“He rolled up in a powder blue Lincoln Town Car with a vanity license plate that said ‘Never,’” recalls David Cunningham about his 2002 meeting with Robert M. Shelton, one-time Imperial Wizard of the United Klans of America (UKA). The arranged meeting place was a Burger King outside of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, the haunt of Shelton and “his boys,” who had an agreement with the fast food joint’s manager to patronize the restaurant daily — thereby keeping the parking lot looking full — in exchange for a break on the price of coffee. “He slapped a dime, a nickel, and four pennies on the counter to demonstrate that he could get a large coffee for nineteen cents,” continues Cunningham, who says that Shelton still had the swaggering persona and the mentality that he and his boys could get things done. “But by then it was getting cheap coffee at Burger King, and in some ways that encapsulated the Klan’s downward evolution from the 1960s to the 2000s.”
Four decades earlier Shelton had been national leader of the most prominent Ku Klux Klan group, one that boasted upwards of 500 chapters (referred to, in Klan parlance, as “klaverns”) with 25,000 members in ten states. And “Never” — the segregationist slogan of the 1960s — hadn’t yet been rendered moot by legislation like the Civil Rights Act. It was a time when the UKA regularly held daytime marches called “street walks” (which were designed to “humanize” klansmen), and when rallies climaxed with dramatic cross burnings. It was also a time when more militant KKK factions like the Mississippi-based White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan shot, beat, and otherwise brutalized and intimidated African-Americans, as well as whites who were deemed not sufficiently “authentic.”
But as unlikely as it may seem, it was in North Carolina, the most progressive state in the South, where the Klan organized most successfully. In fact, in the mid-1960s the UKA had more members in North Carolina than all other southern states combined, which led UKA members to describe the Tar Heel state as “the heart of Klan country.”
In “Klansville, U.S.A.” (Oxford University Press) Cunningham, a sociology professor at Brandeis University, examines the history of the civil-rights era KKK, and explains why the Klan’s message resonated most strongly in North Carolina. Expanding on that topic in the following Failure interview, Cunningham also discusses the 1920s-era Klan (which boasted millions of members nationwide), as well as the infamous Greensboro Massacre, the novel legal strategy that ultimately put the UKA out of business, and the lessons we can learn from the rise and fall of the KKK.
Let’s start with the conventional wisdom that the civil rights-era Klan thrived predominantly within isolated communities in the Deep South. Why is that the case?
If you look at what has been written about the Klan and what people talk about it tends to be the deadly events that happened in the Deep South. There were very overt clashes with civil rights groups down in Mississippi and Alabama and by extension people assume they must have had a huge membership in that area. That’s an inference that has held for the past fifty years.
Where, in fact, did the Klan thrive?
In 1965 there were more UKA members in North Carolina — somewhere in the vicinity of 13,000 — than the rest of the South put together. It’s easy to think of “The Klan” as a unitary entity, but there were multiple organizations within the organization. Each state mattered because there was a leadership structure responsible for organizing in each state and each mobilized in different ways.
Why did the UKA become the most prominent KKK group?
It was the group that garden variety segregationists could be drawn to. It had by far the largest membership and it lasted a long time. You can say a lot of things about Shelton but he was a very talented organizer in the sense that he created a model that was durable. He wanted people to come out. He wanted people to come to weekly meetings. He wanted people to demonstrate their patriotism. And these were things that almost anybody could do. Even after the UKA experienced a sharp decline, he still marched on until the mid-1980s when the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) put him out of business with a lawsuit.
Can you explain the difference between the UKA and the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan?
The White Knights were a state organization; they remain well-known because they were essentially a paramilitary group — an underground organization that was incredibly brutal. So if you’re looking for the most intensely violent, militaristic Klan organization clearly the White Knights fit that bill.
The UKA was basically the inverse of that. Shelton had this idea that his organization needed to have a public face to attract the masses. He saw the organization as being a political force — a voting bloc that could have influence on politicians. He was big into having street walks and having a show of force in terms of sheer numbers.
Tell me about the social aspect of being part of the UKA.
Most people’s entry into the Klan came through its rallies, which occurred more often in North Carolina than anywhere else. Every night they would have a rally somewhere in the state [rallies which in some ways resembled county fairs]. You could buy dinner and refreshments. You could listen to live music and buy souvenirs and get Klan literature. There were also Klan speakers, and the rallies ended with this act of theater — the cross burning. There would be a huge seventy foot high cross and the klansmen would circle it and music would be playing and they would throw their torches in the middle and light the cross.
But once people joined, not only would there be weekly meetings but there would be all these other events that each local klavern organized. They would have fish fry’s or turkey shoots on the weekend, they would hold religious services, and they would hold charitable fundraising drives. They saw mainstream institutions as impure because they were integrated. So they tried to create a parallel, insulated, purely white world. In that sense almost anything you could do out in the world, the Klan tried to create a parallel KKK version of it.
But it wasn’t enough to be white you had to be the right kind of white person, right?
On all their flyers they wanted it to be very clear these were public events because they were trying to get thousands of people to come out. Their flyers would say, “White public invited.” But that was a very loaded term. To be white you had to be committed to segregation as well. To them that was biblically and politically ordained.
What were some of the common grievances of Klan members?
The primary thing that was motivating people throughout was a segregated way of life, especially in working-class communities where a good portion of the white community would have been in competition with African-Americans. The thought of integrating communities was a social threat but it was also an economic threat and therefore a political threat.
But there was a lot of talk about a whole way of life going away. What was behind that, of course, was racial policy. But often times it was talked about in terms of communism, in terms of religion being subordinated to this kind of secular idea of politics. At rallies Shelton would talk for forty minutes and he would barely mention race or civil rights. It would all be about the communist threat and the dissolution of America as people knew it and the downfall of the Christian nation. All of these things were rolled into the sense of threat.
Among the countless vigilante groups that have emerged since the Civil War, why did the KKK attract so many more followers than all the others?
Very early on the KKK established a system of rituals and symbolism that remain resonant to this day — like white hoods and burning crosses. It captured the public imagination by having a whole system of symbolism around a set of ideals. When the Klan first emerged in the 1860s they were brutal for three or four years and then they go away. If that was the end of the Klan they would be a historical footnote and wouldn’t look much different than all the other ineffectual groups.
But when they re-emerged in the mid- to late-1910s, people looked back in a very romantic way at all of the symbolism. As much as anything it was [D.W. Griffith’s] Birth of a Nation, which was seen as a landmark film, which cemented that. The Klan became this heroic force in that backward-looking film in a very nostalgic way. In the 1920s the Klan had millions of members and they were active all over the country.
Tell me more about what sparked that national presence.
Birth of a Nation came out in 1915 and that’s when [a failed minister and salesman] William Simmons tried to revitalize the Klan. Birth of a Nation was a popular film nationally, so wherever you were you would be aware of that symbolism and story. One of the things Simmons did three or four years later — because it took a while for that wave of the Klan to catch on — was to hire two marketing people. And what they did was to hire hundreds of what they called kleages — local organizers. The idea was for those people to go out and not spread the gospel of the Klan in any unitary way but to go and find out what people locally were concerned about and then talk about how the Klan was an effective response to those grievances.
So one of the interesting things about the Klan is that if you showed up at a clan meeting or rally in Oregon versus New York versus Alabama there were overarching themes you would recognize. But a lot of what was going on was tailored to what was happening locally. They were very good at creating an overarching structure that could be politically effective but still seemingly responsive to people in local communities.
What did the Women of the Ku Klux Klan do?
In the 1910s you had an actual women’s Klan, and in the sixties you get a mirror image of that when there were ladies’ auxiliary units running parallel. Those are interesting groups because the Klan has always been a patriarchal organization; it’s very much about “traditional family values.” And what men and women do is traditional in that sense.
So in the 1920s and ’60s women provided the food and drink at the rallies. They would also do a lot of the charitable work that the Klan would say was a main goal. It’s a farce to say that the Klan was a charitable organization. But they would do things that would support different groups and communities. Women tended to spearhead that work. They would visit people in hospitals and they would bring bags of food to people who were needy. So it created this civic sheen.
And the Junior Klan?
The Junior Klan took off in the 1920s. Throughout the sixties one of Shelton’s major goals was to replicate the Junior Klan but it never quite caught on. The Klan was trying to present itself as a family organization, so it only made sense to figure out what to do with the kids to create a family atmosphere. To some degree I am puzzled why it didn’t catch on more fully because a lot of civil rights-era Klan members talked about how important it was that they could bring their families to the events.
What are the primary factors that led to the Klan’s downfall?
I argue that the Klan’s downfall is almost entirely a policing story. There are two things that people assume about the Klan’s fall in any era. One is that they become irrelevant — that they become a joke because they are always fighting for a lost cause. The second thing, which is related to that, is that the Klan can be ridiculed away. There is a fairly famous story that I tell in the book from the late 1950s in which a Klan leader named James “Catfish” Cole held a rally in a North Carolina county [Robeson] with a significant Native American population. And the klansmen were run off by a group of [Lumbee] Indians who had guns. It looked like the Klan was a bunch of cowards. It became a national story and the Klan was ridiculed. But if you look carefully, the Klan actually grew in the year after the Catfish Cole fiasco. And in a lot of ways the Klan has always thrived on ridicule. They are fueled by the fact that they are opposed by people that they think aren’t adequately defending their way of life. So the idea that ridicule is in itself going to eliminate the Klan isn’t true.
What I’ve found is that when the Klan are policed that seems to be very effective. One of the things that happened in North Carolina beginning in 1966 is that police officials start to take the Klan very seriously. That stemmed from a set of hearings that the House Un-American Activities Committee initiated. Then it became national news that Carolina was #1 for the Klan. And everyone from the governor on down established a coordinated campaign to hinder the Klan’s ability to organize. They started arresting people, having court injunctions that prevented them from having rallies, and doing all sorts of things that made it really risky to be in the Klan. And the Klan melted away.
How did the passage of the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act impact the Klan?
The Civil Rights Act passed in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965 and the Klan’s heyday extended at least a year beyond the Voting Rights Act. In an immediate sense, it didn’t create a ‘throw-up-your-hands we lost that one’ response where people go away with their tail between their legs. The initial reaction was one of defiance. Publicly that’s what the Klan was doing; they were speaking out in very defiant ways and saying the federal government is trying to control us but we are never going to stand for it. That sense of defiance fueled their membership for a period of time. But over time the changes associated with the Acts were implemented and it became harder for them to maintain that defiance.
What about the Greensboro Massacre? What happened on that day in 1979 and what is its legacy?
In some ways the Greensboro Massacre was the last gasp of the UKA. It was about a decade after the UKA experienced a very steep decline. The only people left in Klan circles by then tended to be the most militant, marginal members. These were people so committed to the Klan that they were going to be involved regardless of how ineffectual and small it was. They blended with various neo-Nazi groups, so it was a hodgepodge of crackpot right-wingers.
What happened for about five years before the Greensboro Massacre is that there was an aggressive response to the Klan by various left-wing groups. One of the things that fueled the Klan in the 1970s is the sense that people were out to get them. [On November 3, 1979] there was an anti-Klan march [in Greensboro, North Carolina], which was organized by the Communist Workers Party. Klan members showed up and there was what some people call a shootout and what other people call a massacre. It was a shootout in the sense that both sides were armed and both sides shot. It was a massacre in that all the deadly injuries happened on one side.
The fallout is that there were three trials that stemmed from the event, and despite the fact that the Greensboro Massacre was caught on film — you see [Klan members] methodically going into the trunk of a car and pulling out guns and then shooting and killing people — they were not convicted.
Tell me about what happened to Michael Donald in 1981. And how did the subsequent lawsuit impact the Klan?
Michael Donald [a nineteen-year-old African-American] lived in Mobile, Alabama, and he was the victim of a lynching by a few members of the UKA. He was effectively chosen at random. The important part of that case is that the SPLC filed a groundbreaking civil lawsuit which argued that an organization could be responsible for acts committed in its name by its members. (Shelton would always say it was people acting on their own and that the UKA never sanctioned these acts.) But the SPLC won the lawsuit on the grounds that Shelton and the UKA were responsible. And that put them out of business. All the UKA’s assets were ultimately given over to Donald’s mother, though at that point the only significant asset that it had was a big meeting space outside of Tuscaloosa. Shelton never did anything else with the Klan after the mid-1980s. And that kind of legal strategy became a precedent for how you could effectively put racial hate groups out of business.
What are some of the lessons we can take away from the rise and fall of the Ku Klux Klan?
Taking groups like this seriously is in part about speaking out against them and saying, “This isn’t what our community stands for.” There is a popular sense that the South unitarily supported the Klan even though not everybody was a member. But that is not true. It’s important to remember that every time the Klan would have a rally people would speak out against them. But that in itself doesn’t prevent the Klan from growing and thriving. What really does it is this parallel policing effort.
And while the Klan has largely disappeared and their goals have been largely unmet you see a real lingering impact of Klan activity. Through the research I’ve done with a colleague of mine — Rory McVeigh at the University of Notre Dame — we have found that communities where the Klan was active in the 1960s still have elevated rates of violent crime. One of the things that the Klan did is that they disrupted the social fabric of a lot of these communities. Authority was delegitimized and people would say: We are going to take care of this ourselves. We are not going to count on the police or our leadership. Fifty years later these communities are still trying to heal from the presence of the Klan and violent crime is still more predominant there than in communities where the Klan wasn’t active. One of the lessons about the dangers of these vigilante efforts is that they disrupt things more broadly than you think.