“Klansville U.S.A: The Rise and Fall of the Civil Rights-Era Ku Klux Klan” by David Cunningham

Apersonal note may be in order here. In the summer of 1964, after three years of journalistic apprenticeship in Washington and New York, I returned to North Carolina, where I had spent four years of college, and joined the editorial staff of the Greensboro Daily News (now the Greensboro News-Record) as an editorial writer. It was a time of intense and often emotional activity on the civil rights front, and, as the city where the sit-in movement had begun three years earlier, Greensboro was right in the middle of it. The Daily News, like all the other major papers in the state’s medium-size cities, was moderate by inclination though rather more conservative on the subject of civil rights than I. Still, I wrote about civil rights and related matters throughout the decade I was there and was pretty much given a free hand.


By coincidence, my arrival in Greensboro coincided almost exactly with the quite startling revival of the Ku Klux Klan in North Carolina. “By the summer of 1964,” David Cunningham writes in “Klansville, U.S.A.,” “the Carolina Klan established a demanding schedule of nightly rallies across the state, where they enlisted thousands of dues-paying members.” More than that, “at its mid-1960s peak the [Klan’s] presence in North Carolina eclipsed klan membership in all other southern states combined.” (Cunningham puts “klan” in lowercase because it was a diverse organization, or disorganization, with many offshoots, some of them mutually incompatible.) For obvious reasons Cunningham’s book is of great interest to me, albeit a great disappointment, about which more later.

More from Jonathan Yardley

Archive

(Oxford Univ.) - ‘Klansville, U.S.A: The Rise and Fall of the Civil Rights-era Ku Klux Klan’ by David Cunningham

That North Carolina should have been the state where the KKK thrived most during the mid-1960s — Cunningham reports that in mid-1966 it had 192 Klaverns and 52.2 percent of the total Klan membership in the 10 states of the South — was a mystery to many and a source of considerable dismay to the state’s leadership, which prided itself on its nonviolent response to the challenges posed by the civil rights movement. The state had been described by V.O. Key, in his immensely influential (if now somewhat dated) “Southern Politics in State and Nation” (1949), as “energetic and ambitious” with “a reputation for progressive outlook and action in many phases of life, especially industrial development, education, and race relations,” a judgment that had been confirmed by the election in 1960 of a notably capable and progressive governor, Terry Sanford.

But North Carolina has always been a much more complicated (and interesting) place than its publicists have claimed. If Raleigh, Greensboro, Winston-Salem and Charlotte generally shunned confrontation over civil rights and mostly avoided violence, their efforts at amelioration were largely token in nature and did not disturb the fundamental social, economic and political order. The university at Chapel Hill and its cohorts in Raleigh and Greensboro (there was as yet no multi-branched Consolidated University of North Carolina) were nationally known for their academic excellence and open-mindedness, but it was well into the 1980s before any of them became more than tokenly integrated.

Most important, east of Raleigh all the way to the Atlantic coast was an area as entrenched in antediluvian racial customs and animosities as any place in the Deep South. “North Carolina’s eastern counties were the [United Klans of America’s] stronghold,” Cunningham writes. “Mark their klaverns on a map, [UKA leader] George Dorsett quipped, and it looked like the area had the measles. A sweeping congressional inquiry found that ninety-five of the UKA’s North Carolina units — nearly 60 percent of the state’s overall total — were located there, though the region housed only a third of the state’s residents.”

Greensboro and its surrounding area had plenty of Klan members, more than a few of whom made their feelings known to editors and writers at the Daily News — at least one of whom, to my recollection, found a fiery cross planted in his front lawn — but the east was the KKK’s most fertile ground.

Why, then, did the KKK thrive in ostensibly “liberal,” or at least “progressive,” North Carolina? In the specific case of Greensboro, Cunningham suggests “the combustible admixture of pride and anger stemming from the city’s status as ground zero for the sit-in movement, and the resulting political conservatism concealed by a veneer of civility.” Precisely why the city’s indisputable conservatism should be ascribed to the sit-in movement is a mystery — Greensboro was conservative long before that — but it is true that beneath the city’s “veneer” of moderation seethed animosities just waiting to find expression.

More broadly, Cunningham strikes me as getting close to the truth when he argues that the KKK found a warm welcome in North Carolina because both the state government and the private establishment offered almost no consolation to those thirsting to express extreme racial antagonisms. Mississippi had Ross Barnett and the Citizens Councils, Alabama had George Wallace, South Carolina had Strom Thurmond, but North Carolina disguised its segregationist policies behind the rhetoric of moderation and goodwill. The ranting and raving were left not to those in power but to those on the outside, hence the appeal of the Klan. Cunningham, a sociologist at Brandeis who speaks sociologese pure and simple, puts it this way: “The broad political arena that circumscribed the public articulation of racial interests also shaped the resonance of the klan’s racist appeals and militant brand of resistance,” and: “States that adopted a more moderate stance had few outlets for staunch segregationists. In those settings, and especially where whites perceived their economic and political well-being as tied to racial separation, the UKA filled a void, providing in some cases the only organized means for uncompromising resistance to federal policies.”

This strikes me as essentially accurate, though you need a lexicon to translate some of it. That is what makes “Klansville, U.S.A.” so maddening. It is not without its perceptive moments, but these too often are expressed in language that even the most intelligent and patient general reader will be hard pressed to swallow. Cunningham babbles on about the likes of “mediated competition model” and “ethnic competition theory” and occasionally erupts into passages that would be hilarious if they were intended as self-parody but, alas, are not:

“The mediated competition model advanced here contends that this confluence of factors shapes ethnic mobilization. Significant inter-group competition for resources creates the baseline conditions for group members to feel threatened, but such perceived threats translate into contentious action only when they emerge within a conducive political environment, where regulative policing is minimal or absent, and alongside sufficient material, social, and cultural resources to channel group members’ discontent into sustained organization.”

Et cetera. Look, I realize that almost all fields of specialization have their own vocabularies, even if many of them have precious little to do with the English language as the rest of us know it, but if the distinguished Oxford University Press is going to offer a book as being of interest to a general readership, shouldn’t it insist that the book be written in a language the same readership actually can read? Only those with a passionate interest in the subject (such as myself) or a strong stomach for indigestible prose are likely to make it through to the end of this book, where we learn that the KKK withered away in North Carolina because the state and local governments finally decided to crack down on it.

It would be interesting to know whether the person who inspired Cunningham with the suggestion that “somebody really needs to write a good book about the civil rights-era Klan” believes that this is that book.

bookworld@washpost.com

KLANSVILLE, U.S.A.

The Rise and Fall of the

Civil Rights-Era Ku Klux Klan

By David Cunningham

Oxford Univ. 337 pp. $29.95

 
Read what others are saying

    Five myths about Easter

    The zealots win again

    Has the West got Putin yet?