The politics of hatred have been a recurring blight on American history. The proponents of organized racism, anti-Semitism, and anti-democracy have staged public demonstrations or parades with disheartening regularity. Based on events this past weekend in Charlottesville, it’s evident that this ugly underside has not diminished with time.
One of the most notorious of the reactionary groups that showed up in Charlottesville is the Ku Klux Klan. Created in the late 1860s, it united Southern opposition to civil rights and political office for black Americans, many of them newly freed slaves. Its members, hooded for anonymity, terrorized and murdered black Americans, drove their opponents out of government, and hampered the efforts of post-war Reconstruction. The Klan declined in the 1870s, though, a victim of internal dissension.
The Klan was revived in 1915 and membership grew in the wake of growing tension that had resulted in several race riots in 1919. Now, in addition to oppressing black Americans, Klan members opposed immigrants, Jews, and Catholics. It became highly organized, with membership peaking around 4 million. But internal divisions, criminal convictions of leading Klan members, and public opposition led to a decline in membership, which had dropped to an official tally of 30,000 by 1930.
Americans’ disapproval of these white supremacists had become so strong by this time, that even a past association with the Klan was enough to tarnish a man’s reputation. Associate Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black had just been confirmed when the Post ran this editorial on October 16, 1937, criticizing Black for his participation in the KKK 10 years earlier. Black’s apologists claimed he had joined the Klan solely to garner their votes, leading this editorial to state: “It is a grave indictment of a man to say he is capable of sacrificing his convictions to his interests.” The denunciation continued to surface throughout his career, although it didn’t prevent him from serving on the court, which he did for 34 years.
Tepid condemnations went only so far in cooling hate groups’ rhetoric. As the 1939 Post article, “Star Spangled Fascists,” notes, “one of the ominous distinctions of American Fascism is that, without benefit of a Mussolini, a Hitler or even an Oswald Mosley, it continues to prosper and spread. … For fuel for their movement, the Nazis mixed patriotism with hate. Their American kinsmen use the same mixture.”
The article details the Klan’s strategy for growth, including the slow escalation of activities — from dropping pamphlets to burning crosses — in their local town “if the community continues to snooze placidly.”
In 1949, the Klan re-emerged in the south. It membership grew after the 1954 Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which declared that the “separate but equal” doctrine used to justify segregation in schools was unconstitutional. The Klan’s staunch opposition to communism also helped draw members. But, as the Post article “The Truth About the Klan Today” reported in 1949, the Klan had little cohesion and lots of infighting. In addition to rivalries among its leaders, they were hounded by the IRS for tax evasion and infiltrated and spied on by the FBI.
In the 1960s, with the rise of the civil rights movement, the Klan again reared its ugly head. By then, as the 1965 article “We Got Nothing to Hide” shows, Klansmen were marching without covering their faces, seeming to feel for a brief moment that their time had come. They were mistaken, of course, and the Klan’s popularity would subsequently decline in the wake of federal indictments of some of its leaders and scrutiny by the House Committee on Un-American Activities.
But the Klan and other hate groups never completely fade away. Over the last half-century, the KKK has occasionally been involved in shootings and other racially motivated crimes. And it has allied itself with other extremist organizations, such as neo-Nazi groups.
But, as it rises and falls, it seems the Klan and other hate groups never completely fade away, reflecting perhaps the pain of progress in a modern secular society. As Harold H. Martin and Kenneth Fairly concluded in “We’ve Got Nothing to Hide,” the Klan is “less an organization than a state of mind [reflecting] the despair of the poor white in a society in which he can find no respected place….They are recognized, not as folk heroes [but as] misfits, the bitter rejects of society.”
Featured image: Photo by Lynn Pelham, from the cover of the January 30, 1965, Saturday Evening Post