When North Carolina was Klansville, USA
The rise and fall of the civil rights-era Ku Klux Klan.
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“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.