The Rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan
The granddaddy of all American terrorist groups now has 50,000 members, branches in a dozen states, and a smart, smooth-talking leader who gives pious lectures on how to abolish crime.
On the night of Sept. 2, 1962, at precisely 9 o’clock, 14 large wooden crosses wrapped in kerosene-soaked rags were simultaneously set afire at widely separated places in Pike County, Louisiana—in parks, on school lawns, on hillsides, at street corners. While firemen raced frantically about trying to extinguish the 14 fires at once, newspapers in the area received anonymous telephone calls. The callers reported the burnings, and added melodramatically, “This is visible evidence of the revival of the Invisible Empire of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan!”
At the time, the whole thing may have seemed the work of a few assorted nitwits and crackpots acting out wish-fulfillment fantasies. Most Americans were sure the Klan was dead, buried, and forgotten. In the year and a half since that memorable night, however, a rising wave of Klan activity—in Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Louisiana, Virginia, West Virginia, South Carolina, Texas, Tennessee, Maryland, Massachusetts, Ohio, Canada, and even West Germany and Austria—has made it abundantly clear that the Ku Klux Klan is successfully, if slowly, being resurrected.
Symptomatic of the rise of Klan activities in recent years are the following incidents, selected at random from a bulging file of similar news clippings:
September, 1957—After a meeting of the “Ku Klux Klan of the Confederacy” in Birmingham, Alabama, six Klansmen—according to later court testimony—were delegated to “find some damn Negro to scare the hell out of.” After stopping at a drug store for razor blades and turpentine, they drove around searching for a victim. Judge Aaron, a mentally retarded handyman, was picked up, forced into the car, and driven to a Klan office. There Klansman Bart A. Floyd castrated Aaron as part of a test to prove himself “worthy of becoming assistant Exalted Cyclops.”
September, 1959—James Peck, a café owner in Montgomery, Alabama, hired several Negro waitresses. Threatening letters, signed K.K.K., were sent to him, but he told newspapers he wouldn’t be frightened by the Klan. Two nights later several Klansmen entered his shop in full masks and robes. Peck shot and killed one of them in a tussle.
March, 1960—A Negro in Houston, Texas, was beaten with chains for 20 minutes and then the letters K.K.K. were carved on his chest with a hunting knife.
May, 1961—Three different Klans, all claiming to be the original Ku Klux Klan, were jointly indicted by a Federal court for inciting committing violence against Freedom Riders in Birmingham.
September, 1961—Eight Klansmen were convicted in Alabama of kidnapping a white man and his wife, taking them to a lonely spot in the woods, stripping them naked, and flogging them 24 times each with a leather strap. The man and wife were accused, by the Klan, of being “too friendly” with Negros.
February, 1963—Signs saying “KKK—The South Has Risen” appeared overnight on almost all buildings in downtown Bossier City, Louisiana.
January, 1964—The Klan and a group of Negroes had a free-for-all in a segregated restaurant in Atlanta, Georgia.
February, 1964—In Maryland, crosses were burned and a Negro’s house bombed.
March, 1964—Five Klan leaders were arrested by the FBI for bombings in Jacksonville, Florida.
April, 1964—TV newsman Robert Wagner was seized by armed Klansmen as he tried to cover a Klan meeting near Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He was forced to strip and lie in a poison-ivy patch, then beaten with a belt.
Incidents like these make headlines and let people know that yes, indeed, the Klan is back in business once more. And yet incidents like these, ironically, give the men who run the Klan a royal pain in the backside. For the ringleaders of the new, improved, World’s Fair-year Ku Klux Klan are deadset against violence. They know that if the Klan condones violence, it will attract mostly criminals, degenerates, and other scum. They know that if the Klan condones violence, the Law will smash it as the Law has smashed the Klan in the past, only more swiftly.
The new Klan is, in theory at least, pacifistic. Can it succeed? Alas, there is already a glut of nonviolent racist groups down South. And in trying to break into the field, just about all that the Klan has going for it is its brand name—famous enough, to be sure, but suggesting only murder and midnight rides on moon-less nights. The name “Teachers” sells lots of Scotch, but it couldn’t move a single bottle of soda pop. What it all comes down to is this: To make any lasting headway, the Ku Klux Klan must reform; if it really reforms, the Klan may very likely have committed suicide.
No one knows this better than Robert Shelton, the brains behind the new Ku Klux Klan. Recently I heard him purr, “I could get up on a platform and stomp and holler like the old-timers. I could yell, ‘Why, do you want some burr-headed, liver-lipped nigger climbing into bed with your daughter? Do you want a polka-dot grandchild?’ and go on like that, and work up their repressed emotions, and they’d be flocking to me to sign up. But we want intelligent people to carry out intelligent programs.”
Before the Klan can attract intelligent people, Shelton knows, he must do something about the Klan, association with violence. The cross he must bear is a burning cross. But if anyone can extricate the Klan from its dilemma, it very well may be Robert Shelton.
Just getting the new Klan rolling was a Herculean accomplishment, and Shelton deserves most of the discredit. In the 1920s the Klan actually had a membership of five million, but by the early ’50s there were so few left that nobody bothered counting anymore. In 1947 copyright on the name “Knights of the Ku Klux Klan” expired: The Klan tried but could not prevent expelled heretics and power-seeking underlings from setting up their own Klans and appointing themselves Imperial Wizards. By 1960, over 100 different organizations were using “Ku Klux Klan” somewhere in their name and each claimed to be the true, orthodox descendant of the original Klan of 1865. Then in February, 1960, several Klans met to consider a merger. The meeting came to an abrupt end when Imperial Wizard H.J. Jones (of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan) denounced imperial Wizard E.L. Edwards (of the United States Klans, Knights of the Ku Klux Klan) as a “renegade carpetbagger,” and Edwards denounced Jones’s organization as an “outlaw splinter group.” Several other Imperial Wizards, including J.B. Stoner of the Christian Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, stayed away entirely. (Stoner was the Imperial Wizard who once arranged to have his 25-member Klan shoot up the Negro section in Monroe, North Carolina. Just as Klansmen charged up and began firing, however, some local Negroes who had formed a Rifle Club began firing back, an unforeseen and underhanded tactic that dismayed the Klansmen so much that they fled in disarray, led by their heroic Imperial Wizard. Later, when some Indians also fired back during a Klan raid, Mr. Stoner gave a similar display of raw courage.) Finally, a year later, 1000 members of several of the largest Klans were able to agree on basic principles at a meeting in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. A new, nationwide organization—the United Klans of America, Knights of the Ku Klux Klan—was formed. Appointed as Imperial Wizard was a soft-spoken tire salesman named Robert Shelton. It was a wise choice.
Since then, Shelton has made his United Klans into the single largest Klan in the country. And it is continuing to grow, particularly in the North. For all practical purposes, when one says Klan in America today one means Robert M. Shelton and his United Klans of America. It is they, chiefly, who are the Klan revival.
Over the past 3 years most of Shelton’s efforts have been devoted to changing the image of the Klan from lower-class, fanatical, and violent to middle-class, moderate, and nonviolent. The change is not completely successful, but Newsweek has acknowledged the attempt by dubbing Shelton’s group the “button-down bedsheet” Klan. Members who appear at Klonvocations with liquor on their breath are asked to leave. In all public speeches, Shelton and most of his Grand Dragons spout a philosophy of nonviolence. A distinguished constitutional lawyer, Matt Murphy, was even persuaded to address a Klan rally at Atlanta recently—and all the Klansmen came in business suits, with nary a bedsheet in sight. (Kleagles who show up without a tie at meetings are sent home to get one.) Another change that will undoubtedly mean a great deal for the image of the Klan is Shelton’s cordiality to reporters. Where earlier Klansmen had reached for tar and feathers when a reporter came near, Mr. Shelton eagerly welcomes press coverage. When I interviewed him in Tuscaloosa, in preparation for this article, Mr. Shelton surprised me by asking about a tooth extraction I had had the week before (I had mentioned this to his secretary while arranging the interview). He expressed hope that I was no longer having any pain. He also asked about my airplane flight, commented that we were both named Bob (“Lob of Grand Dragons in our group are also named Bob—it’s a fine old Southern name”), and, after asking if I smoked, went to fetch an ash tray. I am quite sure that when he was a tire salesman his clients called him “good old Bob Shelton.”
Robert Shelton is a tiny, gnome. man, unimpressive at first glance. You may notice only that he is exceptionally well-dressed and has a very close and attractive crew-cut. When you begin talking to him, however, his eyes get your attention. They are large and dark and speak more than his words do; they enter you, and you enter them, and you know this is a man who is sincerely dedicated to what he is doing. “Individuals who oppose the Klan,” he says to you, “are opposing true Americanism, whether they know it or not. Our platform is 100% Americanism, and exposing and fighting Communism. Our allegiance is to God, country, flag, and Constitution.” He is sincere, and he expects you to know it. You do know it.
When you ask Imperial Wizard Shelton about crimes of violence, he states flatly, “We have never had one single member convicted, or even arrested, for a crime of violence.” He blames all bombings and beatings on men who do not belong to his Klan. When asked if the United Klan’s policy of nonviolence is permanent, he answers frankly, “I believe, and I think you do, too, and so does everybody else, in self-preservation. That’s the law of nature. Nobody will allow himself to be trampled on or have his rights denied without fighting.” But he then re-emphasizes the slogan he uses again and again in his speeches: “We can win with ballots, we don’t need dynamite or grenades.”
To Robert Shelton, segregation insures a decent way of life, in which “separate but equal” facilities provide justice for both races. Integration he regards as an unleashing of crime and barbarism, leading inevitably to the decline of American civilization. “Would you let your wife of daughter go alone on the streets of New York at night?” he asked me. “Well, do you know that I’m not afraid to let my wife and daughter go out on the streets of Tuscaloosa? I’m not afraid, because we don’t have the crime problem that your integrated cities have. You Northerners will have to learn. Separate but equal basis for the two races, that’s the answer. It will solve 90% of your crime problem.” So persuasive is Shelton, indeed, that it may not even occur to you how ironic it is for the head of the Ku Klux Klan to give a lecture on crime-prevention.
Persuasiveness is not Shelton’s only talent. He is also eminently practical. He knows that if his Klan is to stop the Negro from getting his rights, his Klan must do two things: (1) become indisputably first among racist groups, and (2) convert as many people as possible to its viewpoint. To accomplish (1), Shelton knows, his Klan simply must offer something that other racist groups do not offer. Unless it comes up with a flashy new ingredient, the Klan’s famous brand name will be forever linked with a so-so product. And Shelton may have found the vital ingredient, too: imagination.
Together with the leading Grand Dragons, Shelton has worked out a plan for establishing private Caucasian communities to escape racial integration. These communities will be entirely Klan-built and Klan-owned, with Klan schools, Klan churches, and Klan parks. Members will move in with their entire families, although continuing to earn their living in the world outside. The first such Klan community is about to be launched on a plot of land between Birmingham and Tuscaloosa. It is also rumored that a Klan insurance company is in the works.
As for winning the support of the public at large, Shelton knows that it’s a matter of propaganda. His pitch is very simple; to a very limited and negligible degree, true; and to most racists, and nonracists too, frightening as hell. It is the linking of integration with Communism. Thus the Klan’s two best-selling pamphlets are “The Ugly Truth about Martin Luther King” and “Here, Proof of the Red Pro-Negro Plot Against South and U.S.A.” The former undermines Mr. King by such strategies as linking him with civil-rights leader Bayard Rustin and then linking Austin with “a pacifist-anarchist publication,” Liberation magazine (the magazine is pacifist-anarchist; beyond doubt then, Rustin has to be pacifist-anarchist; and inexorably, Q.E.D., King is pacifist-anarchist). King is also tied in with such sinister figures as Norman Mailer (who also occasionally contributes to Liberation, and is thus obviously part of the pacifist-anarchist plot); A.J. Music (described as an “infamous pacifist”); and Dorothy Day (leader of the Catholic Worker movement, which to any Klansman is, of course, a Communist front). This pamphlet, incidentally, places a Star of David next to the name of all of King’s “associates” who happen to be Jewish, except Norman Mailer, perhaps because Mailer’s Saxon-sounding name deceived the Klan’s researchers. The second pamphlet is just a reprint of two pages of the Communist Party’s 1928 political platform, which deals with the establishment of a “Black Soviet” in America; the reader is expected to draw the conclusion, “Aha, that’s what these integrationists are up to!”
Shelton, plan to stem the tide toward the integration of society is no empty pipe dream. Again and again and again he says, “We will win and our theme must be ballots, not bullets.” All it takes is enough white people who are anti-Negro to combine with those who think the Negro is making progress “a little too quickly” to combine with those who really believe that Communists are behind everything. Together, they can vote out progressive legislators, vote in retrogressive legislators, and influence all proposed legislation. The success that Governor Wallace has had at the polls show what a tremendous potential the Klan has, and though Shelton’s Klan has only 50,000 members now, it has been getting national publicity and an increasingly large number of donations. The Ku Klux Klan seems to be off and running on its way to becoming a significant force again.
On the other hand, Shelton has a great deal working against him and his campaign to win support from intelligent, prejudiced people. The one single greatest handicap, as he himself has come to realize more and more, is the name Ku Klux Klan.
The original Klan began, ironically enough, as innocently as one of those Southern spring rains that suddenly turns into a flood. It all started, according to the consensus of historians, on the night of Dec. 24, 1865, in Pulaski, Tennessee. In the law office of Colonel John C. Lester a group of men sat gloomily around the fire, lamenting what the war had done to their town and wondering how to make Christmas a more cheerful day. “Boys,” said Colonel Lester finally, “let’s start something to break the monotony and cheer up our mothers and girls.” He went on to suggest a kind of carnival, in which he and his friends would dress up in bedsheets, raise a little Yuletide hell, and distribute food to the most needy people in town. They decided to call themselves the Kuklios Clan—Kuklios from a Greek root meaning “band” or “circle” and Clan because most of them were Scottish.
Nobody knows how many times the Kuklios Clan rode on their night-time gallops of comedy and charity before it was discovered that the newly-freed Negros—most of whom had absolutely no education under slavery—were inclined to believe the Clan’s favorite joke, which was that they, the Clan, were the ghosts of dead Confederate soldiers. Meanwhile, in other parts of the South, less colorful secret societies had been formed to intimidate the ex-slaves. Some were revivals of the infamous Knights of the Columbian Order, an anti-Union terrorist group of pre-Civil War days. Somehow, the anti-governmental and anti-Negro terrorism of these groups combined with the odd names and weird titles of the Kuklios Clan and there was born the Invisible Empire of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. Resorting to the violence of the Columbian Order, the K.K.K. sought to undermine the power of the political alliance between the Negroes and the Yankee “carpet-baggers.” By 1868, the Klan’s reign of terror had reached such magnitude that Congress conducted an investigation. Numerous hangings and school-burnings were attributed to the Klan; one witness said that murders of Negros in Texas were “so common it is impossible to keep records”, in Louisiana 2000 murders were blamed on the Klan. By 1869, Grand Wizard Nathan Bedford Forrest was completely disillusioned. Declaring that the Klan had become “a refuge for scoundrels,” he resigned as its leader, trying also to dissolve the Klan.
In 1871, however, the Klan was still active enough to lead Congress to pass the notorious “Ku Klux Act,” which gave the President the power to declare martial law and suspend habeas corpus in any state afflicted by Klan outrages, and to send in a standing army. This power was only invoked once, by Grant, in that same year. An army was sent into North Carolina, the Klan was dispersed, and its morale was so thoroughly destroyed that it did not become a major power again for almost 50 years.
The second act of the K.K.K. story begins in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1915. A down-at-the-heels Baptist minister, the Rev. Dr. William Joseph Simmons, in despair over the moral decline of the country (that was the year ladies began to show their ankles in public) and over the rise of the Catholic population in America, climbed Stone Mountain, outside Atlanta, with several hundred followers and proclaimed the revival of the Ku Klux Klan. By 1921 his new Klan had collected $8 million, according to a Congressional hearing that year, which also found the Klan guilty of “violent and criminal assaults … abductions, floggings, brandings, mutilations [a polite Congressional word for castrations] and murders.” Following this ex-pose, the Klan acquired over one million new members in a few months, bringing the total in 1922 to five million. The Klan was riding so high that, believe it or not, the American Pocket Knife Company of Massillon, Ohio, actually advertised a “Kluxer’s Knifty Knife … a 100% knife for 100% Americans.”
In 1928 the inevitable internal blow-up came. Five ex-members of the Klan sued Dr. Homer Evans, the Imperial Wizard who succeeded Simmons, for misusing Klan funds. Evans filed a countersuit and amid the charges and countercharges the Klan became utterly discredited. Dr. Evans was shown to have misappropriated some $15 million in members‘ money, several Grand Dragons were implicated in his embezzlements, and the Klan itself was convicted of kidnapping, torture, and murder.
That, for all practical purposes, was the end of the Klan—until Shelton came into the picture. And it is this image of the Klan—blood-thirsty, greedy, farcical, fanatical—that haunts him. For the men attracted to the Klan, because of its history, will tend to be men who expect, and want, physical violence. Despite Shelton and his pacifist intentions the typical member of the Ku Klux Klan seems to have a lingering nostalgia for whippings, bonfires, and terror.
I encountered some evidence of this when I attended a Ku Klux rally in Atlanta, Georgia, last March. A Konklave of Klansmen is an impressive sight. Kleagles and ordinary members are festooned in ghostly white, Grand Goblins and Grand Dragons are decked out in expensive red-velvet hoods, and the Imperial Wizard, most gorgeous of all, wears royal purple. As the meeting began, a Kludd (Protestant clergyman who is also a Klan member) led the assembled Cyclopses, Kleagles, Nighthawks, etc., in prayer, asking God to bless the Klan and preserve the Constitution. The Grand Dragon of the Georgia Realm, Calvin Craig, then spoke, complaining bitterly about the Mayor of Atlanta and the city’s integrated police force, accusing the police of being anti-Klan and pro-integration. At this point two Negroes arrived and tried to get close enough to hear Grand Dragon Craig more clearly. (I found out later they were Black Muslims.) Several members yelled insults and threats at the two and began closing in. Then Craig, in a robust cracker accent, shouted “Move back and leave those Negroes alone. Let them come in peace and hear what we have to say. If it burns their ears, well, let it!”
Had not Craig spoken up for the two Negroes as he did, they would certainly have been at least roughed up, and possibly badly injured. The thousand or more men in Hurt Park, where this rally was being held, seemed typical of the men the Klan attracts: lower-class and prone to violence.
A study of 153 Klansmen made by Dr. Jain. W. Vander Zanden of Ohio University has revealed that the majority are garage mechanics, grocers, storekeepers, store clerks, salesmen. They are members of the upper lower-class—insecure, trying to rise but very fearful of falling, and very much concerned with prestige. As Dr. Vander Zanden sees it,
The excessive vehemence with which some Klansmen extol their white status and disassociate themselves from Negro status suggests that basically they may feel themselves as weak, deprived, and helpless as they imagine the to be. … Such individuals may lend to equate their own lower status wish the subordinate Negro caste position. In a word, they [must] declare to the world, “We may not have prestige. But we aren’t Negroes! We’re members of a ‘God-given’ superior race—the white race! Thus, we’re somebody!”
In their panicky efforts to prove that they are “somebody” these men will turn more quickly to violence than most other citizens.
It goes without saying that the typical Klansman also suffers from certain psychosexual aberrations, which explain his predilection for floggings, lynchings, and castrations. The sexual preoccupations of Kluxers are sometimes amusingly revealed. The K.K.K. Karechism, for instance, has the following dialogue:
Q. If the negro priesthood of the Roman Catholic Church is growing in the United States, as is claimed. what will be the effect upon our civilization and social status when negro priests sit in the confessional box where white women
A. The answer to this must be made by red-blooded patriotic American manhood.
Still another attribute of the typical Klansman is that he seems to suffer from—or rather, need—delusions of grandeur. And merely by joining the Klan he can actually become, literally, a white knight. The Klan oath demands unselfishness, courage, devotion, and all the traditional virtues, and it is expressed in the most solemn terms. Says the Klansman’s Manual: “The supreme Pattern for all true Klansmen is their Criterion of Character, Jesus Christ, who went about doing good.” The Rev. James W. (“Catfish”) Cole, upon being arrested after a melee in 1958, told newsmen: “I don’t care what you write. Just be sure you write it. The name is easy to remember. The initials are J.C. as in Jesus Christ.”
In brief, the typical Klansman tends to be low-class, sexually maladjusted, and almost psychotic in his withdrawal from reality and his pursuance of prestige. Converting someone like him into a true pacifist obviously requires something more than just a conventional miracle.
Even the Klansmen’s natural enemies are prodding them to get back into the ring. The new, pacifist Klan seems to inspire in its enemies only contempt and ridicule. “Is that you, Lawd?” Dick Gregory was heard to ask one white-robed Klansman. When I was in Atlanta last, I asked a Negro cab driver how strong he thought the new Klan really was. “They’re just a joke,” he said, “Nobody takes them seriously. Nobody is afraid of them.” Curious, I asked him, “Suppose I used your name in my magazine, saying that you weren’t afraid of them. Would you be afraid of what they might do when they read that?” “No, no, no,” he said, “nobody’s afraid of them in Atlanta. It’s not like it was in my daddy’s time. Then, all the colored would run and hide if they saw the Klan coming. Now we’d just open fire the minute we saw them, if they were masked. That’s the law now. If we see a man with a mask trying to get into our house, we’ve got the right to shoot, and, believe me, I’d do it. You can use my name when you print that.” I said that I’d feel bad if I did use his name and subsequently learned that the Klan had harmed him. “Hell,” he shouted. “I tell you I’m not afraid of those bastards. My name is Joseph McMichael and my address is 2089 Venbena Avenue. You print it and say that if one of those bastards comes to my house with a mask I’ll shoot him right through the door. Nobody’s afraid of them anymore.”
Joseph McMichael may seem to be brave, belittling as he does the power of the Klan. But he may also be unwise just as are the newspaper editors and the N.A.A.C.P. workers who express contempt for the new, nonviolent Klan. What they are doing is informing all Klansmen that, to prove there really is a Klan revival, they must shed some blood.
The final word seems to come from a former insider. Bill Hendrix, an ex-Grand Dragon of the Southern Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, was an active Kluxer for 15 years. Then, in 1960, he resigned as Grand Dragon and persuaded his members to dissolve the Southern Knights entirely. “I cannot agree to such things as bombings and burning schools,” he told newspapermen at the time. “But that is what the Klan is going to have to turn to unless it agrees to go along with the laws. I see no way to stop racial integration, and it looks to me like the best thing to do is accept it.” Interviewed in 1964, Mr. Hendrix said he still feels the same way, and emphasized that it was “criminal elements” within his own Klan that led him to dissolve it. “The same elements are taking over Shelton’s Klan right now,” he said. “There is no way of keeping them out. You can’t watch every member all the time.”
Robert Shelton sincerely, and wisely, wants to keep the new Ku Klux Klan nonviolent. Using imagination, he hopes to attract a large body of followers and adherents, whose votes can thwart the progress of the American Negro. Just a few bloody incidents and, Shelton knows, all his dreams for the Klan will vanish. Working against him are the many upstart Klans whose leaders are not averse to violence—poor Shelton may be a victim of guilt by association. Also working against him is the fact that the organization he heads has a 99-year-old history of violence; that most of his own Klansmen do not find violence exactly distasteful; and that his Klansmen are being baited by those who naturally expect them to engage in violence.
Despite all these odds, can Robert Shelton succeed in turning the dread Ku Klux Klan into a respectable and powerful pacifist organization? That is a question only God, and the Imperial Wizard, can answer.
The Rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan
by Robert Anton Wilson appeared in Fact, Volume 1, Issue 3 in May/June 1964.