival celebrating Black food and Black culture. About 100 Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, led by 27-year-old, college educated David Duke, marched to a White supremist statue marking the end of Reconstruction. Blacks had threatened to hold an “educational” rally at the statue to await the Klan but confrontation was avoided when police persuaded Klansmen to march earlier than announced.
*In June, a man scheduled to testify against two Klansmen charged with shooting into the homes and cars of Black leaders in Birmingham, Ala., was killed the day before he was to testify. Police say his death, from a blow to the abdomen, was the result of an argument unrelated to the Klan case. But some question the strange coincidence.
—Events surrounding the showing of “Birth of a Nation” in China Grove, N.C., still have both Black and White residents on edge.
—On July 8, anti-Klan protestors objected to the film’s showing by burning the condederate flag on the steps of the community center where it was to be shown later. Armed Klansmen were held back by police but vowed revenge. Protestors armed themselves and began 24-hour patrols of the Black community. They feel they have reason to worry. Their sheriff, “Big Bad John” Stirewalt campaigned as a Klansmen when he was elected in 1966.
—Klansmen claimed responsibility for the abduction and beating of a Black preacher from Columbus, Georgia who stood on the Cullman, Ala., courthouse denouncing Hine’s conviction. The preacher was forced into a truck, beaten with a belt and tree limbs and stripped leaving only his shorts.
—Terrorism and gunfire continue as Klan tactics in Tupelo, Mississippi where Blacks are boycotting and demanding better jobs, housing and education.
Incidents of Klan uprising continue – in Selma, Ala. robed Klansmen appeared at a city pool “to protect our children” from Blacks and the U.S. Navy is currently investigating Klan activities on ships docking at Charleston, S.C.
Although those members of “The Invisible Empire” who actually march in many cases number less than 100, it is not the number of white robes that concern civil rights workers the most. It’s what they see as a “Ku Klux Klan mentality” throughout the country.
That mentality, according to U.S. Rep. Walter Fauntroy, “has expressed itself violently in Decatur, but we see it expressed on Capitol Hill in votes that say that we are not concerned about the elderly, not concerned about the sick, not concerned about Blacks.”
Sociologists have labeled this era the “me generation” and economists admit the country is now in a recession. It’s a difficult time to try to needle anybody’s conscience, even if for rights and privileges long overdue. It’s an ideal time for Whites, many feeling the pinch of hard times, to look for ways to relieve the burden. The Klan offers a way – end social service programs, busing, affirmative action and put the White majority in unrestricted control.
Like fever blisters hinting of disease seething below, Klan groups are spreading and infecting this country.
Realizing how well the young, like the well educated Ricco and Duke, are being indoctrinated with the Klan mentality, it’s difficult to see an immediate reversal of the Klan activities and Klan-related trends.
Aggravated by the inevitable scrabble among all special interest groups in this country to get a bit of the dwindling American pie, those blisters may one day burst.
And in light of the Klan’s history of hatred and violence, more people will die.
Vanessa J. Galiman is an editor for the Charlotte Observer.