Friday, November 25, 2016

The Rebirth of the KKK

As I mentioned in an article earlier this year, the Ku Klux Klan was first formed 150 years ago. It was mostly suppressed, however, during the first term of President Ulysses S. Grant as the Ku Klux Act of 1871 gave the President the power to impose heavy penalties against terrorist organizations and to use military force to suppress the KKK.
A novel and a movie
Over thirty years later, though, Thomas Dixon, a pastor from North Carolina, glorified the Klan’s activities during the first years of Reconstruction. His 1905 novel was titled The Clansman, and I found it quite fascinating when I read earlier this fall.
Dixon’s book largely about the mistreatment of Southern whites after the Civil War is skillfully written. By the time I finished it I momentarily felt like saying, “Thank God for the KKK!” Of course I knew better, and knew more than what was portrayed in a novel. 

In the years following the publication of Dixon’s book, however, there were those who didn’t seem to know better. One such person was William Joseph Simmons, who became the founder of the second Ku Klux Klan. 
Simmons (1880-1945) decided to rebuild the Klan in 1915 not long after he had seen it favorably depicted in the newly released film “The Birth of a Nation,” which was based on Dixon’s novel.
That over-three-hour silent movie was the first movie to be shown in the White House. Woodrow Wilson was the President in 1915, and he was a Southerner (born in Virginia) and perhaps more racist than any his predecessors all the way back to Andrew Johnson (from Tennessee).
When I watched “The Birth of a Nation” on my computer this fall, I was surprised to see that after the intermission, the second part begins with three screens showing statements by Wilson.
The movie is different from the novel in several ways—but it equally glorifies the Klan. And based on the inspiration gained from seeing D.W. Griffith’s blockbuster movie, Simmons recruited 34 men to become his first Knights of the KKK.
A fiery cross
On November 25, which was Thanksgiving Day in 1915, Simmons and 19 of his Knights marched up Stone Mountain (near Atlanta) and lit a cross on fire. That marked the rebirth of the Klan, which grew rapidly and peaked with over four million members in 1924.
The reborn Klan was dedicated to keeping the country white and Protestant and to saving America from domestic and foreign threats—and one can’t help but wondering if the same kind of thinking is not behind you-know-who’s slogan “Make America Great Again.”
In his book The Fiery Cross: The Ku Klux Klan in America (1987), Wyn Craig Wade links the Klan to the religious fundamentalism of the 1920s—and to the Christian Right of the 1980s. Now in 2016 we see many evangelical Christians, perhaps inadvertently, linked to rejuvenation of the KKK—or at least of its main emphases.
And now . . .
It is no secret that the KKK and other white nationalist groups are ardent supporters of the President-elect’s and of his selection of Steve Bannon as his chief strategist.
Recently, Adam Jentleson, a spokesman for Senator Harry Reid, said: “It is easy to see why the KKK views Trump as their champion when Trump appoints one of the foremost peddlers of White Supremacist themes and rhetoric as his top aide.”
Admittedly, things may not turn out as bad as many fear—but they may also turn out a lot worse that many others think. It is troubling that 145 years after the first KKK was suppressed by the President, current Klan members are now cheering the President-elect.
 Two more resource books worth noting:
Baker, Kelly J. Gospel According to the Klan: The KKK’s Appeal to Protestant America, 1915-1930 (2011)
Rawlings, William. The Second Coming of the Invisible Empire: The Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s (2016)


  1. Leroy, I see little reason for optimism for at least the next four years. And maybe beyond if he succeeds in packing SCOTUS and gutting the constitution as interpreted by even the present SCOTUS pre the death of Scalia (pretty conservative). Charles K

    1. Charles, I am not particularly optimistic about how things will go in the next few years in the U.S., but I still believe that the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice. The current kink in the arc will not be permanent.

      In addition, I have serious questions about whether the President-elect will be able to finish a four-year term in the White House.

    2. If he were to resign or be forced to resign, we would have Pence, who subscribes to dominionism's interpretation of freedom of religion. Pence would be no friend to LGBQT rights, to women's rights, etc. I think the brightest possibility for the next 2-4 (or 8 God forbid) years is that enough Republicans in the Senate will join Dems to reject his most egregious programs, and perhaps even reject Jeff Sessions. Charles k

    3. Charles, I agree that in some ways VP-elect Pence would be no better than Pres.-elect. But I think in most ways he is a more reasonable and level-headed man, in spite of his very conservative religious views.

      Like you, I am hoping that there will be enough Republican Congresspersons perceptive enough to keep the worst of Trump's ideas from becoming reality.

  2. A few minutes ago I received the following important comments from Thinking Friend Glenn Hinson:

    "What a shameful development the KKK is as a part of our history! More shameful still is its rejuvenation in the Trump campaign! Never has it been more important to speak out against this phenomenon as you have done, Leroy.

    "America is not far from what happened in Germany during the 1930s. Not speaking out could have serious consequences. Hannah Arendt reported a startling fact: Only 5 percent of the Nazi party favored Hitler’s 'Jewish solution.' But because no one spoke out, he and his most ardent supporters carried it out."

    1. Perhaps quite unlike Germany in the 1930s, I think there are, and will continue to be, plenty of people speaking out against any and all injustices perpetuated by the new administration.

  3. Eric Dollard, my faithful Thinking Friend in Chicago, once again shares substantial comments:

    "Thanks, Leroy, for sharing your observations about the KKK.

    "I have been trying to understand the Trump phenomenon. As you pointed out, racists support Trump, along with misogynists and homophobes, but many (probably the majority) of Trump voters are not members of these groups. Although the economy is doing fairly well, Trump appears to have attracted voters who have either lost their jobs or fear losing their jobs in the future. These individuals blame immigrants, globalization, and Wall Street.

    "The KKK of the 1920's was strongly anti-immigrant for similar reasons. White Protestant workers feared losing their jobs to Eastern and Southern European immigrants, who were largely Roman Catholic or Jewish. Trump voters today fear Latino (especially Mexican) and Moslem immigrants, partly because of jobs (i.e., moving to Mexico) but also for cultural reasons and a fear of terrorism.

    "Trump voters also believe that America needs to be more assertive, economically, politically, and militarily. Trump says he admires Vladimir Putin, who has made Russia much more assertive. Putin has rock star status in Russia, a fact not lost on Trump. The next four years will be interesting, if not downright terrifying. (Despite the apparent 'bromance' between Putin and Trump, I expect Putin to test Trump sometime in 2017 with a crisis somewhere.)"

    1. Thanks for your perceptive comments, Eric.

      I think the thing that worries me most is what the President-elect might do in making the U.S. more assertive militarily. In spite of all of the criticism on the left about Pres. Obama's use of drones for military purposes, I am afraid that is going to seem quite minuscule compared to what might well happen in the next couple of years under the new President and a Republican Congress.

    2. Eric replied:

      "I agree, Leroy. Trump's militant policies towards Muslims and Islamic countries, if implemented, would backfire by generating a new crop of radicals. I am also concerned about how Trump will deal with China. His rhetoric has not been reassuring."

  4. There seem to be attributes which are common to humanity – arrogance, bitterness, revenge… They are typically seen in those we don’t like and wish that they would change into our own likeness. But I have witnessed them across the spectrum of religion, politics, economics, tribes, and cultures. There are plenty of self-righteous, but in reality there are none righteous. Sadly, I even find these attributes in myself. This is what drives me back to Psalm 51 with regularity. There is a lesson in forgiveness and pardon which is needed as well, and which I am attempting to learn. Spirit of the Most High God, conform me into the image of Jesus Christ.

    1. The consideration is a poignant declaration of 2 perspectives of history and how one man's hero is another's villain. The passing of Fidel Castro today again brought this concept to my mind. In my years I witnessed the death of so many with the institution of communism in the land of my youth. He was right in the mix. Others saw him as the hero who helped to throw off the last vestige of European colonial rule. Thankfully, the national leadership saw the devastation they had wrought, and threw off communism after a couple of years.

  5. To understand American race relations, one needs to understand American, especially Southern, economic and political structures. The working class was divided and controlled by fomenting hostility between "white trash" and a group whose name Huck Finn could say with impunity, although I cannot. Whenever "white trash" feels especially slighted, they are conditioned to lash out at that other group.

    FDR was popular with the "white trash" because he brought them economic recovery. Still, he rocked the boat some by advancing, however slowly, civil rights for all. Then LBJ blew the lid on both issues, and in the ensuing Republican backlash, Nixon's Southern Strategy incorporated George Wallace's southern resistance into the Republican Party. Wall Street bought its way into power in both parties, and the long term result of economic libertarianism is growing poverty and despair throughout most of the nation. Well, the "white trash" never forgot their training. When the going gets tough, the tough join the KKK.

    The Democrats got quite a lesson the last few years in West Virginia, where a solidly Democratic state slowly slid into rock-ribbed Republicanism as the New Deal faded and the economy faltered. West Virginia shares a common border with Ohio and Pennsylvania. These states showed strong support for Bernie Sanders, but Clinton did little to act like she really cared about his economic justice issues. She let him write much of the Democratic platform, but did little to act it out. Imagine if early on in the protests she had ventured to the Standing Rock reservation in North Dakota to deliver a fiery speech on economic justice and environmentalism. This might not seem like a likely way to reach struggling whites, but I believe that in 2016 it was exactly the right place to show strong independence from Wall Street. Leaving that field to Jill Stein spoke volumes, as did the voters a little later.

    America, sadly, is a barbaric nation with a barbaric government. We struggle to find our better angels. Sometimes we reach great heights, but all too frequently the dark shadows cast by our imperialistic oligarchy sends spasms of hate and fear rumbling through our society, and indeed, around the world. It is not possible to treat a malady such as racism in isolation. We need to treat both social and economic issues together (not to mention overwhelming environmental issues). Right from the start, we cannot find an equitable and efficient way to determine who really has a right to vote (and who should have that right, such as freed former felons); we also have proved repeatedly to be unable to provide even so basic a civilized service as an accurate and timely vote tally. Not to mention our banana republic tendency to "elect" the candidate who comes in second in the vote of the American People.

    There is no silver bullet to solve the problem of the KKK, for there is no silver bullet to solve the problem of America. We may not quite be in hell-on-earth, but we are certainly in purgatory-on-earth. There is a long, dark, night of the soul between America and dawn's early light. If we are to evade being one more refrain to "Babylon the Great is fallen!" then we need to arm ourselves with faith, hope and love as we seek the wisdom to bring healing through that long, dark, night.