A Kinder, Gentler Ku Klux Klan?

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The white supremacist group tried to adopt a highway stretch in Georgia last week. But no amount of public service can offset its hateful history.

klan3.jpgReuters

Last week, a local chapter of the International Keystone Knights of Ku Klux Klan proposed adopting one-mile stretch of highway in north Georgia. The possibility of Klan members picking up roadside litter and getting credit on a highway sign provoked as much confusion as outrage. One reporter asked, "Is the latest effort to adopt a highway an introduction of a new era of a kinder, gentler Klan or merely an effort to gain attention?"

In public statements, the group's leaders signaled that volunteer work was part of their message of love. "We love the white race," April Chambers, secretary of the Georgia Klan, told a local television correspondent. "Why is that so hard for people to understand? But we don't hate anybody!" In a quote at CNN's In America blog, Frank Ancona, the imperial wizard of the Traditionalist American Knights of the Ku Klux Klan echoed that sentiment, portraying the Klan as "a fraternal organization" that commits "good works."

Benevolence, love, and volunteering seem out of place with hoods, robes, and burning crosses. But what may surprise many is that these statements are consistent with the larger history of the Klan, wherein declarations of love are intimately bound to the Klan's better-known gospel of hate. That paradox holds the key to understanding both the order's past popularity and its continuing inability to halt its decline.

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The Ku Klux Klan is the oldest hate group in the United States. It emerged between 1865 and 1870 in response to the trauma of the South's war loss and the supposed threat posed by newly freed slaves. Founded by Civil War veterans in Pulaski, Tennessee, the Reconstruction Klan began as a social organization, but soon raided homes, committed acts of violence, and interfered with elections.

The Klan's first victims were primarily African Americans, sympathetic whites and Northern carpetbaggers. Its violent tactics permanently linked the Klan in the American imagination to brutality, terror and white supremacy. A hundred years later, the Klan entered the public eye again, hooded uniforms and all, when its members mobilized against Civil Rights legislation. The Klan's stark, committed racism was most evident in the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963.

In between these two eras, however, there was another Klan. It rose half a century after the first Klan had faded away, spurred into existence by D.W. Griffith's film Birth of Nation and the efforts of minister William Simmons. Along with 15 others, including two elderly men from the original Klan, Simmons officially resurrected the movement on Thanksgiving night of 1915, borrowing the image of the burning cross from Griffith's film. Members of the new Klan emphasized Protestant virtues alongside white supremacy, declaring themselves superior to Catholics, Jews, and African-Americans. The second Klan boasted four million members in 1924, proof of the powerful appeal of both white racial pride and Christian nationalism in early 20th century America.

While honoring the Reconstruction Klansmen as heroes, the second Klan worked to distance its members from the previous order's vigilante violence (though they themselves were also involved in violent actions). Imperial Wizard Simmons emphasized Christian virtue, morality, and good behavior as crucial for the lives of Klansmen. His successor, Hiram Wesley Evans, emphasized that the Klan was "altruistic or it was nothing."

The Imperial Night HawkAn issue of the Klan's national publication The motto of the second order, "Not for self, but for others," inspired the Klan to document acts of benevolence in its official newspaper, the Imperial Night-Hawk. Its members delivered baskets of food, donated money to churches and orphanages, developed memorial and scholarship funds, and provided gifts to poor children at Christmas. Benevolence was limited by both skin color and religious affiliation, though a Pennsylvania Klan in 1924 claimed to donate to a building fund for a local African American church. Hate rarely appeared in print.

In a 1923 issue of the Night-Hawk, an anonymous Klansman wrote, "The purpose of the Klan is to capitalize love--to promote goodwill and the spirit of kindness." Yet he also warned that the Klan "strikes without mercy or compromise at the pernicious foreign influences which are undermining liberty and seeking to dominate American institutions." In May 1924, violence erupted in South Bend, Indiana, between Klansmen and students at the Catholic Notre Dame University who objected to a planned Klan parade near their university. Yet even after Klansmen attacked students with broken bottles and clubs, a Klansman wrote that the members of his group "held steadfast to American principles and, in the face of demoniacal hate, exhibited naught but love."

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The International Keystone Knights website displays an image of Klansmen marching on Washington, D.C., in 1926. The caption reads, "LET'S DO IT AGAIN. IT'S TIME!!!" The IKKKK lists its agenda for 2012: It wants President Obama to be "Gone!", the national borders to be "Closed!", the official language to be "English Only!", and American culture to be defined by the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and "In GOD We Trust!" White Americans, the Klan insists, need to join together and "take a stand."

But it's the failed attempt to participate in the Adopt-A-Highway program that signals the real difference between the Klan of past generations and the Klan of today. The cultural memory of the Klan as hooded terrorists proves so powerful that even a sign with the order's name on it was deemed a safety hazard. As motorists sped down the Georgia highway, a Klan-emblazoned sign would distract them from the road, conjuring the specter of racial violence and terror in the recent American past. The slightest historical reference still sets the average American on edge.

Those associations may be too much even for today's young white supremacists. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, while other hate groups are on the rise, the Klan's numbers dropped from 221 to 152 groups in 2011 alone. Slate's Brian Palmer suggests that this might have to do with younger racists finding other movements, like Aryan Nations, more appealing than "their grandfather's hate group."

Ultimately, the language of love did not work for the 1920s Klan either, as notorious acts of violence marred all its attempts to claim love over hate. Neither is it likely to work for the modern Klan. While it might seem a good strategy to emphasize the Klan's "good works," trying to escape the racist and violent images of historical Klans is a dead end. No amount of benevolence can offset the recent "whites-only" cross burning in North Carolina or a black business owner's allegations of intimidation in Topeka. The group may want to portray itself as a kinder and gentler Klan. But we don't need to look far back down the highway to see that it is not.

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Kelly J. Baker is a lecturer in religious studies at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville and the author of the book Gospel According to the Klan. She blogs at www.kellyjbaker.com.

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