The election of Donald Trump and the people he is choosing as advisers and cabinet members have brought renewed attention to one fan club that the president-elect has tried to distance himself from: The Ku Klux Klan.
Within 48 hours of the Trump win, the Loyal White Knights of Pelham posted plans on the group’s website for a celebratory parade on Dec. 3, though no time or location has been listed. “Victory Klavalkade Klan Parade Dec. 3rd 2016 North Carolina,” is all the site mentions about the event. “Trump = Trump’s Race United My People.”
Not only did the announcement bring condemnation from across the political spectrum, it raised questions about the state of the Klan in North Carolina, a battleground state for the presidential candidates.
Robin Hayes, chairman of the N.C. Republican Party, issued a statement condemning the “extremist ideology and associated actions in the strongest possible terms.”
“These acts and thought processes are no reflection of the heartbeat of this great country and are counter to the efforts to make America great again,” Hayes stated in a release issued three days after the election. “We stand with the Democratic Party in calling these out-of-state troublemakers to go home.”
But it’s not clear they are from out of state. The Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks the activities of hate groups around the country, has identified eight KKK groups and two white nationalist groups in North Carolina.
The number of members the groups have is unclear.
The group in Pelham, a crossroads Caswell County community near the Virginia border, is known as “perhaps the most active Klan group in the United States today,” according to the Anti-Defamation League. In a 2015 report on the state of the Klan in the United States, the League wrote of the Pelham group’s “fairly expansive geographical reach.”
“[W]ith just 150-200 members, they were able to draw attention to themselves in 15 different states (mostly in the south and east), typically through fliering, which requires only a single participant,” the report said.
The group was behind a rally in South Carolina last year to protest the removal of the Confederate flag from the state capitol grounds. News reports from the incident on July 19, 2015, estimated that 50 people affiliated with the group were there, yelling racial slurs at the crowd that had gathered to see the flag taken down.
Elaine Frantz Parsons, a historian who studies violence and culture, has looked at the resurgences of the Klan over the past 150 years. Parsons, a professor at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, is the author of “Ku-Klux: The Birth of the Klan during Reconstruction,” a book published by UNC Press this year.
The Klan as an organization has changed much since it was formed in the 1800s, and had significance on the national stage during three periods, Parsons said.
The first Klan, born in the late 1860s in the Reconstruction-era South, paraded through the states secretively, killing hundreds of freed people and their white allies, as well as sexually abusing thousands as part of a loosely organized group, hoping to overthrow the governments supporting racial equality and blacks’ rights. Klan members wore elaborate costumes, tall pointed hats and masks, putting on picnics and midnight parades to magnify their terrorizing. By 1872, though, law enforcement had largely suppressed the acts, according to historians.
Then in 1915, the Klan emerged in a second iteration, expanding to and flourishing in Midwestern and Western Protestant communities with added rhetoric against Catholics and Jews. Cross-burnings and white costumes became a mark of that group, which held parades and maintained prominence in some social circles until the mid-1920s. “President Calvin Coolidge’s decision not to address a 1925 ‘monster’ rally up Pennsylvania Avenue made the front page of the New York Times,” Parsons pointed out in an essay, “The Ku Klux Klan’s Challenge to Black Lives Matter.”
The third Klan came about in the 1950s and ’60s during the civil rights era, bombing churches and other buildings, engaging in murder and large-scale attacks, rallying around the Confederate flag.
Parsons said last week that although the Klan violence of the civil rights era is the modern portrait of the white supremacy group, the organization was more prominent and accepted in the 1920s when it was more of a social movement.
“It was so much bigger then than any other period,” Parsons said.
Parsons noted that the South Carolina rally organized by the Pelham group last year was far outnumbered by the flag protesters, and some of those who stood with the Klan were neo-Nazis.
“These groups can be really small, but it does seem like there has been a resurgence in 2014,” Parsons said. “They seem to be emerging and working together with neo-Nazi groups. ...My take on it is, if the Klan were to come back, it’s because it’s an available symbol if there’s going to be a racist paramilitary group to emerge.”
The Rev. William Barber, head of the state NAACP, said he worries less about the size of organized Klan and white supremacist groups and more about the simmering sentiment that some people harbor for the ideologies they promote.
“The numbers of the organized Klan is not the issue,” Barber said. “It’s the tribe of Trumpism and Southern strategy devotees of the Republican Party that have used racialization and racist obstructionism to fuel their base that has come from underneath the covering and gone mainstream.”
After President-elect Trump named Steve Bannon, former head of Breitbart News, as the planned chief White House strategist, Democrats and Republicans have questioned the choice. “In Mr. Bannon, he’s tapped a man who has fanned the flames of division by providing a platform for racism, xenophobia, misogyny and anti-Semitism,” states a petition on the Southern Poverty Law Center website signed by more than 400,000.
Additional questions have been raised about the nomination of Sen. Jeff Sessions, the Alabama Republican, as Trump’s choice for attorney general. A former co-worker of Trump’s nominee told a Senate judiciary committee in the 1990s that Sessions once stated he found the Ku Klux Klan “OK, until I found out they smoked pot.” Sessions, who failed to win confirmation for the federal judicial post because of other racial slurs and actions, later defended the comment as a joke.
“We have a responsibility to be the voice of the millions of Americans sitting at home afraid that they are not welcome anymore in Donald Trump’s America,” Democrat Harry Reid, minority leader of the Senate, said in a speech on the Senate floor last week about the Bannon news. “We have a responsibility to prevent Trump’s bullying, aggressive behavior from becoming normalized in the eyes of Americans – especially the millions of young people who are watching and wondering, for example, if sexual assault is now a laughing matter. We have a responsibility to say that it is not normal for the KKK – the Ku Klux Klan – to celebrate the election of a president they view as their champion with a victory parade. They have one scheduled.”
But where, when and if that parade will happen is uncertain. Efforts to reach the organizers have been unsuccessful.
Timeline: Ku Klux Klan in N.C.
1868 Klan first appears in North Carolina.
1868-71 Three Klan groups operate in North Carolina. Functioning independently, the three have largely autonomous local leadership, though they often have overlapping memberships. The White Brotherhood, numbering 600-700, and the Constitutional Union Guard, numbering about 100, are centered in the Alamance County area. The Invisible Empire is centered in Cleveland and Rutherford counties.
Feb. 26, 1870 Graham town commissioner Wyatt Outlaw, an African-American, is lynched by a band of Klansmen, leading to the Kirk-Holden War of 1870.
July 1870 Gov. William Woods Holden declares a state of insurrection in Alamance and Caswell counties. Nearly 100 Klan suspects are arrested but none are tried.
November 1870 White supremacists gain control of the General Assembly and impeach Holden for using the militia against the Klan.
March 1871 Holden is removed from office.
1905 North Carolinian Thomas Dixon publishes the novel “The Clansman,” which would be the basis for D.W. Griffith’s film “The Birth of a Nation” in 1915.
1930 Bob Jones is born outside Salisbury. His father is a railroad worker, and both parents are active in the Ku Klux Klan. Jones would later brag that his mother proudly marched in a Klan parade when she was seven months pregnant with him. He would become “Grand Dragon” of the state organization.
Summer 1952 Crackdown on the Ku Klux Klan in Columbus County and Horry County, S.C. The Tabor City Tribune and Whiteville News Reporter, two weekly newspapers in Columbus County, were awarded the 1953 Pulitzer Prize for Meritorious Public Service for the coverage of the case and their role in helping to bring down the Klan’s strong presence in the area.
January 18, 1958 Ku Klux Klan stages a rally in the Robeson County town of Maxton to protest what members called race mixing in the county. A group of Lumbee Indians surrounds the outnumbered Klan members and drives them off without any casualties. Their victory is featured in a Life magazine photo the following week.
July 1963 Jones petitions the United Klans of America for a charter to organize in North Carolina. Robert Shelton sends Robert Scoggin, the Grand Dragon of South Carolina, to meet with Jones and others in Salisbury. Jones is granted a provisional charter into the UKA and appointed temporary Grand Dragon.
Aug. 17, 1963 North Carolina Klansmen elect Jones as their state’s first Grand Dragon.
October 1965 Public hearings held by the House Un-American Activities Committee call North Carolina the most active state for the United Klans of America.
July 31, 1966 A Klan rally is held in downtown Raleigh to protest the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech before a crowd of nearly 5,000 at N.C. State University’s Reynolds Coliseum. About 1,500 gather at Memorial Auditorium earlier in the day. Robed marchers make their way to Nash Square for speeches and then on to the State Capitol.
Aug. 14, 1966 The United Klans of America holds a rally at Memorial Auditorium in Raleigh to support Jones and other Klan leaders facing federal prison sentences for contempt of Congress. More than 300 police officers from across the state are on hand to control the crowd of more than 5,000.
October 1966 The Klan operates a booth at the N.C. State Fair to distribute information.
1969 Jones is convicted of contempt of Congress for refusing to hand over subpoenaed Klan financial records. He is fined $1,000 and sentenced to a year in federal prison. In his absence, Joe Bryant becomes the acting Grand Dragon for North Carolina.
March 26, 1977 A billboard on U.S. 70 near Smithfield promoting the KKK is dismantled. Klansmen brandish shotguns and hurl rocks at photographers to discourage them from recording the event. The sign, which had stood for 10 years, welcomed motorists to Smithfield and invited them to join and support United Klans of America.
Nov. 3, 1979 A “Death to the Klan” march in Greensboro results in a shootout between members of the Communist Workers Party, the Ku Klux Klan and a neo-Nazi group, leaving five dead.
Sources: PBS “American Experience,” N.C. Department of Natural and Cultural Resources, N&O archives