Bigots in bedsheets: the Klan rides again

William Lowther January 8 1979

Bigots in bedsheets: the Klan rides again

William Lowther January 8 1979

Bigots in bedsheets: the Klan rides again


David Duke, the scrawny Grand Wizard of the so-called “new” Ku Klux Klan, says he will run for president of the United States in 1980. Now that George Wallace has retired from politics, he hopes to pick up the still substantial anti-black vote in the South. And as Duke begins to campaign, generating considerable controversy and attention, the question is again being asked—can bedsheet-covered bigotry rise again?

No one knows for sure just how many members the Klan now has, and the members keep their numbers as closely hidden as their faces. Best FBI estimates put the figure at about 8,000 and growing. A more significant factor, however, is how many secret sympathizers there are. One possible measure of this number came when Duke ran for the Louisiana State Senate two years ago. He lost to a strong incumbent but got 11,000 votes—one-third of all those cast in a well-educated, urban district. And in a recent interview at his home in the New Orleans suburb of Metairie, the 28-

year-old Duke was quick to claim that the Klan is expanding into Canada.

“We have members in the Toronto

area and in Calgary and Vancouver,” he maintained. “I would say that Canadian membership has gone up, I’d say it is about four times as large as it was three years ago. It’s because Canada is beginning to experience some of the same racial problems that the United States has. On the West Coast you have a lot of nonwhite Orientals coming in, places like Toronto have a lot of Pakistanis and you have anti-white discrimination being sponsored by the government. A lot of crime is being associated with these people coming in. I think these are the major factors.”

The Klan was founded in 1866 in the wake of the Civil War. Its aims were to keep former slaves “in their place.” It was also dedicated to stopping Yankee carpetbaggers from exploiting the beaten Dixie. By 1923, Klan membership had peaked at nine million: one in every eight American men, including governors, senators, mayors and sheriffs. Gaudy ceremonial regalia, mass initiations and cross-burnings guaranteed national attention.

Staggering inflation and unemployment were the issues used to draw in new recruits who could blame their frustrations on blacks, Roman Catholic immigrants and Jewish financiers. Klan tactics were violent. Anyone who could be considered “different” was branded as an enemy. During the ’30s and ’40s the Klan went into steep decline and was nearly extinct by 1954, when the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision started the desegregation of schools in the South. Ten years later, the Civil Rights Act resulted in court-ordered busing. As integration spread, the ranks of the KKK swelled again with new members, and extremism took over. The advent of black leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and their commitment to nonviolence gave the Klan an unarmed target. The murders of dozens of civil rights leaders have been attributed to the Klan but, as Southern justice was often on the side of the man in the hood, there were few convictions.

The early ’70s saw the Klan shrink again into obscurity. However, recent “reverse discrimination” cases (Alan Bakke and others) have created something of a backlash atmosphere that, coupled with high inflation and unemployment, has contributed to a mood in which the Klan again finds it can expand.

The Klan is currently split into at least three major “sects.” Duke runs the Knights of the KKK; James Venable, an elderly lawyer in Decatur, Georgia, runs the National Knights of the KKK;

and Robert Shelton of Alabama is the national director of the United Klans of America.

Duke, who travels the country appearing on television and radio talk shows, has the greatest potential for real power. He says his group is committed to “nonviolent” racism. But his image of a new, respectable Klan soon wears thin on examination. As Tom Metzger, California organizer for Duke, puts it: “There is nobody in our organization that takes second place when it comes to getting up and duking it out. Just because we wear suits and ties doesn’t mean we’re afraid to get into that kind of thing.” Duke himself once wore a Nazi uniform and swastika as he walked in a street demonstration carrying a sign reading: “Gas the Chicago Seven.”

Earlier this year his group distributed thousands of pamphlets, in the form of cartoons, to a racially disturbed school in California. The strip cartoons are described by Metzger: “They show a young white boy on his way to school when he is set upon by a gang of blacks trying to rip him off for his lunch money. All of a sudden the Jew principal comes out and gives the white kid hell for defending himself against these poor misunderstood blacks, these poor put-on blacks that are ripping the kid off. All of a sudden another white kid appears. And he rips his shirt off like Superman, you know, and he jumps into the battle and trounces the blacks and then the two white kids shake hands and that’s the end of the cartoon. We follow it with our membership application.”

Venable’s group is mostly made up of

other elderly racists who meet annually for a cross-burning ritual. It’s as though time has passed them by. Venable himself just can’t understand the changes in society. He rambles on in a slow, easy-to-listen-to drawl: “First when they used to invite me to appear on television they wanted me to say negro. Now that’s not good enough for them, they want to be called black people.

Well, I just call them nigras. It used to be down here that if a white lady spoke to one of them and he had a hat or a cap on, why he’d remove it, and he’d say, ‘Yes ma’am.’ ” And if he came to your house, why he’d go to the back door. Now, hell, they call these white girls by their first names. It’s terrible.”

Shelton’s United Klans may in fact be the most violent group. They are suspected of heinous crimes. His vitriolic rhetoric and fanatical ravings are directly aimed at inciting hatred. This is how he opened a recent rally: “If you think that living in the midst of a nigra society is something that will elevate your child’s mind, then you got another think coming. The negro today is nothing more than an animal, and he is living in our society and riding our street.”

There’s a song that can be heard on Southern juke boxes these days, something a little different from the usual broken-hearted, country-and-western ballad. It goes like this:

All around this land there ’s too many people

Afraid to say where they stan ’.

But I’m not one, and I’m proud to be counted

As a member of the Ku Klux Klan.

The Klan is gaining acceptance again. Just how much “underground” support has remains to be seen, but it is being taken seriously by politicians and police alike. William Lowther