Foreign Policy Essay

150 Years of Hate: The Resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan

By Michèle St-Amant
Sunday, May 29, 2016, 10:26 AM

Editor's Note: Although the presidential candidates, our media, and most importantly, Lawfare, tend to focus on the danger from Al Qaeda and the Islamic State, right-wing groups have been a more lethal terrorist threat to the U.S. homeland since 9/11 than have jihadists. Michele  St-Amant of GWU's Program on Extremism looks at this trend. She focuses on the notorious Ku Klux Klan, perhaps the worst group America has ever produced, and assesses the troubling reasons that explain its resurgence today.

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As the clock struck midnight on Thanksgiving in 1915, a group of men clambered to the top of Georgia’s Stone Mountain, lit a wooden cross ablaze to symbolize the revival of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), and pledged their allegiance to the Constitution, Christianity, and preserving an America rife with racism. Over 100 years later, cross-burnings still tarnish our country: after decades of stagnation, the KKK – America’s oldest and bloodiest terrorist organization – is showing signs of a comeback. A report released in February 2016 by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) found that the number of active Klan groups increased from 72 in 2014 to 190 in 2015 – a 163% increase which includes an explosion of new chapters within existing groups, and the reappearance of older groups. In 2015, the Klan experienced some reinvigoration from the hundreds of pro-Confederate flag rallies across the country that followed South Carolina’s decision to remove the Confederate flag from its statehouse grounds, which came after a gunman massacred nine black churchgoers in Charleston.

It is difficult to pin exactly how much violence is committed by individual Klan groups, because of their diverse nature and also because many individuals involved in right-wing extremist violence are often not prosecuted under terrorism statutes. Despite this, the SPLC report noted that while most categories of domestic hate groups have undergone a general decline, the Klan experienced a significant increase in growth. Another report from 2012 by Arie Perliger at the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point found that the Klan carried out nearly a third of the 593 documented attacks perpetrated by the larger white supremacy movement between 1990 and 2012, with the vast majority of these attacks occurring after 2002. Coupled with the increasing militia-mindedness and ‘Nazification’ of some Klan groups, these findings paint a disturbing picture of the Klan’s increasing potential for violence.  

This begs the question: why don’t we hear about the Klan more often? And likewise, what are we doing to counter the potential threat posed from a burgeoning Klan?

Although right-wing extremist groups like the Army of God, the Order, Skinheads and the Aryan Nations can also be found in the United States, over the last 150 years the KKK has managed to morph its structure and ideology to stay relevant. Traditionally, most experts describe the Klan’s history in terms of three distinctive waves or eras that ‘ebb and flow:’ the first occurred between 1865 and 1882; the second between 1915 and the mid-late 1920s; and the third began in the 1960s, technically lasting until today. In each case, the Klan’s initial rise was influenced by periods of momentous civil transformation and subsequently fizzled out.

Despite this, the SPLC report noted that while most categories of domestic hate groups have undergone a general decline, the Klan experienced a significant increase in growth.

Although the first and third waves of the Klan had an overtly narrow ideology – the belief that African Americans should be subordinate to white Americans – the extremely powerful and influential second wave of the Klan embraced a much more robust one: Catholics, Jews, immigrants, anti-Prohibitionists, and more were all fair game. To be sure, the Klan consistently espoused hatred for these various groups, but it did so to varying degrees across the waves.

Structurally, the first and second waves were hierarchical and centralized, while the third was much less so due to a series of legal scandals in the 1920s that swayed favorable public opinion away from the Klan and shattered the ‘moralistic’ and ‘law-abiding’ image it had built during the second wave. During the Klan’s height of power in the mid-1920s, the Indiana Klan’s Grand Dragon David Curtis Stephenson became involved in a series of legal scandals, including reports of attempted rapes and sexual assaults. His ultimate downfall occurred when in November 1925 he was convicted of murdering a woman named Madge Oberholtzer. According to the evidence presented during the trial, Stephenson savagely raped and bit Oberholtzer all over her body causing severe lacerations and leading her to attempt suicide by mercury poisoning. Oberholtzer died a few weeks later from a combination of infection from the lacerations and organ failure from mercury poisoning.

When the third wave of the Klan rose during the Civil Rights era of the 1960s, it looked much different. What appeared was a highly decentralized Klan with dozens of competing autonomous groups each claiming to be the ‘true’ ideological descendent of the original Klan. Unfortunately, a more splintered, de-centralized group is also more difficult for law enforcement to monitor, and competition among factions can produce more violence. As Klan expert and sociology professor David Cunningham told PBS, “marginal, isolated extremist cells themselves can become breeding grounds for unpredictable violence.”

With the enactment of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act in 1964 and 1965, respectively, the Klan began to fizzle out. Threatened by other competing right-wing groups such as the Aryan Nations and the Order, the Klan largely faded into the background during the latter decades of the 20th century.

Although some believe the current period is a continuation of the third wave, the recent Klan activity detailed by SPLC’s 2016 report points to a different story. Not only is the Klan growing, but it is also driven by a more robust ideology similar to that of the second wave. Unlike the third wave, this period is fueled by hatred of Muslims, anti-immigration, anti-Semitism, and anti-LGBT sentiments, as well as racism towards African Americans. In a recent Vice News documentary about the Klan, Daryl Johnson, former senior domestic terrorism analyst at the Department of Homeland Security said with respect to domestic extremism, “We’re currently in one of the hottest periods of extremist activity that I’ve seen in my 20-year career.” Today, the SPLC estimates there are roughly between 5,000-8,000 members across the dozens of independent groups that use variations of the Klan name.

Not only is the Klan growing, but it is also driven by a more robust ideology similar to that of the second wave.

Not only is Klan membership growing, but the groups have also demonstrated an uptick in activity compared to the latter part of the 20th century. In 2000, a civil lawsuit was filed against one of the most aggressive Klan groups at the time – the Indiana-based American Knights of the Ku Klux Klan – for holding two journalists hostage at gunpoint the previous year. In 2005, Klansman Daniel James Schertz pleaded guilty to attempting to blow up buses carrying Mexican workers in Florida. In the summer of 2006, a 16-year old was viciously beaten by two members of the Imperial Klans of America at a fair in Kentucky, because the teen was mistakenly believed to be Latino. In November 2014, the Missouri-based Traditionalist American Knights threatened to use ‘lethal force’ against protestors in Ferguson. In a 2015 BBC documentary about the Alabama Loyal White Knights, one Klansman stated they are preparing for a “great war,” where “you’ll see a bunch of Americans getting killed and blown up.” Also in 2015, Carolina Knights of the KKK founder Frazier Glenn Miller was sentenced to death for killing three people outside of a Jewish community center in 2014. Although these are just a handful of examples, they indeed reinforce the argument that we are witnessing increased activity and a fourth, distinct wave of KKK history. (For more examples of KKK violence, see the SPLC’s hate crime incidents database).

After 9/11, law enforcement efforts shifted towards the threat from jihadist terrorism, and as a result, ignited an ongoing debate about whether right-wing or jihadist terrorists have killed more people. Regardless, it is important to remember that extremism is not bound to a single color, shape, or ideology, and that right-wing extremists are just as capable of carrying out attacks as jihadists.

There have been some promising steps towards more effectively addressing the threats posed by radical right-wing extremists, like the re-establishment of the Attorney General’s Domestic Terrorism Executive Committee (DTEC) in June 2015 and the creation of a new Domestic Terrorism Counsel position at the National Security Division (NSD). However, the momentum must not stop there.

It is critical that law enforcement officials at every level of government have all the necessary tools at their disposal to effectively counter the potential threat posed by the Klan and other radical right-wing extremists. According to domestic terrorism expert Daryl Johnson in a statement to the Senate in 2012, there are many effective ways to do this. Johnson cites a severe shortage of domestic terrorism analysts at the federal level as one major shortcoming, especially the void of qualified domestic terrorism specialists following a wave of retirements after the 1990s. Similarly, he calls for the FBI to resume publishing the annual “Terrorism in the United States” report (discontinued in 2006), which provided the public, state, and local law enforcement with invaluable statistical analysis and policy information about domestic terrorism trends. Additionally, the Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) state and local law enforcement training program known as SLATT should be expanded to include other agencies, as well as other elements of right-wing extremism.

These tools are essential, because, in some cases, pursuing radical right-wing groups in the U.S. can be more difficult than pursuing jihadists. Under U.S. law and the protections of the First Amendment, belonging to a hate group such as the KKK is not illegal; nor is the Klan a designated terrorist organization like al Qaeda or the Islamic State. Rather than prosecuting individuals under terrorism statutes – which is a common legal approach used to charge American Islamic State or al Qaeda supporters who may not have yet committed acts of violence – dealing with radical right-wing groups requires relying strictly on the law enforcement approach. Put simply, law enforcement officials must concentrate on the violation of federal statutes, the solicitation to commit violence or actual violence committed by individuals themselves, rather than demonstrating membership or association with radical right-wing groups or prosecuting them under terrorism statutes. These conditions require that law enforcement officials have every tool necessary to counter violence from the growing threat of the Klan and other associated groups.   

From history, we know that there has always been a spike in Klan activity during unrest and momentous civil transformation. Today, this is occurring as a distinct fourth wave following 9/11 and the issues that have arisen since, including the immigration debate, where one Klan group called for ‘corpses’ along the U.S-Mexican border, or the fight for LGBT rights, which led another chapter to call for its members to “kill gay people.” The infamous cross-burnings are a symbol of a gruesome past that we might want to forget, but by doing so we also risk losing sight of the terror and hate that the KKK was, and still is, capable of.