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Klansville, U.S.A.

The Rise and Fall of the Civil Rights-Era Ku Klux Klan

by David Cunningham

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David Cunningham looks at the rise of KKK activity during the Civil Rights Movement of the 60s, focusing especially on the disproportionately large amount of Klan members in North Carolina.

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'Klansville, U.S.A.' Chronicles The Rise And Fall Of The KKK

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'Klansville, U.S.A.' Chronicles The Rise And Fall Of The KKK

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Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: Klansville, U.S.A.




The people of North Carolina are ready for the Klan, and nothing can keep it down when the people are ready!

— Thomas Hamilton, founder and leader of the Associated Carolina Klans, during a Charlotte organizing meeting in 1949.

I think about as much of the Ku Klux Klan idea as I do of infantile paralysis.

—Chapel Hill mayor Edwin Lanier, in response to Hamilton's proposed organizing drive.

On Veterans' Day 1963, Capus Waynick enjoyed a barbecue dinner at an event in Salisbury, a small city forty miles north of Charlotte, North Carolina. A distinguished former US ambassador to Nicaragua and Colombia, Waynick had recently signed on as Governor Terry Sanford's unofficial "racial troubleshooter." That high-profile role earned him an invitation to address community leaders at Rowan County's Veterans Administration Hospital. The pre-dinner speech went well, in part because Waynick decided to avoid his usual controversial rhetoric of racial moderation. "The only reference I made to the race problem," he recalled, "was to suggest that unless we could deal in brotherly cooperation with our own people, regardless of our race, we would be weak in the projection of our images."

Even that sentiment did not sit well with Bob Jones, a Navy veteran and local awning salesman. As a mid-level leader in the US Klans throughout the latter half of the 1950s, Jones had earned a reputation as an aggressive and hard-drinking defender of the Jim Crow status quo. Earlier in 1963, another KKK organization, the Alabama-based United Klans of America (UKA), had enlisted Jones to reorganize North Carolina for the klan. Brashly approaching Waynick at the barbecue, Jones announced that he was the Grand Dragon of the KKK in North Carolina and, as such, would vote for no politician who sought "nigger support." Waynick was taken aback. "His conception of what he is against was no less depressing than that of what he was for," he thought as he took the brunt of Jones's tirade. "What an anachronism!"

In fact, Jones was an emerging force in North Carolina politics. Waynick's "anachronistic" take reflected the KKK's marginalization and organizational disarray in the decades following its 1920s heyday, when klan membership nationally numbered in the millions. That fractured history changed, however, in the months that followed Waynick's VA speech. While Governor Sanford's calls for racial moderation struggled to take hold in many North Carolina communities, Jones was in the headlines daily, delivering missives against desegregation and its underlying communist-Jew conspiracy with a savvy balance of fiery and folksy rhetoric. By 1965, the klan's nightly rallies were the largest political gatherings of any kind in the state. Upwards of 10,000 dues- paying members spread across more than 200 klaverns organized within the state's borders. During its mid-1960s heyday, the "Carolina Klan" became the largest and most successful manifestation of the postwar Ku Klux Klan.

This paradoxical phenomenon—in which the largest klan of the past seventy years rose up seemingly in a matter of months in ostensibly the most progressive state in the South—did not of course occur in a vacuum. Far from being cut from whole cloth, the Carolina Klan drew upon a century of KKK history and derived its core membership, rituals, and organizational style from earlier klan incarnations. As the UKA's 1964 constitution declared, "the principle and spirit of Klankraft will at all times be dedicated in thought, spirit and affection to our Founding Fathers of the Original Ku Klux Klan organization in the year 1866, and active during the period of Reconstruction History; and to their predecessors in the years 1915 & 16." Examining the Ku Klux Klan's long history lends insight into how the actions of core leaders during the KKK's fallow abeyance periods enabled continuity across seemingly discrete waves of klan mobilization; how earlier klan waves provided those leaders with crucial organizational and cultural resources in their subsequent mobilizing campaigns; and the central role played by often-obscured modes of policing in the KKK's emergence, decline, and continued rebirths.

The Origins of the KKK

The "Founding Fathers" referenced in the KKK constitution were in fact six young Confederate veterans in Pulaski, Tennessee. In 1866, they gathered with the intention of forming a sort of fraternal organization. Their motivation, by most accounts, was boredom, a "hunger and thirst" for excitement.

The group's initial meeting took place at the law office of a local judge, the father of one of the six original members. They selected the group's name by following a practice standard in fraternities on American college campuses, drawing upon a Greek word, kuklos, supplemented, for alliterative purposes, by the word "klan." These founders also established much of the klan's enduring iconography, including elaborate initiation rituals, complex slates of offices, and regalia employing long robes and conical hoods.

At first, the KKK's aims bent toward amusement, especially the playing of "pranks" on local black residents. Members designed costumes that featured long white sheets covering the head and body, to create the impression that members on horseback were in fact ghosts. Groups of klansmen would embark on nighttime rides, paying unwelcome visits to black families. They would often construct elaborate ruses, requesting and pretending to drink enormous quantities of water as "thirsty dead returning from hell," or removing false heads and limbs to demonstrate their extraordinary powers.

These tricks were not merely for the harmless pleasure of bored klan mem- bers. From the beginning, the klan's actions drew upon themes and tactics employed in the antebellum patrol system, which had enforced strict curfews to control the movement of slaves. Like those slave patrols, early klan activity maintained racial subjugation by terrorizing the black population. In much of the Reconstruction-era South, black freedpersons remained subject to curfews limiting free assembly and especially the formation of schools. Klan members would beat and whip violators of such racial codes.

New members' desire to use these means to maintain the racial and legal order quickly superseded the KKK's fraternal bent. Such aims resonated widely in the years following the Civil War, when lawlessness, motivated in part by federal Unionist efforts to "reconstruct" the southern economic and political system, pervaded Pulaski and many other communities across the South. The editor of the local newspaper, the Pulaski Citizen, noted the "chronic drunkenness and debauchery" that plagued the town, which often was exacerbated by mixed-race conflicts. Such racially motivated fracases frequently targeted Republican "carpetbaggers" (northerners who settled in the South during this period) and "scalawags" (white southern Republicans) who worked to enforce Reconstruction reforms, enfranchising newly freed slaves and in the process subverting the power of antebellum white elites.

In this context, the klan spread slowly at first, as its founders granted resi- dents of rural areas surrounding Pulaski permission to form their own "dens" during the summer of 1866. A meeting the following year in Nashville spurred its broader growth. Several prominent Confederate officers attended, and their influence extended well beyond central Tennessee. The meeting yielded an official Prescript, which carefully specified the organization's strict membership criteria, elaborate secret rituals, and slate of nested local, state, and national officers. Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest was named "Grand Wizard," the group's first national leader.

Forrest and his associates proceeded to recruit extensively, mobilizing Civil War veterans throughout the South as local leaders. With the added assistance of various newspapers supportive of anti-Reconstruction southern Democrats, the KKK grew significantly throughout 1868. While the group's many apologists would regularly claim that the klan was a defensive organization, a response to the upheaval engineered by newly freed blacks and their Republican allies, its members in fact aggressively advanced the southern Democratic agenda in the face of Republican control. Indeed, the klan thrived where Democrats posed an effective challenge to the policies of racial equity promoted by Radical Republican political institutions. In such places, KKK adherents drew upon the resources of strong Democratic infrastructures, and used them to spread the perception that white supremacy, the purity of white womanhood, and law and order itself were under siege.

Along with similar vigilante groups such as the Order of Pale Faces and the Knights of the White Camellia, the KKK violently intimidated black community leaders and the carpetbaggers and scalawags who supported them. While this violence had a pervasive logic—to consolidate support for white supremacy—it also occurred in the absence of significant regional or national klan coordination. Members rarely followed the Nashville Prescript; in retrospect, the document's importance lay mostly in its role as a blueprint for future waves of klan activity, including the 1960s UKA. By the end of 1868, despite their nominal ties to the overall KKK organization, local dens became largely autonomous and increasingly engaged in unregulated terrorist activity.

This pattern generally held in North Carolina, where in a crowded field of vigilante groups the klan's origins were somewhat murky. In the Tar Heel State, the White Brotherhood (WB) and the Constitutional Union Guard (CUG) emerged in parallel with the KKK's rise in Tennessee. By 1868, they were joined by the Invisible Empire, an organization commonly assumed to be a KKK alias. In many communities, membership across all three organizations overlapped. William L. Saunders, a Wilmington newspaper editor, ostensibly headed the statewide Invisible Empire, though in practice he held little influence over county-level klan officials and most of the state's 40,000 members. Similarly, Grand Wizard Forrest and other national officers had no practical connection to klan activities in the state.

KKK action intensified following the 1868 elections. Republican William W. Holden, the president of the state's anti-racist Union League, had been elected North Carolina's governor. Faced with Holden and a Republican-dominated legislature, the KKK became an increasingly violent tool of displaced white Democratic interests. White vigilantes frequently targeted black residents for various, often fabricated indiscretions. But victims also included prominent Republican officials. Jones County Sheriff O. R. Colgrove, a white northerner who benefited from black electoral support and had the audacity to arrest several CUG members, was ambushed and killed in May 1869. State Senator John W. Stephens, a Unionist and Republican who had worked actively with his black constituency, was murdered the following year, after being lured to a storage room in the county courthouse and stabbed to death by a klan contingent that included several local elites.

As organized vigilante acts occurred more frequently in 1869 and 1870, Democratic elites had an especially complex relationship to the group. Prominent Democrats often joined the klan when it seemed politically expe- dient to do so. In more than one case, self-described political moderates helped form local dens as a means to ensure "order," only to withdraw when members engaged in outrages against black and Republican citizens. But even after breaking with the KKK, self-interest dictated that these men not openly criticize the group. "Democrats sympathized with the Klan, benefited by it, were intimidated by it, and were ashamed of it, often simultaneously," historian Allen Trelease explains. "This was part of the psychological burden of white supremacy."

In the face of a growing and increasingly militant KKK, Grand Wizard Forrest issued an order in 1869 to severely curtail members' actions. Largely unsuccessful across the region, the order had no discernible impact in North Carolina. Governor Holden frequently spoke out against the klan's increasing boldness, but his efforts were only marginally more effective. On two occasions, Holden summoned the militia to suppress racial disorders, but more often he responded to KKK outrages with softer measures, attempting to appease rather than eliminate klan dens.

The forces of order became increasingly desperate. Following Senator Stephens's murder and a series of outrages in Alamance County, the Raleigh Daily Standard—Holden's staunchly anti-klan newspaper—began calling for armed self-defense. "Load your guns and fire on these midnight assassins whenever they attack you," the paper counseled. "A shot or two in every county in this State will break up these bands of outlaws and murderers." Governor Holden declared a "state of insurrection" and enlisted former Union Army colonel George W. Kirk to regain control in Alamance and several western counties. When Kirk's militia arrested klan adherents, the governor suspended the local courts in favor of military trials, in violation of the state's constitution.

This unstable climate, combined with widespread klan intimidation of Republican supporters, allowed the state's Democrats to regain congressional control following the 1870 elections. The new legislature promptly voted to impeach Holden for his actions in what had become known as the "Kirk-Holden War." Holden was ultimately found guilty of charges related to the deployment of militia troops during the conflict and, on March 22, 1871, he became the first governor in US history removed from office by impeachment.

Though this political realignment suppressed Republican-led Reconstruction efforts, KKK action continued, especially in the mideast and western regions of the state. Only federal government intervention shifted the tide. In 1870, Congress passed the first of two Enforcement Acts, which made interference in voting efforts a federal offense and also forbade conspiracies that infringed upon the exercise of constitutional rights. The following year's Ku Klux Klan Act went even further, allowing federal district attorneys to prosecute a range of conspiratorial efforts to limit constitutional expression. This latter act also included provisions authorizing federal military intervention and, for a time, the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus. The first trials under these acts took place in North Carolina in 1871, the result of arrests stemming from a series of outrages in Rutherford County in the western mountains. These trials resulted in forty-nine convictions for a range of offenses, including simple membership in the klan, which the prosecution argued made individuals a party to unlawful conspiracy.

That same year, the US Senate embarked on an investigation of vigilante violence in the South, including the outrages in Alamance and Caswell counties. A broader Joint Select Committee focused on the "Condition of Affairs in the Late Insurrectionary States" began a second investigation soon after. This momentum led to mass arrests of klan members across the South. Results were mixed, as subsequent prosecutions and convictions lagged behind the large number of pardons awarded to early arrestees. But despite this lack of follow-through, these efforts, along with the lessening threat of Republican political influence as Reconstruction waned, hastened the klan's decline. While sporadic klan-perpetrated violence occurred through the end of 1872, that year's elections were relatively peaceful, and the KKK no longer had a grip on southern communities.

Which of course is not to say that the subjugation of African Americans came to an end. To the contrary, racial oppression, frequently by violent means and committed with virtual impunity, remained a defining feature of postbellum southern life. Even prior to the klan's rise in 1866, North Carolina and the other former Confederate states each established Black Codes limiting newly freed slaves' economic, political, and legal freedoms. The 1876 elections, which resulted in the ceding of local political control to southern Democrats, ended Reconstruction and destroyed any hope of a radical overthrow of white supremacy.

Emboldened by their consolidation of power, political leaders institution- alized a system of strict racial separation, commonly referred to as Jim Crow, and employed a variety of means to disenfranchise black citizens. In North Carolina during the 1890s, a "Fusionist" coalition of Populists and Republicans supported by African Americans as well as white farmers opposed such efforts. In 1894, Fusionists had undermined Democratic control, winning a majority of seats in that year's state General Assembly election. These victories fueled a Democratic backlash, in which party elites curried favor with poor and working-class whites by advancing spurious claims of black economic domination and black-on-white rape.

This racist campaign was astonishingly successful. In scenes reminiscent of the Reconstruction KKK's heyday twenty years earlier, Democratic supporters joined "Red Shirt" clubs, designed to intimidate voters and engineer widespread electoral fraud. In Wilmington, a major port city in North Carolina's southeastern corner, a mob of white vigilantes engaged in a systematic effort to consolidate white political and economic control, abandoning any pretense of law and order. The insurgents took the city by force, exiling black elites and city officeholders, burning the printing press of the city's black-owned newspaper, and installing their own members as city political leaders. During the takeover, a number of African Americans were killed (estimates ranged between nine and ninety) and 1,400 others fled the city. The following year, state lawmakers imposed a series of voting restrictions designed to decimate the black electorate. A series of statutes restricting race mixing in public and private venues followed. "By the eve of World War I," writes historian Raymond Gavins, "almost every visible space had been separated."

Such measures, of course, were consistent with those that the KKK had championed in the face of postbellum Republican control. The klan's continued resonance among white southerners was evident in the occasional rise of klan-like groups, such as North Carolina's Red Shirts and, in Mississippi, the Whitecaps, who drove black tenants off farmland during the 1890s. Among white Democrats, memories of the Ku Klux Klan were often tinged with a gauzy romanticism. Apologist accounts featuring heroic klan forces defending the honor of the white South provided a foundation for such increasingly sentimental depictions. The 1871 Joint Select Committee's Democratic minority report provided a clear and influential example of such accounts. According to the report, the klan was wholly a product of "wanton oppression in the South [due to] the rule of the tyrannical, corrupt, carpet- bagger or scalawag." As a valorous reaction to this unjust repression, the KKK sought to restore stability and justice across the region, a heroic effort divorced from any political agenda centered on white supremacy.

Following this general script, in the early years of the twentieth century southern newspapers would periodically publish nostalgic KKK stories, usu- ally based on firsthand accounts of surviving klan members. One such tale drew upon the diaries of North Carolinian Randolph Shotwell, a Rutherford County klan leader who later served two years in a federal penitentiary for his role in a 1871 raid on Rutherfordton, the county seat. Shotwell characterized the klan as a reaction to "the humiliations, the exactions, the persecutions and personal annoyances" placed on white southerners by the "unjust" Freedmen's Bureau and other federally controlled agencies. These sorts of interventions stirred up racial antagonisms, he argued. "Uninfluenced by outsiders," Shotwell explained, the freedmen "would for the most part have continued to work and sing and dance on the old plantation." Instead, faced with the "oppression" that resulted from Reconstruction's various corruptions, the klan corrected abuses and "shielded women and children from the insolence, rapacity and brutal passions of vile desperadoes, white or black." Echoed in various early twentieth-century historical volumes, including J. G. de Roulhac Hamilton's influential History of North Carolina, this basic account was viewed as authoritative in much of the South.

Reprinted from Klansville, U.S.A.: The Rise and Fall of the Civil Rights-Era Ku Klux Klan with permission from Oxford University Press USA. Copyright Oxford University Press 2013.