Ku Klux Klan
The Power of Hate
Text and photography by Eric Pasquier
“Long live the Klan! The Klan is great! Glory to the Klan!”.
Kneeling on the ground, Markus Hoower trembles in silence, his Adam’s apple bobbing up and down. Standing in front of him is none other than Virgil Griffin, the so-called Imperial Wizard, one of the most influential figures in the Ku Klux Klan, the undisputed master of the autonomous North Carolina branch – one of the most dangerous in the United States.
For young Markus, this is the day he has been both fearing and looking forward to, the day of his initiation, a mystical ceremony that will make him a full member of the KKK.
The atmosphere is tense, sombre, macabre.
As the terrible gaze of the Imperial Wizard comes to rest on him, he must force himself neither to look away, which would be a sign of weakness, nor talk back when provoked, which would be perceived as a slight.
He must recite the ten commandments of the Ku Klux Klan out loud, declaring his undying belief in white supremacy. The slightest hesitation, and the ‘candidate’ will be banished from the group, receiving twenty lashes in the process. In certain ‘klavernes” (secret Klan units), the novices are even threatened with death or hanging to test their nerves.
But today, Virgil Griffin has chosen another method to put the young man to the test: he hands him a pistol and orders him to murder a fellow candidate, on the pretext that the latter has been disobedient.
Both young men are utterly stupefied. If the ‘executioner’ refuses to carry out the order, he knows that he will be deemed unworthy of membership and refused admission. Gathering all his strength, Markus takes the weapon, places the barrel against the temple of his now completely terrified fellow candidate and, after what seems like an eternity, pulls the trigger.
The gun isn’t loaded. Stunned into a trance, the 'candidate’ walks to the high altar covered in a Confederate flag and finalizes his ‘naturalization’ by shedding a few drops of blood on one of the stars.
A symbolic way of affirming his dedication to the values of the Klan. A ritual necessary to obtain his title of Knight of the Klan. Afterwards, the new recruit puts his right hand on his heart and his left hand high in the air, in a salute, and takes an oath never to betray his newly found brotherhood, knowing that if he does, he will be hunted down and possibly executed.
Since its founding in Tennessee in 1865, the Ku Klux Klan has been devoted to the cause of white supremacy.
It was built on the anger many Southerners felt after being defeated in the Civil War and the Reconstruction that followed. Northerners saw in the Klan an attempt by die-hard Confederates to win through terrorism what they had been unable to win on the battlefields.
Many a Confederate veteran exchanged his rebel grey for the hoods and sheets of the invisible empire.
Some argue that the Klan’s popularity lay in the spirit of the old frontier: where hard lessons were learned by pioneers who cultivated all those attributes on which Americans still pride themselves – fierce individualism, enterprise and freedom, beholden to none. Frontier justice, an instant, private and often violent method of settling disagreements, was a part of that – and it’s possible that vigilante justice became the motivation for many who would later ride out with the Klan.
It’s ironic that the Klan today applauds Abraham Lincoln, that proponent of civil liberties. As if to justify their incitement to violence, Klan websites display his words: “Any people anywhere, being inclined and having the power, have the right to rise up and shake off the existing government, and form a new one that suits them better”.
Of course, the widespread acceptance of slavery in the South meant that its abolition was felt as a bitter defeat by many whites. Which, coupled with the Confederate defeat in 1865, led to many believing that their entire way of life was at stake.
And of course, fear soon raised its head. The large numbers of slaves who had worked in houses and plantations all over the South were now free and seen as a palpable threat to white property and lives. White fears were largely unfounded and reflected more on the way blacks had been treated when slavery was still in force than on any black desire for retribution. Unfortunately, ignorance lead to fear which lead to aggression, and frontier ‘justice’ was reborn.
Six Confederate veterans gathered around a fireplace one December evening in 1865 and formed a social club.
The place was Pulaski, Tennessee, near the Alabama border.
They reassembled a week later, full of ideas on how to reinstate the segregated society of before the Civil War.
They chose titles that would sound as preposterous as possible, largely for the fun of it and partly to avoid any military or political implications. So there was the Grand Cyclops, Grand Magi, Grand Turk, Grand Scribe, Night Hawks and Ghouls.
But what to call the society itself? The founders wanted something mysterious and, being well educated, they turned to Greek. Richard R. Reed suggested the word ‘kuklos’ (from which the English words ‘circle’ and ‘cycle’ are derived). Another member, John B. Kennedy, added the word ‘clam’ – presumably to alliterate. All of which led to the Ku Klux Klan, three initials which would later strike such terror into the hearts of blacks, liberals and Jews.
But for now, it was still more silly than terrifying. Their first ride through the little town of Pulaski created such a stir, that they decided to add to the effect by wearing sheets, masks and tall pointed hats. Initiation ceremonies were equally ridiculous, with the candidates being blindfolded, subjected to a series of oaths and rough handled, and finally dragged to a ‘royal alter’ where they would be given a ‘royal crown’ – which, when the blindfold was lifted, would turn out to be two large donkey’s ears. Very much along the lines of what Markus Hoower would go through some 140 years later.
If the KKK had limited their activities to these sheet-covered rides and donkey-eared rituals, it might have ended there. But around 1866, the Klan – whose numbers were now swollen by new recruits – began to have an alarming effect on the local black population. Their nightly raids were becoming very regular, targeting black homes and threatening the terrified occupants with violence. This escalation of violence had socio-political causes, rooted in the age-old enmity between North and South.
By 1866 the Reconstruction of the USA was experiencing growing pains. In defiance of the Northern victory, some Southern states enacted laws that amounted to a virtual re-enslavement of blacks: the Black Codes. Louisiana resolved that “we hold this to be a Government of White People, made and to be perpetuated for the exclusive benefit of the White Race, and that the people of African descent cannot be considered as citizens of the United States”. Louisiana was no exception but President Andrew Johnson did nothing; it’s not very surprising that the ‘White Knights’ still applaud Johnson on their website.
Ironically, the increasing Klan violence throughout that year only strengthened the position of the Radical Republicans of the North who went on to win overwhelming victories in the Congressional elections of 1866. This put them in a position to renew the push for Reconstruction in early 1867.
Which, in turn, led to the Klan intensifying the violence: thousands of whites from Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi had by now joined the Klan and night-raids became scenes of assault, robbery, rape, arson or murder. In some counties the Klan became the invisible hand behind public office – a de facto government that state officials couldn’t control. By the late 1860s, white anti-Klan southerners were in the minority, so powerful was the KKK’s reign of terror. One of the Klan’s trump cards was General Nathan Bedford Forrest, a legendary Confederate cavalry officer who became the KKK’s first Imperial Wizard – silly titles hadn’t been dropped.
But in 1869 Forrest ordered the disbanding of the Klan due to increasing attacks from Congress and the Reconstruction state governments – Forrest felt that they should lie low until the tide of governmental opinion turned. It was not the end of violence, however. The Klan just went underground.
Despite anti-Klan congressional laws of 1871, the group was still active – black officeholders were hanged and many more brutally beaten; white Southern Democrats swept the election boards and passed laws which, as far as minority rights went, turned the clock back; and just 10 years after its creation, the KKK was responsible for the lynching of some 3,500 blacks.
But even though their support base was wide, the Klan’s grip on Southern politics slowly faded during the second half of the 19th Century. White Southerners had retaken control of most of the Southern states so they didn’t need the Klan to be their goons and henchmen anymore. Until 1915.
By 1900 the situation had changed again. The influx of 23 million immigrants from Europe in the late 19th Century, the fact that blacks served their nation during the First World War, and the agrarian Populist movement in the South all combined to deepen the divisions in the South between white and black. The 1890s spawned most of the racial segregation laws of the South, and white mobs began their notorious lynching of blacks.
In 1915, when William J. Simmons lit a cross by Stone Mountain, the Klan was reborn and would reach its height in the 1920s. By 1921, nearly 100,000 people had enrolled in the invisible empire and at ten dollars a head, the group’s profits were large. Negative media reporting fuelled this, which seemed only to strengthen their membership, which was soon to reach the five million mark.
Racial hatred seems to have gone from strength to strength in America. Despite the fact that the social climate in the US has changed radically, especially between 1944 and 1967 with the civil rights movement, increasingly liberal civil rights laws and the right to vote finally being accorded to blacks, the invisible empire remains strong. Particularly in the South (Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Texas), a part of the United states which tends to bear the brunt of any economic problems troubling the country.
Public meetings take place virtually every weekend, at which members succumb to the seething hatred of their cause, referring to blacks as ‘jungle bunnies’ and to Jews as ‘sons of Satan’ and ‘exterminators of the white race’. It’s astonishing that, in the new millennium, this kind of behaviour still finds popular support. Taking full advantage of the Constitution’s First Amendment right to free speech, KKK members spew forth their hatred, with the local police merely standing by and watching over gatherings to prevent them from getting out of hand. And although the FBI occasionally succeeds in infiltrating and dismantling certain groups, the KKK always manages to remain intact, thanks to its remarkably elaborate organization: there are currently some 50 autonomous groups with an estimated membership between 5,000 and 20,000 – not counting the many sympathizers, whose number is ten times higher.
And the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan are not satisfied with speeches alone, no matter how much racial hatred they incite. The latest statistics speak of over 3,000 acts of racial violence or murder that can be attributed to the Klan or other white supremacy groups. Most Klan members have no qualms about breaking the 1949 ‘anti-hood’ law (which makes it illegal for anyone to wear a hood covering the face in public places) and burning crosses on the property of their victims while safely disguised by pointy hats and robes – bravery is not their strongest suit.
“These groups are extremely dangerous,“ explains FBI agent Bruce Picket, “as they don’t think twice about persecuting, torturing or murdering innocent people. They are armed to the teeth and constantly looking for trouble.”
Recruiting among the poor, uneducated and unemployed, the high-profile members of the KKK persuade their new recruits that it is the blacks and Jews who are entirely responsible for their situation. Their speeches are as simple-minded as they are frightening: “Blacks are parasites of society, they rape and murder white women and should all be sent back to Africa” while “Jews are usurpers, descendants of the Devil, the killers of Christ, who control the media and the government for the sole purpose of exterminating the white race”.
Although they like to concentrate their hatred on blacks, other ethnic minorities are certainly not neglected (in particular Mexicans, Asians and Latinos), nor are homosexuals or communists, whom the KKK holds responsible for “the decadence and corruption plaguing society”. Public opinion polls show that between 11 and 15% of Americans aged 18 and over actually agree with some of the precepts of the Klan and believe in the notion of white supremacy.
A situation made all the more alarming by the fact that the Klan encourages its members to stockpile arms in preparation for the inevitable civil war, which they claim is bound to break out at any moment. A civil war, for them, will necessarily be a racial war of the “Aryans against the sub-races polluting the United States”.
Until that fateful day Virgil Griffin continues to exercise his authority during initiations rituals, and every day adds a few extra influential personalities to his address book, especially from the world of politics and television. Which doesn’t bode well considering that only a decade ago the neo-nazi David Duke was elected in Louisiana with a 51% majority by claiming that blacks, Jews and homosexuals were responsible for AIDS, among other absurdities. And that Tom Metzger of WAR (White Aryan Resistance) had until recently a show on cable television called ‘Race and Reason’.
Justice has been slow. Nearly 40 years after a bomb ripped through the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, killing four black children, and the main perpetrator has finally been caught, tried and convicted. Ex-Klan member Thomas Blanton, now 62, was found guilty of the murders but the fact that it took 40 years for justice to be done will be of consolation to the children’s parents.
But as US Attorney Doug Jones said: “It’s never too late for the truth to be told, it’s never too late for wounds to heal, it’s never too late for a man to be held accountable for his crimes.” When incitement to racial hatred will finally be classified as crime in the Southern United States is still, of course, the question.
Copyright © Eric Pasquier
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