Born less than a year after Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, the Klu Klux Klan is America’s oldest hate group. It burned crosses. It opposed the immigration of Catholics and Jews. And it lynched hundreds of African Americans. Even Superman took it on.
But what’s past is prologue. Now, a Klansman in Montana has taken on the formidable task of re-branding KKK as a group that celebrates diversity.
You read that right.
“The KKK is for a strong America,” John Abarr told the Great Falls Tribune. “White supremacy is the old Klan. This is the new Klan.”
Abarr isn’t just pulling an elaborate performance art stunt, a la Andy Kaufman’s “inter-gender wrestling” or Joaquin Phoenix in “I’m Still Here.” Last year, after KKK literature was distributed in Wyoming, an NAACP chapter there asked the hate group for a meeting. In what the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) said was a first, the two mortal enemies sat down to hash out more than a century of mutual opposition.
Abarr represented the white team.
The KKK, Abarr said — known for, say, blowing up a Baptist church in Birmingham, Ala., in 1963, killing four young African American girls — isn’t what it’s made out to be.
“We’re not about violence,” he said. “We’re about being proud to be white.”
But even after his meeting with NAACP, Abarr wasn’t yet ready for an all-inclusive KKK. “You have to be white to join the Klan,” he said — but he did join the NAACP, paying a $30 registration fee plus a $20 donation.
Now, like President Obama on gay marriage, Abarr’s views have evolved. He didn’t say how many people were in his new group, called the Rocky Mountain Knights, but said “the organization will not discriminate against people because of race, religion or sexual orientation,” as the Great Falls Tribune put it.
Abarr found few supporters for the announcement among those who wear white hoods or those who don’t. Hating a friendlier KKK seems to be something everyone can agree on.
For some African American activists, a Klan that smiles is a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
“It’s about opening dialogue with a group that claims they’re trying to reform themselves from violence,” said Jimmy Simmons, president of the NAACP for Casper, Wyo., who asked Abarr for the 2013 meeting. But: “They’re trying to shed that violent skin, but it seems like they’re just changing the packaging.”
The SPLC has also warned against a kinder, gentler KKK.
“Since the 1970s the Klan has been greatly weakened by internal conflicts, court cases, a seemingly endless series of splits and government infiltration,” the group wrote on its Web site. “While some factions have preserved an openly racist and militant approach, others have tried to enter the mainstream, cloaking their racism as mere ‘civil rights for whites.'”
And no one seems more horrified by Abarr’s version of the KKK than, well, the KKK.
“That man’s going against everything the bylaws of the constitution of the KKK say,” said United Klans of America Imperial Wizard Bradley Jenkins. “He’s trying to hide behind the KKK to further his political career.”
Indeed, Abarr is not a stranger to the political stage. In 2011, he sought a congressional seat in Montana as a Republican, seeking marijuana legalization, a flat tax, abortion rights and an end to capital punishment. This seemed quite the moderate platform — until Abarr discussed the need “to save the White Race.”
“I think that the fact Obama got elected shows that the white people are starting to lose their political power,” Abarr — who tried to distance himself from the KKK during the election — said. “I am running to draw attention to the fact that white people are becoming a minority and losing our political power and way of life.”
Republicans weren’t happy, and Abarr ended up dropping out.
“There’s no room for racism in our party,” said Rick Hill, Montana’s Republican candidate for governor in 2012. “That is not what we are about, and we have never been about that.”
For once, hate crime activists agreed with the Klan.
“If John Abarr was actually reformed, he could drop the label of the KKK,” Rachel Carroll-Rivas, co-director of the Montana Human Rights Network, told the Great Falls Tribune.