The Influence of American Politics on the Ku Klux Klan
The Original Terrorists
When Americans talk about terrorism today, they are usually referring to the Al-Qaeda or other extremist middle-eastern groups. The events of 9/11 made most Americans believe that terror originates on foreign soil, but this notion couldn’t be further from the truth. There was a time, not too long ago, when a group called the Ku Klux Klan (a.k.a. the KKK) terrorized our country with their views of a pure, white nation and their hatred towards minorities. With every significant political disaster in American history, the KKK, starting with its birth in 1866, grew in strength and numbers up until 1925. (Davidson Delay pgs.490 & 712) They even learned to adapt over time as a form of survival to maintain their existence even in today’s society. When there wasn’t a political disaster for the KKK to feed off of, they simply thrived off of the country’s pure hatred for their existence. Although they are not nearly as powerful and intimidating an entity as they once were (having only a membership of 6,000 as of 2008), the KKK, in current society, has found a way to keep their views alive. With the age of the internet and flashy movies that dramatize the dark underbellies of man, Americans nowadays should fear that the KKK may soon rise again to its former level of having 6 million members as it did in 1924. To underestimate any terror group, even one from your own country, is not just foolish, but reckless.
In order to fully understand the Ku Klux Klan, you must first know their history. The KKK was originally formed by a bunch of “young, former Confederate soldiers,” in the beginning of 1866 after the Civil War, who were looking to maintain “traditional white southern values” and at the same time have a “good time” in a “fraternal” like society. The group was formed out of the frustrations over the Republican Reconstructions of the South and the freedom of the slaves. This group of male southerners were irate over the thought that African Americans were their equals and as far as they were concerned, they were going to have no part in this new America. As a matter of fact, the more the Republicans imposed their newfound sense of equality on the South, “the more violently white southerners resisted.” It wasn’t long before the Klan began to use those infamous disguises that they are so well known for. Most of the time, the white hood and cape were used both as a way to identify one another within the Klan, and also to disguise themselves from others outside the Klan, especially during the execution of “murderous activities against blacks.” Becoming a secret society soon gave a strange sense of power to the Klan. It was a combination of the disguises and secret rituals that soon gave way to their historical mob-like and sometimes murderous behavior.
It wasn’t long before the KKK came to its realization that actions spoke louder than words. In their eyes, it wasn’t enough to just tell people they hated African Americans and wanted the old south back; to them, it was war, and if you weren’t with them, you were against them. The scariest part was, sometimes, you didn’t know who “they” were, which was just another bonus to their disguises. Over the next 60 years, the Klan terrorized African Americans, Jews, and other minorities, including homosexuals, in an effort to gain control politically and economically. They became a well organized “new Klan” that had local units called “klaverns,” “gave to local charities,” and even had “36 chapters” for the “Women of the Ku Klux Klan.” (Davidson Delay pg.712) It made it even worse that every time the government tried to step in, the Klan just seemed to come out stronger. Two significant events in Klan history that show such resilience on their part are the Ku Klux Act of April 1871 and the Federal Grand Jury Rulings in York County in 1915.
Starting in 1867/1868, the Ku Klux Klan became extremely violent in the South, especially when it came to politics. The underlying hatred the Klan had for Republicans and what the Klan felt they had done to their perfect South was enormous. They had become so violent towards the Republicans of the South, that there were reports of beatings and even murders. In an effort to control this violence, Congress enforced three separate acts: The Enforcement Act of May 1870, a second Enforcement Act of February 1871, and finally the Ku Klux Act of April 1871; these acts were meant to allow the government, if need be, to “intervene in Southern elections.” It also made “it a felony to interfere with the right to vote.” (Davidson Delay pg.490) Other than on two separate occasions when Ulysses S. Grant sent his troops to protect black voters, these acts were never truly enforced; actually, the North showed its white flag when Grant refused to send troops into Texas in 1873, where volatile Conservatives ripped an elected Republican governor out of office “before the expiration of his term.” By not enforcing these acts or punishing the actions of the Klan right off the bat, the North gave way to a whole new generation of Klan's-men and allowed the Klan to grow to enormous numbers.
Another example of the government’s attempt to control and punish the Klan is the Federal Grand Jury Report of 1915 in York County. In these rulings, the Grand Jury explicitly describes its loathing for the Klan and their actions towards others. They simply came to the conclusion that: “We are of the opinion that the most vigorous prosecution of the parties implicated in these crimes is imperatively demanded; that without this there is great danger that these outrages will be continued, and that there will be no security to our fellow citizens of African descent.” (Federal Grand Jury Report on the Ku Klux Klan) In the report, they go on to state that it appeared “11 murders and over 600 whippings have been committed in York County alone,” and they clearly stated that with prosecution of these crimes came the very clear possibility of “retaliation.” (Federal Grand Jury Report on the Ku Klux Klan) Unfortunately, after several attempts of trying to research the possible outcome of this hearing, I found no evidence of any prosecution of any Klan members in York County in 1915 or in any of the aforementioned surrounding counties. The “retaliation” that they spoke of in the report was not just a passing thought, but an emphasized statement of a very clear and present danger.
During the height of the Ku Klux Klan’s power, they began to expand their intimidating tactics to all aspects of American society. In the Klan’s eyes, it was very important to stamp out any influence of the African American culture from the community. One area in which they chose to strike with a vengeance was the fine arts. After World War I, many people seemed to want to change their way of life; with the invention of the automobile, most Americans were now finding a whole new world accessible to them. A new past time for the average family was the theatre. All of a sudden, playwrights were scripting and producing plays like it was going out of style. The 1920’s brought about a new era of bold and controversial plays. Some, to name a few, were: What Price Glory, The White Desert, and The Student Prince. Another controversial play that, unfortunately for the playwright caught the attention of the KKK, was All God's Chillun Got Wings. The play was about the marriage of a black man to a white woman and how the suffrage of “racial prejudice leads to insanity.” The playwright, Eugene O’Neill, eventually was forced to shut the production down after word spread of an onstage kiss between the black leading man, Paul Robeson, and the white woman; O’Neill wound up receiving numerous threats about his production and other works that he had made. But this wasn’t the last time that the KKK would set their sights on controlling aspects of the American society.
After World War II, the membership of the Klan had greatly declined. After being “infiltrated by folklorist and author” Stetson Kennedy, the KKK soon found themselves considered as nothing more than a school yard bully. Kennedy had taken information he had gathered while inside the Klan, and released it to the media and law enforcement. The Klan went from having millions and millions of members to only a couple of tens of thousands. That infamous white hood and cape of theirs became a fond memory to Klan's members as the media made outcasts of them. However, it wasn’t long before the Klan regrouped and set new goals on a new “second Klan.” One new outlet for them was college campuses. The Klan realized in order to survive they needed to influence the younger generation and take a new, softer approach. In the “activist 1960’s,” after WWII, Klansmen began making an appearance on campuses and calling themselves “nurturers” of the poet society. Trying to appeal to the non-violent but frustrated protesters, the KKK used poetry and literature as a way of not only connecting with college students, but as also a way of influencing them. Round-about influence would soon be the Klan’s new key to survival throughout the upcoming years.
The following 20 or so years in Klan history were very subdued compared to their past activities, but, with the dawn of the new technology age, the KKK soon found a new voice in American culture again. One such technological advance that brought about new advances in the Ku Klux Klan was the internet. With the freedom of the internet, the Klan was able to recruit globally, and not just on American soil. They now also had the ability, within reason, to say or do whatever they wanted. Even in 2010, the internet is still, for most intents and purposes, a non-policed state. Freedom of speech is taken to a whole other level online. I chose to actually visit the official “KKK website” and I found it to be a paradox in and of itself. The website opens with a greeting from a Pastor Thomas Robb, National Director of Knights saying: "There is a race war against whites. But our people— my white brothers and sisters— will stay committed to a non-violent resolution.” I found it odd that he talked about non-violent actions. I questioned if it was all a game to get people to trust them as I looked over the site. Very similar to most religious websites, kkk.com promoted many different things. In the center of the page they brought up the topic of home schooling to parents who were unhappy with their children being exposed to homosexuality and interracial dating in school. But surprisingly so, the site, as offensive to most as it was, was just a well-organized site for the Klan and its followers to do business, such as contacting their congressmen and recruiting new members. However, I did find it extremely intimidating to see how well organized they had become after being in hibernation because it was similar to coming across the official website for the followers of the Al-Qaeda. It was just a frightening thought to learn and realize that the KKK still had any sort of power.
I think the aspect of my research of the KKK that I found the most disturbing was Hollywood’s glamorized view of a Klansman. In early years, there was a lot of mystery surrounding the KKK but once people knew who the Klansmen were and what they actually did, it seemed to have the opposite affect on some. The biggest offender was the Hollywood scene. It wasn’t long before movies and references about the KKK started popping up in theatres. The Birth of a Nation, Attack on Terror, and My Undercover Years with the KKK are just a few films that Hollywood was able to capitalize on the new hype and curiosity surrounding the Ku Klux Klan.
American History Now?
However, no film was more riveting and disturbing than that of the 1998 motion picture film American History X. The modern day Klan member in the film didn’t wear a white robe and a tall hat with a mask; instead, he was an in-your-face, tattooed, skin-head Neo Nazi with angry views and memories about the world. This film showed how easy a lower class family can be influenced by others just over one event, like the death of a parent. Then when the older brother, played by Edward Norton, goes away to prison for killing two black men, the younger brother, played by Edward Furlong, gets sucked into the same influences. The irony, in the end, is that the older brother changes his ways only after many painful lessons. Probably the most impactful scene for me to watch in the movie was when the older brother got gang raped by fellow neo-Nazis in the prison because he was being too verbal about his dislike for their disloyalty to the Klan. He didn’t like that certain fellow neo-Nazi prisoners were doing their business with blacks and Hispanics. He viewed them as traitors. After the rape, Edward Norton’s character began to change because he soon realized everything he knew was a lie. Although in some ways, I believe this film gave lessons to the viewer about a path not to follow, in other ways its enticing black and white cinematography pulls you into the violence that it seems to ironically advocate.
Overall, the years have transformed the face of the Ku Klux Klan. They have gone from being masked villains burning crosses on the front lawns as they pulled helpless black men out of their houses and killed them, to internet-savvy average Americans that are not afraid to show their faces and share their opinions, even though they're offensive. The Klan has somehow managed to survive two World Wars and several other wars, while also staying afloat through many arrests and prosecutions. They even learned to adapt as a mini-culture in order to change with the times by transforming their recruiting processes from intensive and overbearing to a more manipulative form that mirrors “nurturing.” The Klan has always had a way of feeding off of the political disasters in American history and when there wasn’t one for them to feed off of, they just grew out of the hatred America had for their organization. I believe that when the hatred had waned, the Klan lost a lot of its power but, since it’s human nature to hate, the Klan will most likely rise again like other terrorist groups. However, the next time around, I fear they will be a much more well-organized and resilient group. For our country’s sake, I hope that my instincts are wrong. It would be more than unfortunate if history repeated itself when it came to the Ku Klux Klan and American politics.
In the words of both George Santayana and Edmund Burke: "Those who don't know history are destined to repeat it."
Let us hope and pray that Americans do not repeat the sins of their forefathers.
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