The ‘Everybody Welcome’ in the ad probably excludes African Americans, Jews, socialists, Roman Catholics, LGBTQ people, feminists, etc. etc.
A dark corner of US politics
Friday 25th August 2017
PETER FROST explores the origins of one of the nastiest, most racist organisations in world history – the Ku Klux Klan
HOWEVER much President Donald Trump ducks and dives and carefully edits his latest soundbite, it is clear that he is one of a very few US citizens who doesn’t think the tiny Ku Klux Klan is a racist organisation fit only to be condemned to the dustbin of history by all reasonable people.
Perhaps that isn’t too surprising. There is overwhelming evidence that Trump’s father Fred was arrested at a Klan rally in New York in the 1920s and there’s good reason to suppose that his grandfather was also close to the obnoxious organisation.
The Klan has a long history. The dust and smoke of the civil war had hardly cleared in 1865 when a small group of white southerners on the defeated side met to form what would become one of the nastiest, most racist organisations in world history — the Ku Klux Klan (KKK).
That first Klan flourished in the southern states in the late 1860s, but had almost died out by the early 1870s. It sought to overthrow the Republican state governments in the south during the Reconstruction Era, especially by using violence against African-American leaders and to bring back slavery.
Members made their own, often grotesque, colourful costumes, robes and masks designed to be terrifying and to hide their true identities.
The white sheets and conical hoods would come later. They were actually copied from D W Griffith’s 1915 silent film The Birth of a Nation. The curious titles like “grand wizard” and such, also first saw light of day in that film script.
It triggered a second Klan flush in 1915 which flourished nationwide in the early and mid-1920s, particularly in urban areas of the midwest and west.
Rooted in local Protestant communities it opposed Catholics and Jews as well as black people at a time of high immigration from mostly Catholic nations of southern and eastern Europe. It also virulently opposed socialist and communist politics and the organised labour movement.
This second organisation adopted a standard white costume and used code words, which were similar to those used by the first Klan, while adding cross burnings and mass parades to intimidate others.
The third and current manifestation of the KKK emerged after WWII. It focused on opposition to the civil rights movement often using violence and murder to suppress activists.
Today, it is back in the headlines with its greatest fan in President Trump.
Last year, Klan membership nationwide was between 3,000 and 6,000 but, because of its long and colourful history, it punches well above its weight when it comes to media coverage.
Best estimates suggest only a very few hundred of the thousand or so racists who appeared at the Charlottesville white supremacist rally were actually Klan members, but clever public relations from the likes of the Klan’s former grand wizard David Duke managed to snatch most of the credit for itself.
It is worth remembering that in the past, Duke has offered support and publicity advice to former BNP leader Nick Griffin and various other British racist individuals and groupings.
Shrewd business decisions from early founders ensured that the Klan would always be on a firm financial footing.
In 1921, the second Klan adopted a modern business system of using full-time paid recruiters.
The national headquarters made its profit through a monopoly of costume sales, while the organisers were paid through initiation fees. Many national and local leaders became rich running their local Klan group rather like a franchised hamburger shop.
This second KKK preached “100 per cent Americanism” and demanded the purification of politics, calling for strict morality. Its official rhetoric focused on the threat of the Catholic Church.
It also demonstrated the right-wing attitudes that marked out their other politics. In major southern cities such as Birmingham, Alabama, Klan members kept control of access to the better-paying industrial jobs and opposed the labour unions.
During the ’30s and ’40s, Klan leaders urged members to disrupt the Congress of Industrial Organisations (CIO), which advocated industrial unions and accepted African-American members.
Using dynamite and skills from their jobs in mining and steel in the late 1940s some Klan members in Birmingham used bombings to destroy houses in order to intimidate upwardly mobile blacks from moving into middle-class neighbourhoods.
Internal divisions, criminal behaviour by leaders and external opposition brought about a collapse in Klan membership, which had dropped to about 30,000 by 1930. It finally faded away in the ’40s.
In the ’50s and ’60s the Ku Klux Klan name was used by numerous independent local groups opposing the fast growing civil rights movement.
These Klan groupings often forged alliances with southern police departments as in Birmingham, Alabama, or with governor’s offices as with George Wallace of Alabama.
Several members of KKK groups were convicted of murder in the deaths of civil rights workers in Mississippi in 1964 and children in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham in 1963. There are many other examples of both convictions as well as Klan members literally getting away with murder.
I neither know, nor care, if 20-year-old nazi James Field who used his car to murder Heather Heyer and injure 19 other brave anti-fascist demonstrators was a member of the Klan.
His car-based method of attack has become a typical terrorist murder and is just as wrong when carried out by extreme so-called believers in either the Muslim, the Christian or any other faith.
The group of white supremacists who gathered in Charlotteville wore all sorts of uniforms and badges but shared the same obscene philosophy of race hate wrapped in the flag of extreme patriotism.
What I do care about is that they seemed to do it with the blessing of a man who claims to be the leader of the free world — President Trump.
When I first saw Trump winning his presidential candidature last year, I wrote in this paper that I began to understand how Hitler had made it to the top. Every day Trump sits in the Oval Office that comparison gets more and more terrifying.