Donald Trump’s recent refusal on CNN’s “State of the Union” to disavow Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke has reignited debates over the Klan’s role in national politics. That’s not surprising. Its long history has been marked by spectacular rises and falls, from its terrorist origins in the aftermath of the Civil War to its massive revival as a nativist movement in the 1920s and its refashioning as a brutal anti-civil-rights vigilante squad in the 1960s. Today, Klan chapters continue to recruit small and marginal memberships. While the KKK’s white hoods, flowing robes and fiery crosses remain resonant symbols of racial terror and white supremacy, misconceptions abound. Here are five of the most pervasive myths.
1. The KKK is too weak to pose a real threat today.
When the KKK planned a rally outside the South Carolina statehouse in 2015, its opponents said there was nothing to fear. “The Klan today is weak, poorly led, divided internally,” Southern Poverty Law Center fellow Mark Potok told the Christian Science Monitor. Others have echoed that sentiment, calling the Klan “weak,” “lonely” and even a “wannabe” hate group.
It’s true that today’s Klan is really dozens of different, mostly disconnected groups. Last month, the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project identified 190 active units spread across 31 distinct organizations. Membership in these groups is relatively small and factionalized, with overall participation estimated at fewer than 10,000. (At its peak in the 1920s, Klan membership exceeded 4 million.)
But this very marginalization can breed unpredictable acts of violence. Paradoxically, during periods when the KKK enjoyed a mass following, Klan violence was easier to police. Back then, leaders seeking to maintain their organizations had incentive to rein in unauthorized attacks by individual members. Today, the KKK’s lack of an overarching structure can encourage plots by “lone wolves” or isolated cells. An increasing presence on the Internet exacerbates this tendency, with sympathizers such as alleged Charleston, S.C., church shooter Dylann Roof easily able to access materials promoting and encouraging terrorism in the name of white supremacy.
2. The KKK’s primary support is in the rural South.
In pop culture, the Klan is portrayed as a primarily Southern phenomenon. Quentin Tarantino ridicules the KKK in “Django Unchained,” set in the Deep South. George Clooney scuffles with the Klan in the Mississippi-based “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” Atticus Finch sympathizes with — then later denounces — the group in Harper Lee’s Alabama-based books.
While the original KKK was a distinctly Southern movement, developed and led by Confederate veterans, the revived Klan’s 1920s heyday featured a national and predominantly urban base, with the Midwest, Southwest and Eastern Seaboard emerging as powerful Klan centers. Denver, Detroit and Philadelphia each boasted memberships greater than 20,000.
During the civil rights era, Klan activity again became concentrated in the South, and much of the KKK’s most brutal violence took place against Southern civil rights forces. But the group’s strongholds were not in rural locales. They were in and around cities such as Birmingham, Ala., Greensboro, N.C., Raleigh, N.C., and Jacksonville, Fla.
In the ensuing decades, the KKK’s geographic reach has again broadened. Today, the Southern Poverty Law Center’s comprehensive “hate map” locates active KKK units in 34 states, from New England to the West Coast.
3. The KKK operates largely in secret, hiding its members’
The Klan is most notoriously associated with terrorist acts committed under the cover of darkness, with perpetrators’ identities concealed by hoods. Media accounts back up this stereotype. One British article offers a “glimpse into secretive rituals.” A History Channel documentary promises to get inside this “secret society.” Slate described the Klan as one of the “most feared, secretive, and marginalized pockets of society around the world.”
At times, KKK members have used hoods to protect themselves and create symbolic cachet. But more often, Klan groups have behaved like public organizations, trumpeting their presence and civic contributions. In 1925, KKK leaders showed off their burgeoning membership and political influence by organizing a Klan parade down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington. The event drew more than 40,000 unmasked members. During the 1960s, KKK outfits staged nightly “street walks” in Southern cities, with hundreds of members marching, unhidden, through local business districts to drum up attention for nearby rallies and to underscore members’ open presence in the community.
Such skewed civic-mindedness extended to a range of social events and charitable acts, from Klan church services, fish fries and turkey shoots to campaigns to deliver food and other necessities to the sick or needy. In the 1970s, David Duke upped the ante, exchanging robes for three-piece suits in an effort to enhance his group’s respectability and appeal.
Today’s self-styled KKK leaders claim to be opening new frontiers by, say, launching websites or organizing marches through local downtowns. In fact, these actions are part of a long lineage of checkered efforts by the Klan to achieve public legitimacy.
4. The KKK enjoyed public support from segregationist politicians in the civil-rights-era South.
In his 1963 inaugural speech, Alabama Gov. George Wallace famously delivered an impassioned defense, chanting, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!” A year earlier, Mississippi Gov. Ross Barnett announced that he was a “segregationist and . . . proud of it.”
But despite these bold proclamations, the alliance between Klansmen and politicians was very complicated. Like a number of his Jim Crow-era counterparts, Wallace tolerated the Klan, courted its membership’s votes and at times leveraged KKK influence to shore up his segregationist flank. But segregationist politicians stopped short of publicly promoting lawlessness or otherwise validating the Klan’s brand of organized terrorism. Tellingly, when a journalist caught Wallace on film shaking hands with national Klan leader Robert Shelton during Wallace’s 1968 presidential campaign, a member of the governor’s staff instructed an Alabama state trooper to grab the camera and destroy the film. That’s because the Klan polarized the Southern white electorate. While an overwhelming percentage supported segregation in the 1960s, a significant contingent was repelled by the KKK’s violent extralegal means.
Politicians struggled to appeal to both camps. Before his 1964 election as North Carolina governor, centrist Dan K. Moore responded to state KKK leader Bob Jones’s endorsement by claiming not to know “the nature of the Klan or its membership” and saying he welcomed the support of all responsible groups.
Such balancing acts mirror Trump’s recent failure to immediately disavow the support of longtime KKK leader Duke — “Just so you understand, I don’t know anything about David Duke, okay?” — demonstrating how, as in 1964, today’s candidates can seek advantage in tacit appeals to issues that resonate with the Klan’s worldview.
5. The KKK’s damaging impact has been limited to its terrorist
Any account of the Klan’s disturbing legacy rightfully centers on the deadly acts of violence its members have perpetrated in the name of white supremacy.
But Klan vigilantism has harmed communities in less-direct and more broadly corrosive ways as well. Even today, 50 years after the height of the KKK’s civil-rights-era violence, communities where the Klan once thrived exhibit higher rates of violent crime than neighboring areas. Such effects demonstrate the power of a movement that flouts established authority and weakens the bonds of respect and order within a community. That power disrupts the social fabric well beyond the presence of the KKK itself.
The KKK’s durable influence also extends to electoral politics. The Klan has never recaptured the powerful voting bloc it built in the 1920s (at the time, its membership drove the outcomes of hundreds of local and state elections). But in a recent study, Rory McVeigh, Justin Farrell and I found that the KKK served as a major driver of the largest partisan shift of the past half-century — the South’s pronounced move toward the Republican Party. While support for Republican candidates has grown throughout the region, the increase has been significantly more pronounced in areas where the KKK was previously active. The Klan helped produce this effect by encouraging voters to move away from Democratic candidates, who increasingly supported civil rights reforms, and by pushing racial conflicts to the fore and more clearly aligning those issues with party platforms.
While this shift from blue to red may in itself not be problematic, the damaging effect of the Klan’s role resides in the divisive nature of that transition, which continues to be reflected in our polarized political system.