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Ku Klux Klan dreams of rising again 150 years after founding

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) — Born in the ashes of the smoldering South after the Civil War, the Ku Klux Klan died and was reborn before losing the fight against civil rights in the 1960s. Membership dwindled, a unified group fractured, and one-time members went to prison for a string of murderous attacks against blacks. Many assumed the group was dead, a white-robed ghost of hate and violence.

Yet today, the KKK is still alive and dreams of restoring itself to what it once was: an invisible white supremacist empire spreading its tentacles throughout society. As it marks 150 years of existence, the Klan is trying to reshape itself for a new era

Klan members still gather by the dozens under starry Southern skies to set fire to crosses in the dead of night, and KKK leaflets have shown up in suburban neighborhoods from the Deep South to the Northeast in recent months. Perhaps most unwelcome to opponents, some independent Klan organizations say they are merging with larger groups to build strength.

“We will work on a unified Klan and/or alliance this summer,” said Brent Waller, imperial wizard of the United Dixie White Knights in Mississippi.

In a series of interviews with The Associated Press, Klan leaders said they feel that U.S. politics are going their way, as a nationalist, us-against-them mentality deepens across the nation. Stopping or limiting immigration — a desire of the Klan dating back to the 1920s — is more of a cause than ever. And leaders say membership has gone up at the twilight of President Barack Obama’s second term in office, though few would provide numbers.

Joining the Klan is as easy as filling out an online form — provided you’re white and Christian. Members can visit an online store to buy one of the Klan’s trademark white cotton robes for $145, though many splurge on the $165 satin version.

While the Klan has terrorized minorities during much of the last century, its leaders now present a public front that is more virulent than violent. Leaders from several different Klan groups all said they have rules against violence aside from self-defense, and even opponents agree the KKK has toned itself down after a string of members went to prison years after the fact for deadly arson attacks, beatings, bombings and shootings.

“While today’s Klan has still been involved in atrocities, there is no way it is as violent as the Klan of the ’60s,” said Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center, an advocacy group that tracks activity by groups it considers extremist. “That does not mean it is some benign group that does not engage in political violence,” he added.

Historian David Cunningham, author of “Klansville, U.S.A.: The Rise and Fall of the Civil Rights-Era Ku Klux Klan,” notes that while the Klan generally doesn’t openly advocate violence, “I do think we have the sort of ‘other’ model of violence, which is creating a culture that supports the commission of violence in the name of these ideas.”

Klan leaders told the AP that most of today’s groups remain small and operate independently, kept apart by disagreements over such issues as whether to associate with neo-Nazis, hold public rallies or wear the KKK’s trademark ro, bes in colors other than white.

So-called “traditional” Klan groups avoid public displays and practice rituals dating back a century; others post web videos dedicated to preaching against racial diversity and warning of a coming “white genocide.” Women are voting members in some groups, but not in others. Some leaders will not speak openly with the media but others do, articulating ambitious plans that include quietly building political strength.

Some groups hold annual conventions, just like civic clubs. Members gather in meeting rooms to discuss strategies that include electing Klan members to local political offices and recruiting new blood through the internet.

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