Elaine Frantz Parsons
Historian of Violence and Culture
The Ku Klux Klan's Challenge to Black Lives Matter
The Klan has emerged several times since its beginning 150 years ago, and may be doing so again. Yet the reemergence is tentative: the Klanspeople who turned out for Confederate flag rallies this summer were hateful, certainly, but seemed almost surprised by the attention. As I watch Klan groups re-emerge, I wonder not so much what the Klanspeople were doing but why the rest of us were looking at them: major national newspapers and websites amplified rather small and poorly-organized events into something quite menacing. Public attention causes terrorist movement to grow: if enough people are looking for the Klan, it will appear.
It was as though we had been waiting for the Klan’s return. The Klan has an almost-mythical status as a master key to understanding the perpetual crisis of white-on-black violence. But it explains white supremacy in very different terms than the ones we have been hearing from the Black Lives Matter movement. To focus on the Klan is to imagine that white supremacy is maintained by desperate men with a deep ideological commitment to racism. Thinking about white supremacy through police brutality, in contrast, places the violence at society’s core. Focusing on the Klan evades BLM’s more radical structural critique.
The violence of white supremacy has assumed countless forms: black people have died at the hands of white owners, white street gangs, angry neighbors and white thugs; through abuse and neglect in white-controlled institutions, through lack of access to food and medical care more available to whites, and by state-sponsored execution and lynch mobs. Both BLM and the anti-Klan movement highlight a single powerful narrative to stand in for this unwieldy body of white-on-black violence. For Klan opponents, it is a small group of disguised southern white men, silently catching a black man unawares, dragging him to an isolated location, and killing him. For BLM it is a white police officer singling out a black person for an alleged infraction, escalating the encounter through aggressive behavior, claiming to feel threatened, and killing his victim.
Black Lives Matter’s spectacularly successful narrative has fundamentally reshaped social and traditional media. Since Ferguson, even those who avoid thinking about racial justice have been confronted with it. Even right-wing news and talk shows tell the story repeatedly and in detail, though only to explain it away. It circulates most powerfully in five-minute snuff films. Watch policemen shoot Alton Sterling at close range as he lay pinned face down on the ground on a Baton Rouge street. John Crawford III at the Beavercreek Walmart; or Tamir Rice, as he hangs out, alone and bored, in a park in Cleveland; or Walter Scott as he runs through a park in North Charleston. Some sites prissily warn us that watching one person kill another is graphic and might make us sad: the Washington Post notes that, “This video may be unpleasant for some readers.”1 Its unpleasantness makes it a powerful political tool.
Klan attacks are terrifying, but police shootings are insidious. In poor quality and without sound, videos of police killings feel distant and abstract. They always seem less than they are. We naively expect that a violent death would involve effort and struggle. We imagine that the victim would desperately fight; as familiar as we have become with guns, we want to imagine that killing requires arcane or strenuous work. But often the killers do almost nothing: they raise an arm and flick a finger, and seem as astounded as we are when the victim’s life ends: the black boy under a picnic shelter stops standing; the middle-aged black man jogging through a park stops jogging; the young black man on his cell in a Walmart aisle falls, tries to rise, and falls again. I repeat the video many times to believe that I have seen a death at all. The BLM narrative flatly states that black people are an arm raise and finger flick away from oblivion at the hands of a white person who may not even ever understand why he killed.
Dramatizing and ritualizing white-on-black violence is what has always distinguished the Klan. The Klan replaces the problem of the casual banality of white-on-black killing with the problem of terrorism. Klan violence is a profoundly intentional, and Klan victims fear and struggle. The Klan provides a spectacle that the grainy videos lack, and reassure that white-on-black violence is not a finger flick, but ritually separated from normal life.
The most recent Klan rallies to make the news were in Sacramento, California, in June of this year, at Stone Mountain, Georgia in April, and in Anaheim, California, in February. These rallies attracted more counterprotesters than participants. They were small and disorganized, characterized more by groups of people walking around deliberately than by mass speakers and crowds. I went to a similar Klan rally last year, and was reassured at their incompetence. White supremacists (at this rally, Nazi and Klan members were intermingling) walked around self-consciously, posing with their confederate flags and offering Nazi salutes. Some looked deadly serious, while others seemed amused at their own audacity, wearing the particularly southern facial expression, the “shit-eating grin.” A young woman, wearing a pink t-shirt, blue jeans, blue mirrored shades under a camo sun-visor, and a brace on her foot, posed for a picture, not noticing that she was holding her flag upside-down.
Once the rally began, police worked desperately to keep Klan and protesters apart; early arrivals, however, mingled freely. White supremacists argued with the much more numerous, and better-educated, protesters. A group of young black protesters engaged three white supremacists. The argument was not going well for the white supremacists: protesters did most of the talking, and laughed confidently at the supremacists’ ineffectual responses. Finally, one of the supremacists, a muscular young skinhead, paused, decisively yelled “white power,” gave a Nazi salute, and strode out of the group. Looking back, and realizing that his companions had failed to follow, he beckoned them by loudly repeating “white power”, to no avail. Pulling out his cell phone, he appeared to text his companions. When that too failed, he headed back into the scrum; the three emerged together, shouting “white power.”
While The Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan (from Pelham, North Carolina) were technically running the event, they had little control of it. Only a few dozen Klansmen and their Nazi allies showed up; if history is a guide, some of those were undercover law enforcement. They lacked sound equipment, and the police enforced a large neutral space between the Klan and the numerous and noisy protesters. Protesters shouted gleefully, “We can’t hear you!” Klanspeople stood defiantly on the Capital steps, gave Nazi salutes and pointed menacingly at the protestors, but this was difficult to maintain for the protest’s two scheduled hours. Klanspeople stood on the steps for an hour facing a hot but energized crowd, occasionally yelling things inaudibly.
They left earlier than planned. Police had created a corridor through the protesters, but it ended two blocks short of the garage where the Klanspeople had parked. The white supremacists rushed this distance; police ran to outflank the crowd pouring into the street in pursuit. As Klan trucks and cars exited, Klanspeople and protesters yelled and gestured. One distracted Klan driver slammed his car into a barrier. The police helped the stranded Klansman back his dented vehicle from the barrier; he drove away, pursued by dozens of exuberant protesters.
The Klan marks white-on-black violence as defeated and ridiculous. The Klan’s impotence assures us that, despite some bumps in the road, white supremacy is essentially a thing of the past. This is powerfully cathartic. After being deluged by horrifying stories of today’s white-on-black violence as they passed through my Twitter feed, I thoroughly enjoyed being part of a crowd chasing Klanspeople out of town. Watching young black South Carolinians sprint full speed down the streets pursuing Klansmen’s retreating vehicles felt like a carnival.
The Klan has been significant on the national stage three times: in the 1860s-70s, the 1920s, and the 1950-60s. Between these peaks, it has largely disappeared, but since the 1960s Klan groups have continued a low level existence. While the Klan has changed to fit each period, it has consistently played both practical and symbolic roles. For members, Klans have served as organizational spaces offering white supremacists a sense of belonging and purpose and enabling white-on-black (or white-on-Catholic, or white-on-Jew, or white-on-immigrant) violence. At the same time, the Klan has acted as a lens through which to interpret, simplify, and sometimes dismiss the regular daily violence that various whites have committed upon black people.
The first Klan, which was active from 1868-1872, was the most deadly: secretive, loosely organized groups of “Ku-Klux” killed hundreds of freedpeople and their white allies, assaulted, raped and sexually abused thousands, and drove many more from their homes and property. As terrorists, they relied upon spectacle to amplify their acts: they constructed elaborate costumes modelled after carnival traditions and minstrel performances, featuring horns, tall pointed hats, or grotesque masks. They put on picnics and midnight parades, played musical instruments, and set off fireworks.
White-on-black violence took countless forms in the reconstruction era, and as deadly as the Klan was, it accounted for only a small proportion of this violence. Yet for many observing from a distance, the Klan came to stand in for the whole. Those who cared about the oppression of black southerners referred to it as the “Ku-Klux problem,” passed laws to suppress the Klan, and congratulated themselves for a job well done when it collapsed in 1872.
The Klan did different work when it reemerged after the 1915 film, Birth of a Nation. At a time when white supremacy was conventional wisdom and state policy, the Klan of the 1920s was by far the largest, was national rather than Southern, and had little need to commit its own violence. Instead, it produced spectacles that endorsed white supremacy. The largest Klan parades in the 1920s featured thousands of men, women, and children wearing pointed hats and colorful robes, Christian and patriotic imagery, and addresses by prominent local politicians.2 President Calvin Coolidge’s decision not to address a 1925 Klan “monster” rally up Pennsylvania Avenue made the front page of the New York Times.3
The third Klan opposed the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. This Klan spawned and enabled violent attacks. Klansmen bombed churches and other buildings, and committed countless assaults and murders. They were tied to brutal large-scale attacks on Freedom Riders in 1961, the terrible 1963 bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, the 1964 murders of James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner. Though sometimes well-connected in their southern local communities, Klansmen were perceived as outsiders. “With rare exception, the Klansman has no economic or social standing …. Most who appear at the rallies are portraits in despair. Negroes laugh at them in their sheets and robes.”4 This Klan struggled to revive the parades and mass rallies of the 1920s. Borrowing language and organizational concepts from the Civil Rights movement, this Klan developed for racist whites a collective, embattled identity. It was this Klan that first rallied around the Confederate flag.
Civil Rights Era Americans also used the Klan as a shorthand for all white-on-black violence. When a policeman perpetrated racial violence, for instance, rumors circulated that he must be a Klansman. This often proved to be the case: In Myrtle Beach, South Carolina in 1950, for instance, a man was shot and killed while wearing his Klan costume over his police uniform.5 Yet there is a crucial difference between framing the problem as “those policemen were actually Klansmen” and as “the people who become policemen and the people who become Klansmen are often the same.” The first suggests that the Klansman police officer is an abnormal officer who needs to be rooted out from a sound system. The second would suggest a deeper problem which demanded an interrogation of policing itself.
History textbooks also use the Klan to stand in for all white supremacy. Textbooks explain that the reconstruction-era Klan made it impossible for freedpeople to reap the fruits of emancipation intended by the federal government. A Houghton Mifflin history text for fifth graders refers to: “The Ku Klux Klan, the group that attacked African Americans,” (emphasis mine) whose “increasing violence made life even more difficult for African Americans.” A Prentice Hall history for grades 6-8 which described interwar racism through the lens of the 1920s Klan reassured students that after the 1920s, the Klan “withered in importance.”
Since the 1970s, media consistently has extended this logic into its coverage of contemporary Klan rallies, evoking its central role in the nation’s history of white-on-black violence while emphasizing that it now inspires mockery rather than fear. A 1982 piece on a Klan rally noted that a reporter asked a Klansman condemning “illegal aliens” if he was referring to “E.T.”6 A 1995 Knights of the Ku Klux Klan march was met by a Mariachi band playing “La Bamba.”7 And a widely-circulating video of the recent Columbia rally shows a man walking alongside the Klan as they approach hilariously playing “Ride of the Valkyries” on a sousaphone. The Klan had become so non-threatening that it was funny.
Coverage of last summer’s Columbia rally followed this trivializing practice, emphasizing that the Klansmen and Nazis as “vastly outnumbered,” and “besieged.’ 8 The piece on the rally in the Columbia State began with the Klan’s hasty exit, pursued by running, shouting counter-protesters.9
This giddy celebration of the end of white supremacy stands in stark contrast to the horrifying videos of police violence. And yet the Klan rally was closely controlled by hundreds of hot, sweaty and heavily-armed police, pushing their way through crowds, sprinting around people, barking orders. I have been to several protests, but never have I had so many police officers’ hands on me, pushing me out of the way. These officers framed the rally, posted in close rank around its edges. Snipers pointed weapons into the crowd from the roof of the State House. A police helicopter circled. The police were as much a part of the performance as were the Klansmen and protesters.
Klan violence has long served to legitimize state violence. The Secret Service found some of their first work in Klan cases. President Ulysses S. Grant suspended habeas corpus in parts of South Carolina in 1871 in order to address Klan violence. Articles describing the Klan have regularly turned from accounts of atrocities to calls for more police power. A New York Times article on a Decatur, Georgia Klan march in June of 1979 featured a typical image: a close-up of an Alabama trooper in the foreground with marching hooded Klansmen in the background.10
The Columbia rally performed the defeat of white supremacy and validated massive police power. But the specter of Black Lives Matter haunted the rally. A group of young, mainly white, protesters began a chant which had been used at Klan rallies for decades, “Cops and Klan, Hand in Hand.”11 Hecklers in the crowd suggested that the men arrayed in law enforcement gear at other times wore Klan uniforms. And one black man spent much of the rally walking up and down lines of police, angrily repeating, “I wish you would protect me like you protect them.”
A nearby beleaguered white supremacist found comfort in this talk, and said to a group of black protesters, “You’re scared of the police, but we like the police… And the police like us.” No doubt most of the black and white officers policing the rally were as disgusted with the Klan as were the protesters, both because they were raised with the same history books as the rest of us, and because the Klan had caused them extra work on a mid-summer weekend. Aware that they had themselves become the very symbol of white violence against black people, they must have appreciated the irony of being called upon to protect black South Carolinians from the white violence symbolized by the Klan.
The Klan seems ready for a resurgence: public interest in the Klan is heightened, and publicity is the meat and drink of terrorist movements. The Southern Poverty Law Center estimates that today there are 5,000 to 8,000 active Klan members split into “dozens” of non-cooperating factions. Donald Trump and Klan leaders like David Duke appear to be involved in a sort of mating dance.
If it does revive, it will be crucial not to allow it to derail the powerful critique of structural violence that Black Lives Matter has so successfully launched. The Klan did not kill Alton Sterling– the police did. Any real effort to make the streets safe for black Americans will have to deal with both.
Radley Balko, “Mass Shooting Hysteria and the Death of John Crawford” Washington Post, September 25, 2014 ↩
“30,000 See Klan Parade”, New York Times, September 21, 1924, p. 25. ↩
“Protest on Parade Places Klan Issue Before Public,” New York Times, July 3, 1925, p. 1 ↩
Herbers, “The Klan, Its Growing Influence,” The New York Times, April 20, 1961, p. 1 ↩
“Judge in Klan Robe Killed in Gun Battle,” New York Times, August 29, 1950, p. 28. ↩
Phil Gailey, “Violence Erupts over Small Klan Rally in Capital,” New York Times, Nov 28, 1982, p. 26. ↩
“In Illinois, Klan’s Protest Answered with a Mariachi Celebration” New York Times, June 4, 1995, p. 23. ↩
Alan Blinder, “Ku Klux Klan and New Black Panther Party Protest at South Carolina Capital”, July 18, 2015, New York Times ↩
“KKK, Other Groups Wave Flag, Raise Voices at State House Demonstration” The State, July 18, 2015. ↩
Wayne King, “Klan and Blacks March through Tense Decatur,” New York Times, June 10, 1976. p. 26. ↩
John Kifner, “Unmasked Klan is Besieged at Manhattan Rally” New York Times, Oct. 24, 1999. p. 1. ↩