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Chapter Twelve: About the Ku Klux Klan


Both my parents came from central Indiana. They grew up during the 1920s when the Ku Klux Klan had a membership of more than a million persons nationwide. Indiana was a center of Klan influence. This organization controlled the Indiana legislature at one time. My maternal grandfather was then a state senator. However, I doubt that the Klan controlled him because he was a Democrat in a Republican-controlled legislature. I doubt that the Klan had much influence on my father’s side either. His family was Roman Catholic and the Klan was an anti-Catholic organization. Even so, a top Klan leader named Stephenson lived in the same part of Indianapolis where my father’s family lived. Stephenson took an attractive young woman on a train ride to Chicago where he murdered her. Put on trial, he was convicted. The sensational publicity which this trial generated sealed the Ku Klux Klan’s doom. By the end of the 1920s, it had rapidly lost members and ceased to be a political force.

If you want to know what the Klan was like in its heyday, a good source of information would be Robert S. and Helen Merrell Lynd’s sociological study, Middletown, which is based on conditions in Muncie, Indiana. “Coming upon Middletown like a tornado,” the Lynds wrote, “the Ku Klux Klan has emphasized ... potential factors of disintegration. Brought to town originally, it is said, by a few of the city’s leading business men as a vigilance committee to hold an invisible whip over the corrupt Democratic political administration and generally ‘to clean up the town,’ its ranks were quickly thrown open under a professional organizer, and by 1923 some 3,500 of the local citizens are said to have joined. As the organization developed, the business men withdrew, and the Klan became largely a working class movement. Thus relieved of the issue that prompted its original entry into Middletown, the Klan, lacking a local issue, took over from the larger national organization a militant Protestantism with which it set about dividing the city; the racial issue, though secondary, was hardly less ardently proclaimed. So high did the local tide of Klan feeling run that in 1924 a rival group in Middletown set up a rival and ‘purer’ national body to supersede the old Klan. Tales against the Catholics ran like wildfire through the city.”

What did the Ku Klux Klan have against Roman Catholics? Heavy immigration from Catholic Europe was an issue. The Lynds quoted Protestant sermons suggesting that the Pope intended to take over the United States: “They say the Catholics are building a great cathedral in our national capital at Washington which is to become his (the Pope’s) home.” Another Klan argument was that Catholics held certain women, called “nuns”, prisoners in the convents. The “confessions” of Helen Jackson, “an escaped nun”, enjoyed brisk sales at Klan rallies. Because the Catholics considered it sinful to wear jewelry, one poor woman allegedly had her bejeweled fingers cut off when she entered a nunnery.

“To this Catholic hatred,” the Lynds wrote, “was added Negro and Jewish hatred fed by stories that the Negroes have a powder which they put on their arms which turns their bodies white, and that the Jews have all the money, but when the Klan gets into power, it will make a new kind of money, so that the Jews’ money will be no good.” The Ku Klux Klan was against the Jews for traditional reasons: they had rejected Christ. They were against the Negro because of miscegenation. The Bible said it was wrong to mix blood. That is how Rome fell and, as Lincoln said, “a house divided against itself cannot stand.”

Ultimately, the moralistic fervor could not be sustained. The Lynds observed that “Klan feeling was fanned to white heat by constant insistence in season and out that ‘every method known to man has been used and is being used by the alien-minded and foreign influence to halt our growth.’ Social clubs were broken up and church groups rocked to their foundations by the tense feelings all this engendered. The secret of this eruption of strife within the group probably lies in the fact that it blew off the cylinder head of the humdrum. It afforded an outlet for many of the constant frustrations of life ... by providing a wealth of scape-goats ... and two of the most powerful latent emotional storm-centers of Middletown, religion and patriotism, were adroitly maneuvered out of their habitual uneventful status into a wild enthusiasm of utter devotion to a persecuted but noble cause. The high tide of bitterness was reached in 1923, and by 1925 the energy was mainly spent and the Klan disappeared as a local power, leaving in its wake wide areas of local bitterness.”

There is no indication in the Lynds’ book that members of the Middletown Klan engaged in violence against any group. That does not mean that the Klan did not have a violent history. What we have been describing pertains to its reincarnation as a national organization during and after World War I. The original Ku Klux Klan was founded in 1866 in Pulaski, Tennessee, during the Reconstruction era. After the former Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest gained control of this organization, it became a “secret army” to fight Republican rule in the South. A principal objective was to terrorize the northern Carpetbaggers and blacks and, by destroying their morale, keep them from voting. The hooded Klansmen would ride ghost-like through the night, kidnapping people from their homes, whipping, assaulting, or lynching them. The tactic worked. Because the Klan enjoyed popular support, southern law-enforcement offered little resistance to its activities. White Republican militias and, ultimately, federal troops destroyed the Klan in 1871 and 1872. Its legacy was ninety years of white-supremacist rule in the South where the Democrats exercised firm political control.

There was also a third period of Klan activity beginning in the late 1940s. In this case, the Civil Rights movement and fear of communism provided the impetus to its counter organizing effort. This movement was based among poor, relatively uneducated southern whites. Its membership peaked at 17,000 in the 1960s. Today, Klan-related groups have an estimated 4,000 members nationwide. The Klan’s attempt in the 1960s to derail the Civil Rights movement, as its forbearers had done a century earlier with Yankee-imposed Reconstruction, backfired badly. Individual and mob violence brought a police response, much adverse publicity, and major federal legislation including the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Behind those events stood a fundamental political change that began with John F. Kennedy’s election as President of the United States in 1960. Kennedy was the first (and only) Roman Catholic to be elected President. His maternal grandfather was Mayor of Boston during the 1920s when Klan-inspired sentiments against Catholics ran high. Kennedy was elected President, in part, by appealing to Protestants to rise above anti-Catholic prejudice and by arranging for Martin Luther King to be released from jail. After he was assassinated three years later, the new President, Lyndon B. Johnson, pushed through legislation favorable to blacks. Southern whites, starting with Senator Strom Thurmond, bolted to the Republicans during the 1968 national elections. The Democratic party thus turned its back on its previous base of support in white-supremacist politicians who had comprised the “solid South” while the Republicans lost support of the black people whom they had so actively assisted during the Reconstruction era. They gained, however, a new base of support among the southern white population. The Ku Klux Klan became universal pariahs.

Where does this leave us with respect to racial violence? First we need to know how many people the Ku Klux Klan killed. This particular statistic may be unavailable. According to the Encyclopedia Americana, 4,763 persons were lynched in the United States between 1882 and 1968, which included 3,446 blacks and 1,297 whites. Lynching was most prevalent during the last decade of the 19th Century, when an average of 154 such incidents took place annually, and in the American south. Before the Civil War, the overwhelming majority of lynch victims were white. This does not indicate black violence against whites but, more typically, the efforts of southern whites to maintain the slave system by punishing abolitionists and persons assisting runaway slaves. In the north, lynching took the life of the Illinois abolitionist editor, Elijah P. Lovejoy. Cattle rustlers in the west also received this treatment.

Thomas Dixon’s 1905 novel, The Clansman, inflamed white-racist fervor. D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film, “Birth of a Nation”, glorified Klan activity during the Reconstruction period, prompting the group’s revival on a national scale. Some lynchings occurred during this time. The black victims of lynching were usually males accused of raping white women or of murdering or assaulting whites. Sometimes this was the result of “lynch mobs” randomly selecting blacks or of race riots such as the one which occurred in Atlanta. The image of individual black males being hanged from a tree branch, surrounded by a crowd of white onlookers, is etched in public consciousness as a result of photographs that were widely circulated, sometimes in the form of postcards. In the 20th Century, the number of lynchings gradually diminished as southern whites imposed segregationist rule. According to the Encyclopedia Americana, the last reported lynching in this country took place in 1981.

The public image of Klan violence is, therefore, part fact and part fiction. Certainly there were a large number of blacks killed by white-racist individuals or groups. Members of the Klan were involved in many of those activities. Yet, as we have seen, the Klan movement had other interests, especially in the period of its greatest influence. Many people at the time saw it as a heavy handed and divisive, though often well meaning, attempt to reassert “American values”. The low-born, uneducated whites drawn to this cause embraced kooky ideas such as the idea of a powder which black people put on their arms to turn white. In the end, however, most white Americans rejected the Ku Klux Klan. It was an example of a philosophy being rejected in the free competition of ideas. Then came the process of demonizing the Klan in Hollywood films and the communications media. Here the image of the Klan morphed with that of the Nazis to present a totally menacing and sinister picture of an organization bent on violence. It is that political agenda which I wish now to challenge.

The murderous activities of the Ku Klux Klan and its members are certainly to be condemned. This ought to be the common denominator of all such discussions: how many people did they kill? If one accepts that premise, however, then one is obliged also to ask how many people others have killed. Let us consider black-on-white violence. In large American cities, blacks account for significantly higher numbers of violent crimes per capita than whites. Much of this is black-on-black crime, which is equally deplorable, yet some is interracial violence. White people, Asians, and other non blacks are today victims of the disproportionately large number of violent crimes for which blacks are responsible. Having 12% of the population nationally, African Americans accounted for 56% of all arrests for murder between 1992 and 1996; 40% of arrests for rape; 57% of arrests for robbery; and 37% of arrests for aggravated assault.

Yes, Ku Klux Klan members did a horrible thing in the 1963 bombing of a church in Birmingham, Alabama, which killed four children, or in the murder of the three Civil Rights workers. But the cold-blooded killing of four young white people in Wichita, Kansas, on the night of December 14, 2000, by Jonathan and Reginald Carr, two young blacks, which involved torture and rape as well as murder, was also reprehensible. Closer to home, a gang of young black thugs shot and killed a 70-year-old white man named Robert Fernlund while he and his wife were returning home to their home in south Minneapolis around midnight on the night of October 28, 1998. On April 15th of that year, a Minneapolis landlord found the stinking body of Ann Prazniak, a 77-year-old white woman, stuffed in a cardboard box in the closet of her apartment. Wrapped in plastic and a blanket, she had been dead for about two weeks. A group of young drug users, all black, had taken over her apartment. One was convicted of the murder.

While the last reported lynching in the United States took place in 1981, these and many other acts of black-on-white violence have happened recently in my own city. Were the Klan killings worse because a sinister-looking organization was associated with them while the latter were the work of undisciplined, high-spirited youth? Murder is murder. Were they worse because blacks and not whites were the victims? That needs to be discussed.

It’s not just ghetto blacks and low-class white Klan members who kill people. While we’re at it, let’s discuss the murderous record of other rather more sacrosanct groups. The second chapter of Exodus reports that Moses murdered an Egyptian foreman who was working the Hebrews too hard; yet this man later found favor with God. In the twentieth chapter of Deuteronomy, this God is quoted as telling the Hebrew invaders of Palestine first to make an offer of peace to the cities located there and then, if the cities surrendered, enslave all the inhabitants. If they refused, God issued this command: “You shall put all its males to the sword, but you may take the women, the dependents, and the cattle for yourselves, and plunder everything else in the city.”

That was the mild treatment, reserved for “cities at a great distance”. “In the cities of these nations whose land the Lord your God is giving you as a patrimony, you shall not leave any creature alive. You shall annihilate them - Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, Jebusites - as the Lord your God commanded you, so that they may not teach you to imitate all the abominable things that they have done for their gods ..”

Present-day adherents of Judaism and its daughter religions need to be asked whether those words from the Bible are still operative policy. Evidently, Ben-Gurion thought so when he spoke to the 1938 Jewish World Council in Tel Aviv: “After we become a strong force as the result of the creation of the State, we will abolish this partition and expand to the whole of Palestine ... The State will preserve order, not by preaching, but with machine guns.” The Arab population of Palestine dropped from 950,000 to 138,000 persons in the six months after the state of Israel was created. Most, I assume, went to live in refugee camps rather than to rest in cemeteries.

With respect to Christianity, Jesus was a comparatively peaceful person who, like a lamb, submitted to his own execution. Yet, there are elements of violence in Jesus’ driving money changers out of the Temple and in quotations attributed to him about not bringing peace but a sword. The Christian crusaders practiced unprovoked violence against the Moslem rulers and occupants of the Holy Land. With respect to the religion of Islam, the Prophet Mohammed was a political and military ruler as well as a messenger of God’s word. Islam was spread by the sword. In our own day, Islamic fundamentalists have carried out terroristic bombings, assassinations, and, of course, the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.

Were the September 11th attacks the work of misguided religious zealots or did they result from Islamic teachings? Osama bin Laden claimed justification for his bloody acts in the Koran: “But when the forbidden months are past, then fight and slay the pagans wherever you find them, seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them in every stratagem (of war).” It seems clear that the Islamic idea of holy war, or jihad, is traceable to sacred texts, though religious scholars may debate its application to particular events. I raise this point to cast aspersions upon those “good people of Minnesota” who, while abhorring a peaceful demonstration by 46 persons supporting the Ku Klux Klan, went to great lengths to separate the September 11th terrorists from the Islamic religion.

One might argue that, although the Klan demonstrators were not violent, their ideas represented violence. Therefore, anyone associated with the Klan was implicitly expressing approval of those practices and should be rebuked. On the other hand, Osama bin Laden could plausibly argue that his bloody deeds were given sanction in the Koran. Therefore, by the same logic, anyone associated with the religion of Islam was condoning violent practices and should be rebuked. Or do we have a double standard here? The burden of proof is upon the Islamic community to reconcile interpretations of sacred text that have been used for terroristic purposes with the present-day need for a peaceful world. Either the Al-Qaeda terrorists were acting outside the scope and sanction of this religion, or the world community has a major problem on its hands.

I could go on to mention the self-righteous killings carried out by U.S. military personnel on orders from President Bush. The point is that our attitude toward violence depends on who is the perpetrator and who the victim. It also depends on whether or not the perpetrator is too big and strong or too prestigious to criticize.

If Klan “racism” is the issue, then take another look at the Bible where Moses tells the Hebrews that “the Lord will make you the head and not the tail: you shall be always at the top and never at the bottom.” (Deuteronomy 28: 13) Consider Joseph’s dreams about other people’s sheaves of wheat bowing down to his. Judaism teaches that the Hebrews’ tribal god Jehovah is the most powerful god in the world - indeed, the only God - and that the Hebrews are this God’s “chosen people.” Is that not saying to other people, in so many words: We’re better than you? Who are they, the followers of this kind of religion, to talk about racism?

Some of Judaism’s successor religions have taken up this idea of group superiority, suggesting that God’s particular favor has passed to them in a new revelation or new covenant. Is it any wonder, then, that religions of this type, as opposed to native American or east Indian religions, have been quarreling and warring with each other for millennia? Before the well-mannered, god-fearing people raised in the Judeo-Christian tradition go off criticizing the Ku Klux Klan for its crudely expressed and uncouth racist ways, I suggest they look in the mirror.

A disturbing aspect of this situation is that those who target “hate groups” most vehemently seem less concerned with their actions than the fact that these people have expressed their opinions. While violent crimes are downplayed, all is directed at controlling what is thought and said. The idea seems to be that some opinions are so repugnant that they must be nipped in the bud whenever anyone starts to say them. I maintain, to the contrary, that “hate speech” is permitted under Constitutional guarantees of free speech. Little children know that “sticks and stones can break your bones but names will never hurt you.”

The harmful thing is not opinions in themselves, not even hateful and demeaning ones, but opinions imposed on others by force. In my view, a free society can afford to have an Adolf Hitler ranting on the street corner, but it cannot afford a Hitler who has become Chancellor of Germany. In other words, it can not afford laws or legal interpretations which prescribe acceptable modes of thinking. It cannot afford political or social values which stigmatize some groups of people while extolling others, especially when these values are enforced by state power or given exclusive expression in the press. Such values would constitute, in a broad sense, a state religion; and, in a free society, state religions are constitutionally prohibited.

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