The Faces of 90.5 WESA
Thu February 14, 2013
'Klansville, U.S.A.' Chronicles The Rise And Fall Of The KKK
Originally published on Thu February 14, 2013 5:30 pm
As the civil rights movement gained momentum in the 1960s, Ku Klux Klan activity boomed. That fact itself may not be surprising, but in the introduction to his new book, Klansville, U.S.A., David Cunningham also reveals that, "While deadly KKK violence in Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia ha[d] garnered the lion's share of Klan publicity, the United Klan's stronghold was, in fact, North Carolina." North Carolina, Cunningham writes, had more Klan members than the rest of the South combined.
Cunningham's book focuses on the rise and fall of the KKK in the U.S., and specifically in North Carolina. The violence and terror tactics of the Klan aside, one of the things that jumped out at Cunningham during his research was the Klan's organization: what it was able to do on a daily basis, and how that shaped its place in communities.
"What they would do is they would be holding a rally somewhere in the state almost every night of the year in North Carolina," Cunningham tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "The rally would be in the evening ... largely because they would want it to be dark by the time they had the climax of the rally, which would be an enormous cross burning prior to the rally. They would have these marches — these street walks — that would go down the main street of the town, and they would get mostly members, and they would have them in regalia. And what they were trying to do was create a public presence and try to say, 'This isn't an organization that just works under the cover of darkness: This is an organization that's out in the open.' "
While Klan activity these days is marginalized, Cunningham says its legacy is powerful in communities where the Klan was once active.
He says that in North Carolina — and throughout the South in general — places that were once KKK strongholds now "have significantly higher rates of violent crime than other communities where the Klan wasn't active."
On meeting former Grand Wizard Robert Shelton in 2002
"Shelton was certainly proud that he was a Klan leader. He really was the sort of person — and even 40 years afterwards, when he hadn't been formally in the Klan for a 20-year period at that point — he would talk that the Klan was a birthright. And he would also just talk about it as his identity. No matter what else he did, at heart he was always a Klansman. ... When I saw him in 2002, he drove up to our meeting in a powder blue Lincoln Town Car with a vanity plate in front of the car that read 'Never,' which was the defiant segregationist slogan throughout the 1960s, and in a lot of ways it was an anachronistic scene because he was talking about the Klan as if it was ever-present in his life. He had all the trappings of what it would mean to be a Klan leader, but everything that gave him his power ... had sort of dissolved away, and he was left there in place and in time."
On the origin of the burning crosses
"So far as we know, no crosses were burned by the original wave of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1860s. That original incarnation of the Klan — which is often referred to as a 'first wave' — disappears by the early 1870s, and the Klan really remains dormant for about 45 years. In 1915, you see a couple of things happen. One, the film Birth of a Nation is released, and Birth of a Nation very much nostalgically looks back at the Klan as this heroic force after the Civil War to restore order in the South and restore racial order to the South. And in that film, a cross burning is portrayed, and a man named William Simmons, who is living in Atlanta at the time, uses the Atlanta opening of the film as a way to create the Klan's rebirth. What he does as the Klan's first public act is to organize a rally that features a cross burning on Stone Mountain outside of Atlanta. So cross burnings really were a fictional symbol that appear in this film that are then taken up by the reborn Klan."
On the logistics of burning the crosses
"The crosses they burned there were often 60 or 70 feet high, so these are enormous crosses they were burning. In itself [they] were just a symbol of how ambitious the Klan's organization was, because [the Klan] was having a rally somewhere in the state every night. They were felling new trees. They would strip the bark away. They would cover it with four layers of burlap that they would douse in kerosene and gasoline mixture, and then they would have to get a front loader and dig a 4-foot hole and have all these guy-wires attached to it and erect these crosses. So the act of this enormous cross burning became an act of compelling theater and also the sort of signal of what the Klan was able to accomplish organizationally. But more insidiously, what crosses were doing were sending very targeted signals of intimidation and terror."
On the effect of Klan membership on family life
"If you look at people who were members of the Klan talk about how it fit with their family, it was often women in the family — and often children as well — that became forces that would pull people out of the Klan as much as anything, not because they disagreed with the Klan politically, but they would often disagree — or be dissatisfied — with what the Klan asked of their husbands, in terms of the time it took out, in terms of the whole secretive nature of what they did. Oftentimes, Klan membership became something that was really divisive in terms of family life."
On J. Edgar Hoover's rationale for targeting the civil rights movement
"For years, [the FBI] target[s] Martin Luther King, but they also target a range of what they refer to as 'black national hate groups,' which is basically anybody in the civil rights universe. And the rationale for this was that either Jews/communists were behind the movement — because, again, the movement wasn't capable itself of doing the things that it seemed to be doing — or the softer version of that was that African-Americans were so pliable in some ways that even if they weren't being controlled today, they were vulnerable to being manipulated ... tomorrow. So in one version or another you always have the sense that Jews and communists are controlling everything associated with the civil rights movement."
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Here's a headline you wouldn't want to see in your newspaper: "Ku Klux Klan Declares War Against Negro Jew Communism." That was a banner headline from the Klan publication The Fiery Cross in 1961. I read that in the new book "Klansville, U.S.A.: The Rise and Fall of the Civil Rights-Era Ku Klux Klan" by my guest David Cunningham.
The book gives a historical overview of the Klan, then focuses on North Carolina, which in spite of its reputation as the region's most progressive state in the '60s was a Klan stronghold then. Cunningham is associate professor and chair of sociology in the Social Justice and Social Policy Program at Brandeis University. He's worked with the Greensboro, North Carolina, Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the Mississippi Truth Project.
As part of his research into the Klan, he's collected some recordings of Klan music and speeches. To get an idea of what happened inside the Klan, let's hear a brief excerpt of what Cunningham describes as one of the most popular original songs played at North Carolina Klan rallies, rallies which would climax with the burning of a wooden cross. He'll put the song in context after we listen.
As you'll hear, we've bleeped the frequent use of the N-word. At the risk of stating the obvious, this is really hateful stuff.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
SKEETER BOB AND HIS COUNTRY PALS: (Singing) Move them (beep) north, move them (beep) north. If they don't like our Southern ways, move them (beep) north. Our South has been invaded by trashy-looking (beep). They'll change our ways and take our schools away from me and you. It's time for us to make a stand to keep our Southern ways. We've got to give a helping hand, it's unity that pays.
(Singing) Move them (beep) north, move them (beep) north. If they don't like our Southern ways, move them (beep) north. They're trying to start trouble by mixing up the races. They'd be a whole lot better off staying in their places. I like our Southland like it is, I'm sure that you do, too. Old Martin Luther thinks it's his. I know he's wrong, don't you?
GROSS: That's the Ku Klux Klan band Skeeter Bob and His Country Pals. Here's what David Cunningham, author of "Klansville, U.S.A.," told me about that recording.
DAVID CUNNINGHAM: One of the features of Klan rallies is that they would almost always have music be a part of that. And oftentimes, the Klan's, basically their house band, the UK's house band, it was a group called Skeeter Bob and his Country Pals, would be playing live at these rallies. And when they weren't there live, they would have their recordings because you could buy records by Skeeter Bob, and we can hear one of these here.
By far, Skeeter Bob's best known song was called "Move Those Negroes North," with the word Negroes here replacing the N-word that was actually used in the song. And for me that really encapsulated a lot of what the Klan sentiment and Klan goals were, because it was not only about removing the threat that African-Americans posed to what these people saw as their way of life and the appropriate way of life, but it was also, the idea of moving them north was also this not-so-veiled critique of, really, of urban policy and public policy during the era, which is that there's all these people in the North, you know, that were kind of on their high horse about how evil people are in the South about race and about racism, and they didn't have to deal with the same kinds of problems.
So this is the sort of Klan view, that they're being scapegoated in some ways, and people are condemning them when they don't have to deal with these problems directly.
GROSS: You write in the introduction of your book that you wanted to write about the Klan because you'd written about the FBI's counterintelligence program, and in writing about cointel program, you saw thousands of pages of FBI intelligence memos targeting the Klan. So what are some of the things that surprised you that you were reading that you wanted to follow up on in your book "Klansville, U.S.A."?
CUNNINGHAM: I would say that when I discovered these FBI files, which is really a trove, there's about 8,000 pages of memos related to the KKK, the two things that jumped out at me, one was just the scope of the Klan's organization, what they are able to do on a daily basis went well beyond anything I had heard and the kinds of acts of deadly violence that we tend to know that the Klan was responsible for throughout the 1960s.
So I was curious how they kind of fit into communities and were able to organize in the way that they were. And then the second thing that really surprised me was where they were located. And it turned out that while nearly all of the stories I had heard about the KKK were centered in the Deep South, in Mississippi and in Alabama, it turned out that there were more dues-paying Klan members in the state of North Carolina than the rest of the South put together.
GROSS: And as you point out, that's kind of paradoxical because North Carolina was considered a relatively liberal state in the South. So why was that such a haven for the Klan?
CUNNINGHAM: Well, in some ways it was just a product of that liberalism. In a place like Mississippi, a committed segregationist had a whole range of mainstream outlets to feel like that their way of life was being defended. So this was anything from the governor's office down locally to local business leaders, to school boards. All of these mainstream groups and outlets were just sort of ensuring that they were willing to defend segregation in a pretty staunch and militant way.
In North Carolina, leaders were very clear that they didn't agree with civil rights reform, but they were willing, and they would abide by federal law. So what happens in North Carolina, where you have lots of people who feel like - lots of white people - who feel like their way of life is going to be threatened by civil rights reforms, there weren't very many places that they could feel would be an outlet for defending that way of life.
And the Klan, as an entrepreneurial opportunity, almost, stepped in and filled that void in a way that it wouldn't have in a place like Mississippi or Alabama, where the Klan really filled a very narrow niche, just for people who felt like violence was really the only answer.
GROSS: So on the back cover of your book "Klansville, U.S.A.," there's a billboard, a billboard on the road, and the billboard reads: You are in the heart of Klan country, welcome to North Carolina, join the United Klans of America, help fight integration and communism! And then there's a picture of a hooded and shrouded man on a white horse, carrying a burning cross.
Were you likely to see a billboard like this in North Carolina in the '60s?
CUNNINGHAM: You would. In a lot of the state, and particularly in the eastern part of the state, most of the county lines that you could cross would have a billboard that looked almost exactly like this. And the United Klans of America, the organization that erected these, really created a system.
You know, they asked their local chapters in the county to erect the posts and the boards that were going to then be painted. And they had a particular guy who was from Willington, North Carolina, who would come in and would paint it and create the Klansmen on horseback with the cross and do all the lettering. So it was really something that they could, kind of, manufacture.
And they saw it as really part of their public presence and persona to be able to create this on most county lines.
GROSS: Now I want to ask you about the photograph on the front cover of your book "Klansville, U.S.A.," and there's a bunch of people walking down the sidewalk, and it looks like it's not exactly a rally or a parade, but it looks like it's organized. They're about three abreast. Most of the men and some of the women are wearing white sheets.
Their faces aren't covered, but they're wearing, what do you call those conical-shaped hats?
GROSS: The hoods, yeah, they're wearing the hoods, they're wearing the white hoods on their heads, but their faces aren't covered. I'm assuming this is 1965 because they're walking past a movie marquee advertising James Stewart in "Shenandoah," and that's a 1965 movie, in color it says.
GROSS: And then there's children in this little march also. What's going on here?
CUNNINGHAM: So this is a very clear portrait of what the Klan called a street walk, and what they would do is they would be holding a rally somewhere in the state almost every night of the year in North Carolina. And the rally would be in the evening - largely because they would want it to be dark by the time they had the climax of the rally, which would be an enormous cross burning.
But prior to the rally, usually late afternoon, they would have these marches, these street walks, that would go down the main street of the town. And they would get, mostly members, and they would have them in regalia. And what they were trying to do was create a public presence and try to say this isn't an organization that just works under the cover of darkness, this is an organization that's out in the open.
And the North Carolina state leader, a guy by the name of Bob Jones, he used to sort slyly remark to reporters after this, saying when we're not wearing our hoods and robes, we look just like people. And he was trying to just say that this is a movement, really, of the people of North Carolina, and it was important to have this kind of public presence.
GROSS: And was there an anti-masking law at the time, making it illegal to cover your face in public?
CUNNINGHAM: Yes, in North Carolina, as of 1953, there was sort of a brief wave of Klan terror in the southeastern part of the state, in 1952 and three. And one of the things that resulted from that was the state legislature did pass an anti-masking law, and that held throughout the 1960s.
So what you'd see when these Klan members were wearing their regalia, you'd see the robes, you'd see the hoods, so it would be the conical hat, and it would sort of go down behind their necks. But you wouldn't have the actual mask covering their faces.
GROSS: I'm trying to think about whether it's any more or less intimidating to see so many, you know, racist Klan members parading down the street in broad daylight with their faces showing. The fact that you know who they are, is that more or less intimidating?
CUNNINGHAM: Yeah, it's - I mean, I think it really creates some mixed emotions and mixed messages, in the sense that one of the reasons why the Klan had always had masks, when they were able to legally, was for people to be able to join and have their neighbors and, you know, people in the community not know who they actually were.
So the fact that the Klan really did create this public presence, in some ways, took some of the mystique away from it because Klan leaders had always been able to claim that there were plenty of leading members of the community that were part of the organization, and that might have been disingenuous in many cases, but it might not have, and people wouldn't know.
Here, when you can see people's faces, you knew who was part of the group, and you knew who might not have been. So it created a different kind of boundary and a different kind of relationship.
And one of the things that Bob Jones was really trying to do here is say, you know, these are people who are part of your community, and these are people who are proud to wear these robes in North Carolina.
GROSS: In 2002 you met one of the most influential Klan leaders of the civil rights era, Robert Shelton, and he became the imperial wizard, the national leader of the Klan. And he's one of the people who helped organize and expand the North Carolina United Klan association. Was he proud that he had been a Klan leader?
CUNNINGHAM: Shelton was certainly proud that he was a Klan leader. He really was the sort of person that would talk as if - and even 40 years afterwards, when he hadn't been formally in the Klan for a 20-year period at that point - he would talk that the Klan was a birthright. And he would also just talk about it as his identity.
No matter what else he did, at heart he was always a Klansman. So it remained an incredibly important part of his life, and when I saw him in 2002, you know, he drove up to our meeting in a powder blue Lincoln Town Car with a vanity plate in front of the car that read NEVER, which was the defiant segregationist slogan throughout the 1960s.
And in a lot of ways it was an anachronistic scene because he was talking about the Klan as if it was ever-present in his life. He had kind of all the trappings of what it would mean to be a Klan leader, but everything that gave him his power, gave the Klan its strength, had sort of dissolved away, and he was left there, kind of, in place and in time.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is David Cunningham, he's the author of the new book "Klansville, U.S.A.: The Rise and Fall of the Civil Rights-Era Ku Klux Klan." And his book focuses on the Klan in North Carolina. Let's take a short break, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: My guest is David Cunningham. He's the author of the new book "Klansville, U.S.A.: The Rise and Fall of the Civil Rights-Era Ku Klux Klan." Part of your book is about the early history of the Klan, and I'd like to talk about that a little bit. So let's back up to 1866, when the Klan is formed. Who founded it, and what were the original intentions?
CUNNINGHAM: Well, the KKK was originally founded by a group of young Confederate veterans, just a group of eight or so, in Pulaski, Tennessee. And the Klan was just one of a whole number of groups that looked like this, meaning it had what they saw as a fraternal bent to it. It was something that was seen as social in certain ways.
But it also was railing against the political tenors of the time. This is right after the Civil War. The South has obviously lost the war. Reconstruction is coming in, and there's a sense that a whole way of life is dissolving, and there's going to be unrest, there's going to be anarchy in certain ways, there's going to be racial revolution.
And so certainly there is a political admixture here, and there's a lot of resentment. But the way that people talked about it very early on were in these kind of fraternal terms. And there are all sorts of social and ritualistic trappings that they created. So most of the symbolism that we associate with the Klan now was literally formed within the first week or month of the Klan's formation in 1866.
What happens after that and really the story of the Klan was how it spread out from that core in Tennessee...
GROSS: Whoa, whoa, wait, let's not even go there yet. Let's start with the name Ku Klux Klan. What does that mean?
CUNNINGHAM: Well, there are lots of stories about where the term Ku Klux Klan came from. I think the most credible version is a practice that was pretty common to fraternal groups at the time where they would take a Greek word, in this case kuklos, which meant circle, and then they would add something to it for - usually for alliterative purposes. And so the word Klan using another K to match kuklos, which has two K's in it, symbolizes both fraternity and also alliteration, so it works with the term.
So you have the Ku Klux Klan being born as an entity in that case. And then as it spreads out from that, the Klan kind of takes on a larger sort of persona, and it becomes this vehicle where people can use that symbolism and sort of express it in terroristic and regulative ways where they feel like racial groups and obviously, predominately African-Americans, are overstepping their bounds and really pushing for change that is going to be resisted by this group.
GROSS: And how did the white sheet and the white hood get created as both a symbol of the Klan and a costume of the Klan and the covering of the Klan to protect their identity?
CUNNINGHAM: Well, again there are a lot of stories about where the particular aspects of these symbols came from. The general story, I think, is that the white hoods, the masks over the face, were designed to create the sense of a specter or a ghost. And in some ways it was designed, both to hide people's identity and create these kinds of ghastly personas where they could go out at night under the cover of darkness, often on horseback, and sort of combine these pranks that would, sort of, move back to then-resonant folklore tales, things like that, of ghosts who would drink enormous quantities of water and all these kinds of supernatural things, but turn it in a way that also could be terrorizing.
So the people that they would target by these quote-unquote "pranks" were not random, certainly, and they were people who they really wanted to scare and send a message to.
GROSS: And how did the cross-burning start, and what were they initially meant to symbolize?
CUNNINGHAM: Well, interesting, so far as we know, no crosses were burned by the original wave of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1860s. That original incarnation of the Klan, which is often referred to as a first wave, disappears by the early 1870s, and the Klan really remains dormant for about 45 years.
In 1915, you see a couple of things happen. One, the film "Birth of a Nation" is released. And "Birth of a Nation" very much nostalgically looks back at the Klan as this heroic force after the Civil War to restore order in the South and restore a racial order to the South.
And in that film, a cross burning is portrayed. And a man named William Simmons, who is living in Atlanta at the time, uses the Atlanta opening of the film as a way to create the Klan's rebirth. And what he does as the Klan's first public act is to organize a rally that features a cross burning on Stone Mountain outside of Atlanta. So cross burnings really were a fictional symbol that appear in this film, that are then taken up by the reborn Klan and since have become easily the most resonant symbol of Klan terror.
GROSS: Now I know at least two of the ways cross burnings were used is, one, a lot of the Klan rallies ended with a cross burning, and then crosses would be burned on their targets. Like if you were African-American and they wanted to terrorize you, they'd burn a cross on your lawn. Are there other ways that they used the cross burnings?
CUNNINGHAM: Well, they would say that cross burnings had a religious connotation and sort of really symbolized all of the values of the values of the Klan. But as you mentioned, the two ways that they were used was as a spectacle at rallies, and this was really something that was compelling theater at a rally, because the crosses they burned there were often 60 or 70 feet high. So these are enormous crosses that they were burning, and in itself, were just a symbol of how ambitious the Klan's organization was, because they was having a rally somewhere in the state every night.
They were felling new trees. They would strip the bark away. They would cover it with four layers of burlap that they doused in kerosene and gasoline mixture, and then they would have to get a front-loader and dig a four-foot hole and have all these guy-wires attached to it and erect these crosses.
And so the act of this enormous cross burning became an act of compelling theater and also the sort of signal of what the Klan was able to accomplish organizationally. But more insidiously, what crosses were doing, were sending very targeted signals of intimidation and terror.
GROSS: One of the things you have as a result of your research is some recordings of Klan rallies and recordings of Klan songs. Do you have an example of an especially potent speaker, that you could play for us?
CUNNINGHAM: Yes. One of the things about Klan rallies were that there would be a series of speakers every time. And Bob Jones would speak at basically every rally. And a majority of rallies, Bob Jones' wife, Sybil Jones, would also speak. And Sybil was really interesting. She was very strident, and she was speaking, largely, directly to the women in the crowd. And formally, women could not be members of United Klans - and that's always been true throughout the Klan's long history - is that it was a men's organization, a white men's organization. But United Klans established a whole network of what they call ladies' auxiliary units. And these units were predominantly made up of wives of members, and they worked to do a lot of community-based things that they saw as Klan outreach. They cooked a lot of the things that were sold at rallies as refreshments. They baked cakes for Klan birthdays. It was a very patriarchal kind of version of how the Klan can operate, not surprisingly, but women were very involved with the whole range of activities.
And Sybil Jones would speak to these women at rallies and what she would really do is try to show them that their husbands, if they weren't 100 percent willing to support and defend segregation by any means necessary, were not real men, and sort of give them the sense that, you know, how happy they could actually be if they were with somebody and how good they could feel if they were with a real man, and this was a man who would just defend segregation in all ways possible.
GROSS: So introduce the excerpt of the speech that we're going to hear. When was it recorded?
CUNNINGHAM: So this is a relatively late rally. It's in 1968. And when I say late, this is when the Klan is sort of on its downward arc. By 1970, it'd really been decimated. This rally is in Fair Oaks, North Carolina, which is not very far from the state capital of Raleigh. And Sybil Jones is, I believe, the second-to-last speaker in this rally. So the crowd has already heard a preacher give an introductory prayer and three or four other speeches from people talked about communism, who talked about various plots that the federal government was hatching to enable civil rights leaders to basically take over the organization and take over the state. And then Sybil comes in and gives her talk, again, directed towards the women in the crowd, but really speaking about the men in the crowd, who oftentimes, in her view, weren't sufficiently militant.
GROSS: So this is Sybil Jones.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)
SYBIL JONES: Ladies, the women in this county, the women in this town need your help and they need your support. Your husband have a job, you expect him to go out and make a living. Then it's no more than right for you to help him. Do you know, as I have said many many times from a platform, do you know that in Russia the people live behind an Iron Curtain. But men, let me tell you, I really feel sorry for you because I know a lot of you men who live behind one little iron petticoat and it's pathetic. Men, why don't you step out from behind it and be a man. Women, you don't know how good you would feel if your husband was a man that could stand on his own two feet and not have to ask you every time he went to the 50-yard dash behind the house, you really would. So women, they need you. They need your support today, to - as I said, tomorrow could be too late. Today is the day.
GROSS: So what we just heard was Sybil Jones, the wife of a Klan leader, addressing the Ku Klux Klan rally in North Carolina in 1968. So how effective was Sybil Jones in getting women to push their husbands into joining the Klan?
CUNNINGHAM: I think her effectiveness might've been mixed in the sense that she really was somebody who would communicate this message. The Klan would have a whole series of bumper stickers that they would sell at these rallies, and the most popular bumper sticker that they had, for years, just read: Be A Man. Join the Klan. And that whole ethic and ethos was really most clearly expressed by Sybil Jones at these rallies. But if you look at people who were members of the Klan talk about how it fit with their family, it was often women in a family, and often, I think, children as well, that became, kind of, sort of, forces that would pull people out of the Klan as much as anything - not because they disagreed with the Klan politically, but they would often disagree with what the Klan - or be dissatisfied with what the Klan asked of their husbands, in terms of the time that it took out, in terms of the whole secretive nature of what they did.
Oftentimes, Klan membership became something that was really divisive in terms of family life. So there was a lot of tension when a message was, sort of, sent that the clan was actually something that was both good for families, but also was something that was really about family in this way. So I think there was really a lot of ambivalence among people who heard this kind of message, about whether it actually played out that way in practice.
GROSS: So in looking at the - like the history of the Klan, was there a shift in the proportion of hatred directed at Jews and African-Americans, because they're both targets of the Klan. Oh, and, let me throw in Catholics.
CUNNINGHAM: Yes. If we go back to the 1920s, the Klan had a whole menu of enemies that, you know, many of them were racial, so anybody that was perceived as non-white was seen as a threat, and by extension, as an enemy. And the idea of who was white at that time is really demarcated as well, meaning that this is a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant conception. So it went well beyond race, and so Catholics were often seen as suspect, certainly Jews were seen as suspect.
During the civil rights movement, there wasn't so much focus on Catholics, but the anti-Semitism that was expressed, if anything, was intensified. And in part, it was the sense - and this wasn't just promoted by the Klan. This is something that somebody like J. Edgar Hoover, the director of the FBI, would say, ad nauseam, is that the civil rights movement was a Jewish plot. You know, it's this idea that there's no way that African-Americans themselves, who were being viewed in a very racist sense as not being intelligent, not being capable of all sorts of things, could have the ingenuity and the capacity to have this movement that's becoming so effective. So there's got to be something that makes them vulnerable to control from the outside and Jews really, you know, sort of closed the circle on that story, it must be a Jewish plot, and by an extension, a communist plot. So you would hear - somebody like Robert Shelton, if you heard him speak at a rally...
GROSS: Who was the former - what, Imperial Wizard of the Klan.
CUNNINGHAM: Yes. He's the national leader of the Klan, if he would give a 25-minute talk at a rally, he would talk about race for a fraction of that time, and the rest of the speech would be about the communist threat, and really about the Jewish cabal that lay behind the communist threat that was then controlling the civil rights movement, and creating this huge threat to a way of life. So this whole idea of a Jewish threat, and the sort of anti-Semitic ways that it's expressed, was really salient in terms of the Klan's worldview throughout the 1960s.
GROSS: Now didn't J. Edgar Hoover, the head of the FBI, also think that the civil rights movement was in part, if not a communist plot, but at least it was like connected to the communists and was therefore posing a potentially great danger to the United States?
CUNNINGHAM: Yes. That was entirely Hoover's rationale for targeting the civil rights movement. So for years, they target Martin Luther King, but they also target a range of what they refer to as black nationalist hate groups, which was basically anybody in the civil rights universe. And the rationale for that was that either Jews/communists, were behind the movement because again, the movement wasn't capable itself of doing the things that it seemed to be doing. Or the softer version of that was that African-Americans were so pliable in some ways, that even if they weren't being controlled today by Jews or communists, they were vulnerable to being manipulated by them tomorrow. So, in one version or another, you always have the sense that Jews and communists are controlling everything associated with the civil rights movement.
GROSS: So when you were, you know, going through thousands of FBI documents related to the Ku Klux Klan, knowing that the FBI, you know, or at least that Hoover believed that the civil rights movement was a very kind of communist-inspired movement, did the FBI agents, did Hoover see any connections between his thinking and the Klan's thinking?
CUNNINGHAM: Yes, that is the odd thing, because in a lot of ways the FBI and the Klan were on the same side. I mean in a very practical way they were both trying to stem the civil rights tide and sort of combat the civil rights movement. The ideology that they used, as you're saying, was quite similar as well - the kind of rationale for why the civil rights movement is an evil thing and an un-American thing, more importantly. Somebody like J. Edgar Hoover and Robert Shelton would be saying very parallel things when they spoke publicly.
And so along with that, the FBI has an extensive counterintelligence program throughout the '60s against a range of groups that they see as threats to national security. One of those groups, and really the only right-wing group that kind of falls under the FBI's counterintelligence purview, was the KKK. And there had always been this, at least tacit sense, that the Klan program within the FBI was nothing that was serious. It was just sort of this token sense where they could say they're doing something to combat racial violence. And one of the things that surprised me about looking at all of these memos, was how similar the FBI's efforts towards the Klan were to the other enemies that were much more straightforward in terms of anti-war groups, civil rights groups, campus protesters and things like that. And they really did seriously engage with the Klan. And what Hoover saw as the Klan's problem was not its ideology, but with its sense that it could take justice into its own hands. So Hoover was the consummate law-and-order person. And this idea that people could say that they didn't need to listen to the police, didn't need to listen to the FBI, they could be their own body of law and order, was something that Hoover found incredibly distasteful.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is David Cunningham. He's the author of the new book "Klansville, U.S.A: The Rise and Fall of the Civil Rights-era Ku Klux Klan." And his book focuses on the clan in North Carolina.
Let's take a short break, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is David Cunningham. He's the author of the new book "Klansville, U.S.A: The Rise and Fall of the Civil Rights-era Ku Klux Klan."
You know, we've been talking about how the Klan organized and their hatred rhetoric, but just talk a little bit about their actions, some of the more, you know, terrifying and lethal things that the Klan did in North Carolina, the state that your book focuses on.
CUNNINGHAM: Sure. North Carolina, unlike the deeper South, was not a, sort of, place where they are was a lot of deadly violence. But more so than anywhere else, there were literally hundreds of acts of terror - and by this I mean crosses being burned down in people's lawns, bricks being thrown through people's windows, shots being fired at people's houses, beatings of people. And the way that came about was both interesting and important, I think, where the Klan would, as a mass presence, every chapter, which they would call Klaverns, would have a Klavern meeting usually every Tuesday night.
You know, I interviewed a member of a Klavern who became a state officer, but began as a garden-variety member for a number of years. And he was very clear that you'd go to a Klavern meeting and there might be 50 people there and there would be all this kind of ritualistic and just sort of accounting for the various things that the Klan was doing. And most of those were kind of the civic social things, the rallies that they were organizing, the bake sale that they were have that next weekend. And there wouldn't be overt talk of violence other than joking about violence. But what would happen is the formal meeting would end and out of the 50 people, 45 or 46 of them would go home and you'd get four or five people hanging back and they would be plotting particular acts of violence that might be responding to somebody who was trying to register a black child at a traditionally white school, an employer who had hired an African-American employee or an inappropriate, you know, quote/unquote "inappropriate relationship," that someone had gotten wind of. And so there would be efforts to regulate this through often violent means.
But interestingly, this wasn't talked about openly about in most Klan meetings. In part, that was because there was a fear that there were police informants in those meetings. And in part it was because the Klan was trying to really create this delicate balancing act between being a militant terroristic body but also being this sort of public, civic, social body that would be palatable to mainstream white North Carolinians. And so the idea was that you create strategic violence that's relatively secretive, even within the Klan.
And it doesn't make it any less deadly and it doesn't make it any less prevalent, but it's something that's going on almost in parallel to all these other things that are happening. And it is true in a way that's not disingenuous that there were certain people who were members of the Klan that could say with a straight face that they really weren't aware that people in their klavern ever did anything that was violent.
GROSS: So what would you say is the legacy of the United Klans of America in, say, North Carolina, the state that you've studied?
CUNNINGHAM: Well, one of the tragic legacies I think of the Carolina Klan is really one of continuity. My colleague Rory McVeigh and I have found that in communities where the Klan was active 50 years ago in North Carolina and throughout the South in general, those communities still have significantly higher rates of violent crime than other communities where the Klan wasn't active.
And in part that is really the legacy of sanctioned organized vigilantism where conventional authorities, thinking about how law and order and how social fabric kind of works to regulate violence in some ways, that just really gets de-legitimized. And that's a culture of violence that really endures across generations and still exists 50 years later.
Alongside that, though, I think there's a real legacy of great change. One of the really interesting things was North Carolina in 2008 is a state in the South that goes - narrowly - but goes for Obama. And to say in 50 years you have a state that goes from Klansville, U.S.A. to a state where an African-American presidential candidate can win that state is really a tremendous change in what's effectively a generation.
GROSS: Your book "Klansville, U.S.A." focuses on the rise and fall of the civil rights-era Ku Klux Klan with an emphasis on the Klan in North Carolina. What would you say is left of the Klan today?
CUNNINGHAM: Today there are certainly more Klan organizations than there have ever been, but almost all of them are tiny and marginalized. And the thing about the Klan, I think in terms of their influence and their enduring influence, is the world of racist hate organizations now is much more complicated than it's ever been. In part it's because there's a lot of blending and blurring of lines between the KKK and racist skinheads and neo-Nazi organizations and certain kinds of militia groups.
In the '60s these groups would have all been competing with each other and seen each other as very, very distinct. And today you see a lot of blurring of these lines. Some of that's really enabled by the Internet which creates a whole 'nother way of organizing people in very marginal settings.
And I think the Klan's predominant influence is that their symbolism, their ideology, their kind of organizing modes, have really permeated this kind of whole world of racist hate organizations, even if the organizations that we're talking about aren't Klan groups, per se.
GROSS: Well, David Cunningham, thank you so much for talking with us.
CUNNINGHAM: Thank you for having me. I've really enjoyed it.
GROSS: David Cunningham is the author of "Klansville, U.S.A.: The Rise and Fall of the Civil Rights-Era Ku Klux Klan." You can read an excerpt on our website freshair.npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.