The Klu Klux Klan and Influence on the Religious Right, Dominionism & Christian Nationalism Today
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(This part of a growing series, and you can find the entire series here: Children of a Lesser God– Dominionism and Christian Nationalism Heresy Exposed )
The “Old” Religious Right during the crucial 1946-1976 period was most easily identified with what they were against. They were Anti-communist, Anti-civil rights, Anti-Catholic, Antisemitic, Anti-labor union, and Anti-immigrant, Anti-Federal Government, and openly and proudly racist. They pulled “conservatives” from both political parties, which were at this time primarily Democrats in the South and Republicans in the Mid-West and Orange County CA. If those ideologies seem familiar to you history buffs they should… they exactly parallel the ideals of the Klu Klux Klan (KKK) of the previous decade. Billy J. Hargis (will get him later) directly combined Klan theology (and yes, its theology) into the main stream of his new Religious Right. Although those ideals would morph later in the 1970s and the groups would drift apart for a few decades, there was so much ideological and theological similarity in the 1946-1978 period you can’t recount the history of one without the other. They were for all practical purposes just slightly different expressions of the same discontent, most differentiated by their willingness to where white hoods. So lets take a moment to understand the complex and surprising history and beliefs of the Klu Klux Klan, its so much more than just White Supremacy.
The First KKK: 1866-1873
The first KKK organization was founded in 1866 by Confederate Civil War veterans, who worked to oppose gains by black freed slaves in politics, business and society in the South during the era immediately after the Civil War. Their first targets were new black politicians who they intimidated with threats, beatings and even murder; Lynchings would be a staple of hospitable Southern Culture until 1981, and in many ways KKK voter suppression continues to this very day. Its estimated at 15% of Southern blacks in this era were the direct victims of Klan violence of some kind with frequent beatings, especially black clergy and politicians, and were intimidated from running for office and even voting. It was so brutal blacks in the South eventually and simply left the political process in all ways. As a result any political gains the blacks saw in the few years after the Civil War were very short lived. The KKK operated as a para-military insurgency in many areas and this drew the ire of Federal Law enforcement fearing a renewed Civil War. In North Carolina The National Guard was called up to suppress Klan violence to the degree that troops had to forcefully retake 2 counties. During its first era the KKK was disorganized and ad-hoc, each “militia” acting all on its own but with the same shared goals to suppress blacks politically, economically and violently. It was successful not only in driving newly freed slaves out of the voting booth but soon created enduring racism and racial segregation through “Jim Crow” laws that extended that fear to ordinary daily living. The KKK were condemned even in the 1870s as a terrorist organization by a US Grand Jury. The Federal Government feared the KKK could reignite the Civil War, and in the early 1870s and began outlawing activities and arresting members, even deploying soldiers. Because the Southerners resented the Federal interference the Klan was bringing there was some local backlash against their more public activities. Having achieved goal of disenfranchising blacks politically, and starting segregation, it began to wane under both their success and ensuing federal pressure. Even though organizationally it would fade, Klan sentiment and appreciation would remain very strong proven by the frequency of over 4000 lynchings over 120 years, how few whites were ever prosecuted for any crimes against blacks, and the ongoing disenfranchisement of blacks from politics that extends to this very day.
The Second KKK 1915-1936: Protestant Moral Force and Fraternal Organization
Rev. Thomas J. F. Dixon Sr. was a Baptist preacher and former slave owner in the Carolina’s, and was an avid member of the first KKK just after the Civil War, along with his brother-in-law Col. Leroy MaCaffee His son’s would all follow him into the “ministry” and greatly exceed him in influence. His oldest son would go onto edit and contribute to The Fundamentals, a series of essays that would form the theological basis for Christian Fundamentalism, but it was his middle son Rev. Thomas Dixon Jr. that would change US History when he added novelist to his resume. Although he preached against slavery, Thomas Dixon Jr. was a highly educated white supremacist and segregationist who viewed blacks as greatly morally and intellectually inferior and favored shipping them back to Africa. He was a huge admirer of his KKK uncle Col. Leroy MaCaffee to whom he dedicated his books. His most damaging contributions were his best selling series of novels romanticizing the KKK, the Civil War and the myth of the Lost Cause of the Confederacy (This false and romanticized belief that the South didn’t fight the North over slavery but over states rights, still persists to this day). His 1905 book The Clansman: A Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan (made into a movie in 1915) painted the KKK as heroic protectors of both the South and God’s way of Life. Greatly fictionalizing and romanticizing the stories, he added then fictional cross burnings, parades, and white robes as part of the KKK’s mythic and heroic legacy of “justice and righteousness”. Like many others who’s name would fade from history, Rev. Thomas Dixon’s Jr. influence would linger powerfully even today as history is being fictionalized and romanticized using fake news to excuse hatred and atrocity. The Myth of the Lost Cause of the Confederacy still lingers today as result of Rev. Dixon’s blatant and enduring racism.
Pastor William Joseph Simmons and his Revival of the KKK
Pastor William Joseph Simmons, greatly inspired by Pastor Thomas Dixon Jr’s books and the resulting movie, re-founded the 2nd KKK on Thanksgiving Day on a mountain in 1915. Rev. Simmons’s institutionalized (the previously) fictional elements of cross burning’s, parades and hooded white robes and made them part of the new KKK’s practice and culture. After consulting with 2 publicists (literally) and personally joining 15 fraternal orders to see how they worked, the KKK was organized like other fraternal organizations popular in this era. He instituted strong structure, complex rituals with overtly religious practices, sung church hymns, and unlike the first Klan he created strong central leadership. He also introduced professional membership recruitment where recruiters received a commission. As a Pastor, he wove strong moral and Christian elements and into Klan rituals, slogans, advertising, banners, and flyers. New members were literally “baptized” into the organization for their initiation, while existing members sung religious hymns and read Protestant like liturgy. Churches held some of the earliest recruitment drives for the KKK and often donated their space for KKK meetings, and chapters proudly put on their banners the name of the church that sponsored them, like children’s sports teams do today. The second KKK was strongly religious, exclusively Protestant, and from a theological perspective today… absolutely a Christian cult.
The 2nd Klan grew rapidly due to a few combined factors. Rev. William Joseph Simmons added into existing Klan doctrine of hating blacks the new targets of Catholics and Jews. The US saw a wave of European immigrants after WWI fleeing destruction in Europe, many of whom were Catholic and Jewish, so this was extremely popular. The KKK being hyper-Patriotic defined white Protestants as the only true Americans and opposed immigration… but especially Catholic immigrants. The growing Prohibition movement was strongly supported (and later enforced, by burning saloons and beating drunks) by the KKK “Night Riders”, as it was perceived these detestable immigrants were often drinking. The 1920’s “Flapper” generation sweeping the US represented a huge cultural abomination and was a sign of our moral degradation. New technology like cars and the radio, with new Jazz music, and God forgive us… that horrible scourge of dancing… all frightened and even enraged them. America was painted by the KKK as a nation in total moral decline and decadence, and to spare us from God’s coming judgement the patriotic and righteous KKK was painted as the moral force to stop it. This combination of fear and hatred and the willingness to fight cultural changes it struck a huge cord, the KKK would become enormous.
“The cross burnings and eerie robes of the Klan were the most sensational expressions of the terror group’s strategy, but likely not its most effective. The blending of racism with more wholesome causes – security, family life, and patriotism –— may be white supremacy’s darkest and most enduring legacy”Author: Laura Smith
The KKK Would Recruit Over 4 Million Members
“To characterize the KKK as a hopelessly aberrant and lawless fringe group would be manifestly inaccurate. Indeed, the most frightening aspect of the Invisible Empire was its ability to attract ordinary law-abiding citizens.”Author: Shawn Lay
The KKK exploded, both in the South but also in surprising areas that were not traditional Klan strongholds or formerly a slave states, there was a KKK chapter in almost every major city. There were over 40,000 Klansmen in Detroit alone, so although the first KKK was mostly rural the second KKK was strongly urban. Orange County CA became a powerful and enduring Klan stronghold, where Klan influence still lingers today. The entire lower Mid-West along the Ohio River Valley and the back side of the upper Appalachians stretching from Southern Illinois, North to Detriot even in to rural Minnesota, and East to Buffalo New York was their money and member basket, and Indianapolis IN in the center of the greatest support soon became home to their largest headquarters. Klan rally’s in the Midwest drew over 100,000 people. In some areas of Mid-West an astonishing 40% of the population became card carrying dues paying pledged members of the Klan. Joining the Klan was expensive, but shockingly 15% of the males in the entire US would become official members, with vastly larger amounts of sympathetic wall-flowers and hanger-ons.
The KKK in Buffalo New York
In Buffalo NY the Klan memberships roster reached 32 pages long. The city was threatened with riots as the Klan and anti-Klan activists fought for control of local government. In describing the KKK of Buffalo New York: “To characterize the KKK as a hopelessly aberrant and lawless fringe group would be manifestly inaccurate. Indeed, the most frightening aspect of the Invisible Empire was its ability to attract ordinary law-abiding citizens.” Shawn Lay. A police infiltrator eventually joined the Klan, stole the Klan roster and exposed the member list and their influence declined. The police officer was later murdered by a KKK “investigator” and in some ways he became one of the first white martyrs of the Civil Rights Movement.
The KKK in Orange County California
The Klan had a strong and successful recruitment drive beginning in Orange County in Southern CA from 1915. They would come to dominate local politics, especially in Anaheim, Brea, Fullerton and La Habra up lingering up until 1936. Klan influence was so strong Anaheim became tragically referred to as “Klanaheim”.
The white Protestant Church and especially Klan leader Pastor Leon Myers of the First Christian Church, were central Klan’s success in Southern California. Pastor Leon would install church Elders and Deacons who were all Klan members. Pro-Klan “evangelists” and lecturers would speak regularly and invites were widely published in the Pro-Klan local paper “The Plain Dealer”. One Klan rally in Anaheim drew 20,000 people. Another nearby church, the Christian Tabernacle would openly hold Klan meetings and recruitment drives driving decorated recruitment cars with robed Klansman and burned crosses to announce their presence (see picture above). Their desire was to create a “strong moral community” (quoted from a Klan flyer) and they saw blacks and foreigners with their dancing and jazz music as corrupting influences that would draw the wrath of God. A local newspaper The Plain Dealer created a false “crime wave” and offered the Klan was needed to protect the people (fake news is nothing new) to drive recruitment, even though crime statistics had not really changed.
Their success was breathtaking . Overnight in the city of Brea CA the Klan elected 65% of the mayors, 60% of city councilmen, 50% of the city’s treasurers, 50% of it city marshals, and 67% of its fire chiefs. In Anaheim, the Klan took over the Mayor’s office, 4 members of city council and fired most of the city employees who were not Klansman; By 1924 10 of 15 Anaheim police officers were Klan members. The Klan, as they did in many areas of the country where the gained political influence, outlawed the hiring of Catholic teachers.
However, in “Klanaheim” there grew a strong anti-Klan push back lead by District Attorney Alex Nelson, Methodist Minister James Geissinger, L.A. Lewis and few prominent Catholics. They were able to acquire and then publish a roster of Klan members (allegedly acquired for $700) who had secretly infiltrated the Mayor’s office and city council, and other local positions. They launched a successful recall election and replacing the Klan members on Anaheim mayor and city council. However the Klan remained strong enough they still openly battled for control of Anaheim through 1930, and Brea until 1936.
The KKK in the Lower-Midwest
Quaker Minister Rev. Daisy Douglas Barr, an enormously popular powerful public speaker, personally attracted hundreds of thousands of new KKK members especially in the lower Midwest in Indiana and Ohio. She founded the woman’s auxiliary of the KKK, using the addition of heroic moral righteous effort to the existing racism and xenophobia, that in many ways extends to this very day. She painted the KKK as God’s force against vice… and that message as it was retold and shared brought in millions of new members. Daisy’s Klan rallies in the Midwest drew over 100,000 people, making the lower Mid-West the Klan’s strongest area even over the deep South. It was Daisy who first presented the Klan as a Protestant moral force against vice, alcohol and sin of all kinds, because it sin entered the Camp through Catholics and Blacks.
Former Texan. D.C. Stephenson joined the Klan in Indiana, soon rising to become the Indiana KKK Grand Dragon. His ability to recruit was so successful he soon oversaw the Klan across 7 states mostly in the Mid-West. Working and travelling with Daisy Douglas Barr they made the area from Southern Illinois stretching to Buffalo NY the strongest and most popular Klan area of the US. Both grew extremely wealthy collecting a percent of Klan initiation fees, dues and paraphernalia sales. D.C. Stephenson had his own private rail car, and in only a few years was probably the most powerful person in Indiana, effectively choosing the state Governor in 1924. As the most popular and powerful leader of the Klan he eventually broke away from the main KKK organization, taking his richer “northern” state chapters, probably to keep more lucrative Klan paraphernalia sales and membership dues to himself. Together they were a recruiting tour de force.
Red Summer: The KKK’s Moral and Christian Reign of Terror
Its forgotten today, but the rise of KKK in 1915 brought with it a brutal reign of terror across the US in the late teen’s and early nineteen-twenties. Beginning on July 2nd 1917 there was a terrible race riot in East St. Louis IL (across the river from St. Louis). White crowds of up to 10,000 people fearing black workers were taking their jobs, began beating any black person they found. Eventually they would kill up to 250 blacks and the ensuing arson, looting of black businesses and fires left 6,000 black families homeless, with insurers denying all claims. But this tragedy was just the beginning of what was to soon come.
1919 terrible and fatal acts of violence against all people of color skyrocketed to the point it was called Red Summer. Notice how many of the 30 or so riots this summer around the US were in the mid-West, not just the formerly Confederate South.
- Jenkins County Georgia: On April 13 1919, 6 blacks killed in unprovoked attacks by white mobs, 1 church and other Negro-American businesses and institutions were burned.
- Charleston SC on May 10th: Race riots started by white US Navy sailors killed 3 black men, and wounded 18 others. The city declared martial law, and troops had to restore order.
- Bisbee AZ, July 3rd: White police officers without provocation brutally attacked black US Soldiers of the 10th Calvary Division.
- Longview Texas. July 10th-`13th: White rioters began a wave of arson in the black community, killing one person, destroying many homes and businesses. The Texas National Guard was mobilized to restore order.
- Indianapolis IN, July 14th, : Whites attacked and beat blacks in Garfield Park, severely injuring many including a 13 year old girl.
- Washington DC, July 19-24th, : US soldiers, many in uniform started to riot against blacks. After 4 days of looting, arson and violence while the police stood by and did nothing the blacks began fighting back. After 5 blacks were killed, counter rioters killed 10 whites. An additional uncountable number of people were injured. The National Guard was called in to instill Martial Law and restore order.
- Norfolk VA, July 21st, : Whites attacked a celebration and homecoming party for black soldiers returning from Europe, although no deaths occurred many were injured, and soldiers had to restore order.
- Chicago IL, July 27th: A black boy swam on what was considered a “white” beach, and was stoned and drowned. When the police did nothing, blacks rioted. The ensuing 13 days of violence by both groups left 23 blacks, 15 whites killed, over 500 people were injured, and the resulting wave of arson by whites left over 1,000 black families without homes. 7 regiments of the National Guard were called up to impose martial law and restore some order which took 3 days.
- Knoxville TN, August 30th, : A black man was arrested for killing a white woman, and white stormed the jail to lynch him, freeing other white prisoners. The rioters then targeted the Black business district, killing 7 people and leaving many black homes and businesses burned.
- Omaha NE. September, 28th-29th, : 10,000 whites stormed the county courthouse to lynch Will Brown, a black worker accused of a crime, lighting it on fire. When the police stood in resistance, they attacked and almost hung the white mayor who was saved only because a police car charged into to crowd at full speed to rescue him. The mayor barely survived after hanging between life and death for many days. Eventually they not only lynched Mr. Brown, they finished burning down the courthouse, and many other buildings. City Hall was only saved by the arrival of Federal troops. A follow-up investigation cited the mass terror lynchings of blacks as a leading cause of racial tension leading to the riots.
- Elaine Arkansas, September, 30th-Oct 1st : White planters who were threatened by Black sharecroppers efforts to unionize which they considered “Socialist” and went on a rampage. They started the false rumor that “blacks” were leading an insurrection, and whites from neighboring counties poured into the area around Elaine. White mobs spread out to kill random blacks across the county, some sources list that up to 237 blacks were lynched and killed in the ensuing rampage, in addition 5 white rioters were killed by blacks defending themselves. Although with some delay troops were called in, it took them 3 days to quell the unsurpassed violence and chaos. To make the greatest racial riot in US history even worse, over 200 blacks were arrested for inciting violence, and 73 were charged with murder, 12 received a death sentence. No whites were arrested or charged. This was the largest mass lynching in US or even Southern history.
Tulsa Massacre of 1921
Of special note is the Tulsa Massacre of May 31st 1921. A white female elevator operator screamed shortly after a black boy entered it, and although she never was physically harmed, or clarified or pressed any charges, a white mob wanted him hung. Blacks arrived at the jail to protect the accused from the mob and fights broke out. With assistance from city officials, white mobs attacked the mostly black and enormously thriving Greenwood neighborhood also known as the “Black Wall Street”. In the first aerial bombing on US soil, whites dropped bombs from airplanes on the black neighborhood utterly destroying an entire 35 block area to the ground. Hundreds of black owned businesses and thousands of homes were destroyed leaving over 10,000 blacks homeless. Insurers refused any kind of payout to blacks for lost homes and businesses. Possibly 300 blacks were killed, and were 800 injured and it left a formerly thriving and successful neighborhood in ruins. As in so many other KKK driven riots of this era troops were called in to quell the violence.
A Tulsa community activist and historian Mechelle Brown blamed the KKK: “Some type of confrontation between blacks and whites was inevitable because of the racial climate at the time, because of the presences of the Ku Klux Klan in almost every aspect of our society.”
Romanticizing the Confederacy and The Uptick of Lynchings
It might surprise you to learn that most statues of Confederate War Memorials were not erected soon after the Civil War, but most were dedicated an average of 55 years later. Of the over 1000 Confederate memorials in the US about 300 were dedicated during the rise of racial tensions and attacks starting with the Klan inspired rise of racial hatred of 1915 to 1936. These were not erected just in the 11 Confederate States of the South, but Confederate Monuments would rise in 31 states around the US many following Klan expansion. There were most often were officially dedicated by the Daughter’s of the Confederacy but with KKK members helping to raise the money. They were not really erected to honor the Confederate dead, but served as a quiet reminder of the power and terror of the KKK and their belief its their right to kill anyone, especially blacks, who upset their cultural and self proclaimed moral order. These statues today are a echo the subtle message of “you could be next”. Mass terror lynchings of blacks had been on slow decline, but in 1915 the year the Klan was reborn, they skyrocket once again doubling from the year before. Mass terror lynchings would only resume their slow decline again around 1921 and tragically endure until 1981, which is shockingly within the lifetime of many of us. These should be relocated to Confederate Cemeteries where they can overlook the graves of the 400k or sot their foolishness killed.
Although the South has the greatest culpability for the lynchings of blacks, other states especially in the Klan strongholds of the mid-west would step in, Horrific lynchings by the numbers in Klan strongholds outside the South: Oklahoma 76, Missouri 60, Illinois 56, West Virginia 35, Maryland 28, Kansas 19, Indiana 18, Ohio 15.
Its crucial to understand that although the Klan and their millions of sympathizers clearly felt that Blacks were inferior, but also that Black culture was destroying society because of its “immoral” influence and “socialism”.
Decline of the 2nd KKK
Joining the Klan wasn’t cheap, and D.C. Stephenson grew extremely wealthy, powerful and politically connected from the percent of initiation fees and dues and paraphernalia sales he collected. In his hubris he kidnapped a young state worker, Madge Oberholzer, raped her and held her for 17 days in his private rail car; She poisoned herself to escape, but survived a month which was just long enough to tell the police what happened and who was responsible. As a surprise to everyone, D.C was actually convicted for her rape and murder. With his wealth and influence he expected a pardon from the Governor he put in office, but when that didn’t happen, in 1927 he began to slowly publicly expose all the politicians that were being paid off by the Klan, creating a wave of corruption trials and newspaper notoriety that dominated headlines for years across the Midwest.
Additionally, mass terror lynching’s of Blacks received more news coverage as the Chicago Tribune began publishing every story in the early 1920s, it seems that lynching blacks wasn’t as fun as it used to be. Additionally the Klan was a huge pro-Prohibition force early on, but by the late 1920’s America’s sentiment were reverting. In face of these scandals, corruption and social pressures, and the public exposure of Klan rosters, Klan membership declined precipitously. By 1930 the official KKK retreated back to the woods of the South, and linger openly only in Brea CA until 1936. However, the effects and sympathies of the Klan would strongly linger in many of these same areas even up to this day.
The second era of the KKK deserves greater scrutiny for a few reasons. The first KKK was disorganized, the second was not, it had strong leadership and detailed structure of other fraternal organizations popular in that era, and used professional recruitment. The first KKK was rooted only the South, the second expanded greatly even into far West, with chapters in almost every US city, with its greatest popularity in urban areas of the lower the Mid-West The 1st Klan drew mostly Confederate veterans, but the second drew a wider audience, from the business and educated elites, lawyers and doctors, to farmers to factory workers on both sides of the Civil War; Even 500,000 women would become full and official KKK members. The 1st Klan was mostly rural Southern Democrats, the 2nd Klan drew from both political parties, and especially urban Republicans in the West and Mid-West. The 1st Klan targeted only blacks, but the 2nd Klan expanded their hatred to target Immigrants, and especially Catholics and Jews. Where the first Klan was mildly religious, the 2nd Klan was strongly and openly so… weaving many Church habits and Christian themes purposely into everything as a force of moral righteousness. Although both Klan’s were enormously political, the 2nd Klan exceeded the first by actually taking quiet control of many local governments far outside of the South.
Although no national church would endorse the Klan, and a few would condemn them publicly especially Reinhold Niebuhr, they enjoyed enormous support and sympathy from many local Churches for their strong emphasis on “morality”. All Pastor’s received a free Klan membership and much of the Klan initial recruiting of the late teens and early 1920’s happened at churches, it was their usual avenue into a new area.
The most troubling aspect of the second Klu Klux Klan is their deep ties and circular theological influence with Protestant Christianity, being inspired by a Pastor (Rev. Thomas Dixon Jr.) founded by a Pastor (Rev. William Joseph Simmons) and widely promoted by many Pastors (Revs. Daisy Douglas Barr & Leon Myers, et al) and sponsored by many local Churches.
The 3rd Wave of the KKK 1947-1987: “Bombingham” to a White Christian Republic
Southern KKK chapters worked independently and quietly to maintain local social order and norms, and a few thrived on their own during In the 1930s and early 40s. KKK “Night Riders” beat or flogged those who broke the local “moral” code, including whites, beating a white barber to death for drinking, and flogged an all-white couple in Georgia for kissing in public. In 1940 three black men were lynched by the KKK in the South, including one for organizing black voters, and another for simply failing to address a white police officer as “Mister”,.no charges were ever filed. But was it was the Alabama chapter of the United Klans of America that reignited the 3rd Wave of the KKK revival. This story like many others is mostly lost to history today.
Just after WWII the burgeoning working-class black population in Birmingham Alabama would attempt to buy houses on the “white” side of Center St as “their” area was running out of room. In response to buying houses in a “white” area the KKK began a terror bombing campaign against blacks in 1947 that would endure until 1965. They bombed over 50 houses and black churches, and assassinated over 40 black men and woman, all in Birmingham alone. They created such a reign of terror Birmingham was painfully called “Bombingham”. The bombings and murders were mostly ignored around the US until the infamous 1963 murder of 4 young black girls at the 16th Ave Baptist Church, that also wounded 22 others. Only 2 people were ever prosecuted for only 1 of these crimes and only then decades later. These mass serial bombings and assassinations and reign of Klan terror in Birmingham and continued lynchings in the rest of the South are what inspired the Civil Rights movement in the US in the early 1950s. And it was the reactionary “white” fear of the Civil Rights movement that inspired a revival of the KKK across the South. It became an undeclared war between the KKK and their sympathizers that soon spread all-over the South known today as the Civil Rights Movement, and endured in some form with ups and downs until the late 1980s… and in may ways is being re-fought today.
I won’t recount the many worthy but more well known stories of the Civil Rights Movement, But you can catch up here. I will only in this article share the lesser known events demonstrating how the Klan thrived and endured for decades on racial hatred both before but long after 1965. The Klan and the Religious Right so violently fought racial desegregation and school busing in the 1960’s and 1970s, Federal troops and the National Guard had to guard students and schools, but this deserves its own full post. For the sake of time let’s jump ahead to the history that you are less likely to know.
In 1979, an increasingly Nazi KKK killed 5 anti-Klan leftist protesters at a Greensboro NC Anti-Klan march, but were later acquitted by an all-white jury on grounds of self-defense. This was despite video of un-threatened Klan members driving up, taking guns out of the car and running towards and then shooting (mostly) unarmed anti-Klan protesters. The Greensboro Massacre galvanized both sides but it was a marketing boon for the KKK sparking a resurgence of Klan activity, renewed violence and murder nationally against people of color and violence against Jews across the entire US, coinciding with Regan’s election to President. The KKK held rally’s around the US, burned crosses, marched publicly in hooded robes in areas far distant from the South. I personally saw 2 public Klan marches near Sacramento CA in 1980 with hundreds of members in North Highlands and Rio Linda CA (there still is a Klan supported Baptist Church in Rio Linda CA to this very day). They created militia “training camps” to continue their stated and public goal of “building a white Christian army”.
“A wave of cross burnings broke out across the country (in 1980). Attacks on synagogues multiplied. Twenty-four African Americans and two white women who were with black men were murdered at random in seven cities over the course of fifteen months. A white sniper shot down four African Americans in thirty-six hours in Buffalo, just two weeks before two black taxi drivers in the city were killed and had their hearts cut out. Over the span of sixteen months, eleven black children were murdered in Atlanta. By 1985, anti-Klan activists were warning of a Nazification that was overtaking Klan organizations. Its leaders no longer called for just a restoration of segregation. They increasingly desired a race war, with the goal of eventually establishing a “white Christian republic.”From Branko Marcetic.
In 1981, the last known KKK lynching of a young black man, Michael Donald. occurred in Alabama, although White Supremacists would kill James Byrd Jr. by dragging him behind a truck in Jasper, Texas in 1998 (which was the Klan’s second favorite way to kill blacks). It was clear that Michael was chosen randomly and killed for the sole reason of just being black. Surprisingly after a slow initial investigation and increasing federal pressure, 2 KKK members were eventually caught, one testifying against the other and both were found guilty… and one was executed. It was the first time since 1913 a white man was executed for murdering a black one. Michael’s mother however wasn’t done, she sued the United Klans of America and won a civil suit in 1987. Klan members were force to pay personally and the United Klans of America had to forfeit their HQ building. It was a devastating blow to the KKK, and the White Supremacist movement went underground and splintered. Where threats of police, jail and prison failed, it was Civil penalties and cash payouts that most terrified the KKK. The 3rd wave of the Klan effectively ended.
The Klan of this era had enormous sympathy and even popularity in the South, and although they had only 40,000 active members the number of Klan sympathizers and supporters was massive. We can see this collective quiet sympathy in Birmingham when among 50 bombings and over 40 murders, only 1 was ever investigated and most of these stories were kept out of the papers. In 1918 the first anti-lynching bill was introduced into Congress by Rep. Leonid Dyer, but all anti-lynching legislation was stymied and fought by the Southern block of Democratic Senators joined by Mid-West Republicans so persistently, it would not be until… 2018… exactly 100 years later, when the US Senate finally officially outlawed lynchings with the Justice for Victims of Lynching Act. The Klu Klux Klan enjoyed both freedom from prosecution from a huge network political allies and public sympathy in much of the South for over 150 years. Klan sympathy is so strong it took 100 years for the US Senate to outlaw the random lynching of blacks only in 2018; let that sink in for a moment.
The 4th Wave of the KKK: 2015-Present: Splinter Groups and the Alt-Right
The Klan today is less centrally organized, and more hidden to protect members from civil lawsuits. Klan sympathizers and racists who do speak up are more likely to hide their direct group involvement by calling themselves as “Alt-Right”, and to belong to either alternate or even multiple supremacist groups. The KKK also has more competition today from similar white supremacist groups like the Aryan Nation, The Nationalist Front, the Vanguard, Identity Evropa (sic), and American Guards, et al. Despite this competition the KKK proper is growing again today rising from 90 chapters to about 170 since 2015. The Klan joined similar White Supremacists groups for a “Unite the Right Rally” in Charlottesville VA in 2017, resulting in the deaths of 3 people, and injuring around 35. Although the Klan has been frequent advocates of hate, murder and violence throughout their existence, they have more recently become a more openly Neo-Nazi and authoritarian organization (the Klan flag today, looks very similar to the Nazi flag). They are quietly abandoning their anti-Catholic rhetoric, but most are still anti-Semitic, but all are specifically and exclusively Christian and Protestant. They are frequently involved in small arms manufacturing and militia training, and although they previously tried to only influence both parties, they are almost 100% Republican today. Increasingly they see violent take-over of civil government as their ongoing goal to combat American’s declining morality, and bring a White Christian Nation. Today there are over active 900 hate groups in the US, that although only 20% bare the Klan name they are all the Klan’s historic, religious and ideological decedents. Many Klansman and their sympathizers are actively arming themselves and training for a war they believe is inevitable and which they paint in religious Apocalyptic terms. These are not just hate organizations, they must be seen as violent extremist Christian cult, that still wields enormous but quiet influence.
Parallels Between the KKK and the Christian Right during the 1950s and 1970s
During the 1950s, a resurgent KKK and the rapidly growing Religious Right lead by Billy J. Hargis shared the exact same platform and ideology. Both were strongly Anti-Communism, Anti-immigrant, Anti-Semitic, Anti-Catholic, Anti-labor union, Anti-Federal Government (and pro-states’ rights) and . Both strongly opposed the Civil Rights movement and the desegregation of schools. Both were driven by a perceived moral decline of America, and hatred of new music (jazz and rock respectively) and both used fear to increase their member rolls. Both were strongly overtly religious and exclusively Protestant. They were allies in all ways except for the hoods.
Where they differed was subtle, but the most marked difference was the Religious Right was rarely inclined to use direct violence, while KKK was often eager to. Although they both agreed that American was in moral decline, for the KKK race was the largest cause, but for the Christian Right at this time (their enemies change with times) the sworn enemy #1 was Communism. Fundamentally both the Old Religious Right and the KKK both saw themselves as Patriotic “moral” agents who were fighting to save America. They rounded up the same usual suspects even if the order of their line-up varied a bit.
During the 1960’s and 1970’s the Religious Right and KKK openly joined forces to fight the desegregation of school’s “bussing”, that was so violent that Federal agents and the National Guard were deployed to guard schools, students and school buses, because Klan sympathy was so strong they could not depend on the help of local police.
By the late 1970’s the “Old” Christian Right would morph into different ideologies in order to attract more people, and the 2 groups would grow apart. The Religious Right of the 1970 and 80’s would not only abandon Antisemitism, it would wildly embrace Israel. They would also abandon the Anti-Catholic KKK rhetoric, and even for a time embrace immigration rather than oppose it (this was due in large part the desire of business to have a supply of cheaper labor). Communism would cease to be the threat it once was, and the Christian Right would even embrace the Russia it formerly demonized.
Surprising Klan Influence that Extends Today
The Klan’s enormously successful recruitment of 15% of the entire male population in the US between 1915 and 1928 was driven by the perceived moral decline of our nation during the “roaring” ‘20’s. Although on paper their glory and organizational years seems short lived, their influence remains strong in many surprising areas and ways even a century later.
A 2015 study of racist Google searches and (the resulting map below) identified the most racist regions of the US today. Racism in the deep South isn’t surprising, but what is shocking that the racism of the mid-west from Southern Illinois stretching northeast through Indiana and Ohio, up to Detroit, all the way to western New York across Northwest Appalachia. This area may be more racist than even the deep South today. This exact same area was the heart of the enormously successful 1920s KKK recruitment and control by D.C Stephenson and Minister Daisy Douglas Barr. The Mid-west, not the deep South, was the heart and power of the 1920s Klan, and this same area remains deeply racist today. The data is shocking to me, and reveals how even a short period of encouraging racism can linger strongly even 100 years later.
Buffalo New York, a huge Klan recruitment battle ground of the 1920s, was also home to modern racist serial killer Joseph Christopher who murdered random black victims solely because of their race during the huge Klan revival of 1979-1980.
Orange County CA today is the greatest racist enclave in the entire far West today according to both but separate Google and Twitter Data research, Twitter data revealed ” …that Orange County is the frigging hatred capital of the nation!”. In the 1920’s Orange County CA was the Klan’s greatest stronghold in the West and even 100 years later it remains both racist but also home to the largest “Conservative” and Christian Right bastion in otherwise liberal California. This is the area that drove “Libertarian” political philosophy, pushed both Nixon and Reagan to the Presidency, and it all may be due to the huge popularity and lingering influence of the Orange County Klu Klux Klan from the 1920s. Although today because of Latino and Asian in-migration, that is now changing. Orange Counties enormous conservative influence today can be directly traced to the very active role their churches played in Klan recruitment and government influence almost 100 years ago. The links between the Klan strongholds of 1920’s, racism today, and to modern Christian Right voting patterns are striking.
We can thank the work of the KKK for these lingering gifts. Even at this time Sunday morning is still regarded as the most segregated day in America as churches remain strong islands identified by race. Is it surprising when so few white churches have repented of their past active support of the KKK? In 2018 21 States acted in-line with voter suppression of minorities which is the longest and most enduring policy of the KKK, and most of these states fall with in the “red” areas of racism in the US today and were historically the very areas of the Mid-West and the South where the 1920’s Klan was strongest. Violent hate groups have tripled and are found in almost every state but most of all in the former Confederate South, and the KKK Mid-West. Voting patterns today around the US often mimic the 1920’s KKK strongest areas of support. When racist murders and attacks skyrocket like they did in 1919 and 1980, and again today, most of these attacks happen in areas that were formerly strongholds of the KKK. If it wasn’t for the KKK, would black football players quietly kneeling with respect during the national anthem even be an issue? We still don’t like being reminded that even today unarmed black men die in police custody at 5x the rate of unarmed whites. And it was only 2018 after 100 years of effort that lynching a black man was finally made illegal by the US Senate.
The KKK declined quickly as an official organization from their 1920’s peak, but their ideals and racism still linger very strongly even 100 years later in areas not remembered today for their former wildly enthusiastic Klan support. Racism is contagious and the lingering influence and social and spiritual damage of the KKK today is far greater and longer lasting than we realize. The KKK and the mass sympathy they gathered lingers strongly even today especially in the and surprisingly in the Mid-West.
Although the KKK and Christian Right’s ideals grew apart in the 70’s today the paths of both groups are rejoining ideologically and this forgotten history is extremely important. The Christian Far Right in 2016 returned with a leap and both feet back into their Anti-immigrant KKK roots which is a huge reversal of 1980’s Conservative doctrine… and no one even noticed. In the 1970s the KKK began leaning fascist and even Neo-Nazi, and today the Christian Right today is now following their lead. While the KKK still emphasizes Protestantism, they are far less into attacking Catholics, as today’s Religious Right welcomes both Catholics and Jews. Both groups today are not just fighting a political war, they believe they are fighting a moral, religious and cultural one. Instead of Communism, the enemy of both today is increasingly just the catch all phrase of “liberalism”. Both see their battle in religious terms, and the results of any failure as destruction of America due to God’s judgment Their ideology on many fronts is uniting the KKK and the Christian Right again. Although it would be easy to write off the KKK today due to their infighting, they have unusual resilience and fortitude over the last 150 years, they are often stronger and more influential than they appear. Both the current trend to accept white violence and racism favors the KKK, as a result, the number of KKK chapters in the US is growing again, as racism is returning to public acceptability.
The KKK and the Christian Right enjoyed a shared resurgence during the 1950s on almost identical ideology, they only varied during this time really their willingness for violence. The Christian Right was so ideologically similar the KKK, so it’s not unfair to see Christian Right of this era as the less violent successor to the KKK. The Christian Right could not have grown as fast as it did without the pioneering work of the KKK to prepare the soil, and weave strong Christian rituals and rhetoric inseparably into quiet but enduring racist and openly religious ideology. The regional strongholds for the Christian Right today almost exactly match the areas of strong influence of the 1920s KKK, demonstrating how powerful the ideological and religious appeals of the KKK endure even to this day, in their stealthier forms. It would be a fundamental failure to write off the KKK as dying and ineffectual fringe group, their influence power although past their peak, still effects large swaths of American and voter sentiment… and mostly the Christian Right… up to this day.
References not cited in the Text:
- Baker, Kelly. (2011) The Gospel According to the Klan: The KKK’s Appeal to Protestant America, 1915–1930
- Eskew, Glenn T. (1997). “Bombingham”. But for Birmingham: The Local and National Movements in the Civil Rights Struggle. University of North Carolina Press.
- Lay, Shawn. (1995) Hooded Knights on the Niagara: The Ku Klux Klan in Buffalo, New York. New York University Press.
- Wikpedia.org: The Klu Klux Klan https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ku_Klux_Klan
- Wikipedia.org: Lynching in the United States https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lynching_in_the_United_States
- The Activities of the Ku Klux Klan In Anaheim, California 1923-1925, RICHARD MELCHING, Southern California Quarterly
- Wikipedia.org: Lynching in the United States https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lynching_in_the_United_States\
- Cocoltchos, Christopher; “The Invisible Government and the Viable Community: The Ku Klux Klan in Orange County, California During the 1920s” 1979. PhD Thesis