Notes of a Klanwatcher
By Randall Williams
Vol. 4, No. 2, 1982, pp. 11-13
It’s easy and relatively safe, in 1982, to hate the KKK, but explaining why an anti-Klan movement is necessary, and getting those in that movement to agree with the explanation, is less simple. After a year Klanwatching (a friend still calls us occasionally, asks, “Have you spotted any today?” then bursts into hysterical laughter), we taped a favorite photo to a door in the office. The picture depicts a serious young man, a member of a Canadian anti-Klan group, in mid-leap from the roof of a car, placard stick raised on high, about to smash the head of an equally serious young man who is a member of another anti-racist group. The supporting parts in the photo are played by several dozen members of these two groups, battling in a melee apparently provoked by a difference of opinion on how best to oppose the racism and violence of the Ku Klux Klan in British Columbia.
Looking at that photograph, we at Klanwatch are apt to burst into hysterical laughter.
Part of the problem is that there are so many contradictions involved; many questions about what author Stetson Kennedy calls the Bedsheet Brigade can be truthfully answered both “yes” and “no.” We will look at other parts of the problem, but first, consider some of the contradictions.
No, there aren’t enough Klansmen and they aren’t well enough organized, right now, to pose the country any serious threat. Yes, you can still get hurt, killed or otherwise terrorized by the Klan if you’re the “wrong” color or doing the “wrong” thing. Or if you happen to be married to California Klan leader Michael Mendonsa, who recently ended his wife’s budding career in organized racism by blowing her apart with a shotgun.
Still another contradiction involves the recently widely publicized Klan recruitment of youth. No, the Klan Youth Corps is not experiencing a membership explosion similar to that of the Hitler Youth in the 1930s. Yes, the Klan today deliberately seeks out youth and involves them in rallies, demonstrations and training. And a startlingly high percentage of contemporary racist violence and harassment is committed by youngsters. Klan literature does show up in schools around the country. The stuff is available for the writing from three or four Klan publications and is advertised in gun and adventure magazines available at most grocery and drug stores.
Where Klan chapters exist, it should not surprise anyone when the sons and daughters of Klansmen say or do racist things or pass around literature in school. However, the Klan youth camps which were seen on television in 1980 and written about in Rolling Stone and other publications were largely spontaneous creations for the benefit of the press, and the kids in them were almost all the children of adult Klan members.
I think the Klan has definite allure for certain types of white children. Kids dwell on mystery, violence and sensationalism, and the Klan has all of that, especially as portrayed by much of the reporting on the subject today. Some kids–perhaps most of them, really–are raised with racism. Take a kid who already has all of that stuff running around in his head, who is at the age of rebellion, and who can’t make the debate team (or; equally likely, is never encouraged to try), gets beat out by black kids on the basketball team, and sits sullenly in the back of the classroom–that kid is ripe for recruitment.
But even the strength of the adult Klan is a contradiction. It is not true that the Klan’s membership is currently growing by leaps and bounds, through reporter after reporter dutifully licks his pencil point and records it when the local head cone confides, “Well, son, we don’t discuss numbers, but we’ve got klaverns now in every country in this state and three new ones started last week.” It is true that Klan membership today is the highest since the mid1960s and that the growth was dramatic between 1975 and 1980. We at Klanwatch believe the Klan’s membership leveled off in 1981, though there is potential for more growth. Clearly, this potential is aggravated by the mean mood of the nation as a whole. It should be remembered that there are plenty of people in Washington doing more harm with ink pens than the Klan is with axe handles. Elsewhere, racist violence, whether committed by actual Klan members or not, is at a sickeningly high level, as is religious bigotry.
There is genuine reason to be concerned about these turns of events, all condradictions notwithstanding, especially when the leaders of the nation seem blind to the existence of the problems and the causes.
Which brings us to today’s sermon topic. We can cuss, meet, march, legislate and litigate until the proverbial freezing over of hell, but until we start thinking about Klansmen as people and consider how it is that we still have a society which spawns them we’re not going to whip the problem. This is not to say that the current educational campaigns against the Klan are no good, or that the
prosecutions and civil lawsuits against criminal Klansmen do not deter other racist violence, or that outspoken stands against the Klan philosophy have no effect. All of these are vital and are largely responsible for the current disarray within the Klan ranks.
But one of the obvious similarities of most Klansmen is an overwhelming ignorance and a complete alienation from our society and its institutions. It’s a tough concept to sell the “Death of the Klan” crowd, but I think most Klansmen, the rank and file, are victimized almost as much as the targets of their hatred. It may not have been as true in the Klan’s prior incarnations, when thousands of otherwise solid citizens were members, but most Klansmen today are pretty sad characters. As a class, they are powerless people on the fringes of social and economic life. They almost always have serious psychological problems, with so-much anger and hate that they are slowly burning up from the inside. They go through their lives being manipulated by their employers, by the finance company, by the landlord, by George Wallace and Jim Eastland and the like, and finally by smooth-talking salesmen like Bill Wilkinson (head of the Invisible Empire), David Duke (National Association for the Advancement of White People), and Don Black (Knights of the KKK).
Having been ignored for so long, many of them are attracted by the aroma of power which surrounds Klan leaders. It must be power, the prospective Kluxer reasons, because people like Wilkinson get on the Phil Donahue and Tom Snyder shows; they can go to city hall and attract half the police and all the press in town; they aren’t afraid to call (chuckle) a spade a spade; they’ve got big cars, bodyguards and can even wear a suit without looking as if it was bought that morning. Once he joins, the new Kluxer can get on the evening news himself, just for standing on the street corner in his robe.
In addition to power, the social aspect of the Klan, the sense of belonging to something, should not be overlooked. Most Klansmen have never belonged to anything. Surprisingly few of them, considering the Klan’s lip service to Christianity, even attend church, according to testimony in connection with a recent civil lawsuit against a splinter Klan group in Chattanooga, Tenn. One of the defendants in that suit, a participant in the shooting incident which injured five black women, testified that he had joined the Klan for reasons which included having a group of guys to drink beer with, and because he wanted to “help people.” (Some 32 percent of white Chattanoogans, according to survey data, were favorable to some aspect of the Klan, mostly to the old vigilante notion that the Klan keeps in line not only black people but also would-be wife deserters, wanton women, etc.) Under questioning, the Klansmen admitted that the only other organization he had ever joined was the French club in his high school.
He is not atypical. Frequently, Klan meetings and rallies have an atmosphere which for all its perverse weirdness can only be described as like a country social. There may be music and speeches, children playing in the grass, mama and daddy dressed in their robes, grandma sitting in her folding lawn chair, and plenty of fish and beer.
In such situations, an interested onlooker who can detach himself for a moment from his feelings of contempt and hatred for what the organization before him represents, will be swept by a sense of sadness and pity.
Or sometimes humor, because in its benign moments the Klan often makes me wonder: If I’m supposed to be so scared, why do I feel like laughing? Last summer, Mike Vahala (also a Klanwatch staffer) and I attended a Klan recruitment rally in a public park on the outskirts of Columbus, Ga. First the movie “Birth of a Nation” was shown, then there was the usual incoherent discussion of how the government and especially the courts had abandoned white people, then the meeting broke up so the Klansmen could go burn a cross, which was not permitted in the public park.
On impulse, Mike and I got in line in the caravan which formed, and we drove 10 or 12 miles out in the country, turned off the main road onto a side road, then off that onto a private road which went across a pasture and into some woods. It was dark and mighty lonely, and the 60 people who had been at the park had dwindled to 15 or 20. Except for Mike and myself and two guys we thought (and hoped) were undercover cops, the rest appeared to be Klan members, some robed and some not, or at least strong sympathizers. There had been no weapons in the public park, but suddenly everyone was wearing them.
It was a slightly anxious moment, but then it became obvious that no one was paying attention to us. Instead, there was a serious problem with the cross-burning equipment. In an achievement of high-tech Klankraft, the local boys had built themselves a reusable cross from sections of steel pipe. Wrapped with burlap and soaked with diesel fuel, the 30-foot cross was simply too heavy to lift. For a half-hour or so, an awful lot of grunting and sweating went on, and some mighty nice white robes got soiled with dirt and diesel fuel. By this time it was getting late, and Mike and I faced a long drive and were ready to start home.
We eased into the crowd and made a few suggestions, directed a couple of guys to get up on a pickup truck for leverage, had others tie a chain to the cross and pull, and finally the cross stood up, though by now the pipe had bent and throughout the ceremony which followed one Klansman had to brace the cross by holding to the chain. The ceremony itself was similar to an ROTC drill, with a lot of marching, about-facing, saluting and so forth. The leader couldn’t remember his lines and had to get out his Klan manual and read his piece. We couldn’t understand what he said anyway, because he read with his face down and through his mask. It didn’t seem to matter. The cross lit up the sky and the non-robed spectators made photographs, and the night air was enlivened by a few “White Power” chants. Then we all went home.
My point is not that ineptitude makes the Klan less dangerous, but that its members are merely human beings who happen to be united in a destructive cause. United also by ignorance, by their station in life, by their utter inability to comprehend the world around them.
In this case, ignorance is not bliss, but blindness. While visiting the national office (a one-room masonry building) of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan in Tuscumbia to serve a subpoena, I had a long, casual conversation with Charlie Thomas, who works in the office. Among other things, he insisted to me that the black man who was given Allan Bakke’s medical school seat (in the famous affirmative action case) had an I.Q. of 39. “You can’t be serious,” I responded, “Why, a person with an I.Q. of 39 can hardly talk.” “Yeah,” Thomas replied. “Aint it a damn shame.” When he saw that I was unconvinced, Thomas searched for a few minutes for the “proof” of his claim, an article he had read somewhere in one of the Klan newspapers. Thomas also insisted that the racial turmoil in Decatur, Ala., in 1979, when the Klan had attacked peaceful black demonstrators, had come about because the blacks were marching in celebration of the anniversary of the rape of a white woman. When I told him he was
wrong, that the march had been to protest what the demonstrators perceived as the unjust prosecution and conviction of a retarded black man for that crime, he was unmoved.
Charlie Thomas did not strike me as a particularly evil man. He doesn’t seem too smart and he clearly is angry about a lot of things, though he has difficulty explaining just what. My guess is that if a good union had gotten to Charlie Thomas first, he would be just as dedicated to the brotherhood of workers as he currently is to the KKK.
We should think about that when we next start chanting, “Death to the Klan.”
Randall Williams is an Alabama writer who its currently serving as director of the KLANWATCH project of the Southern Poverty Law Center.