Ku Klux Klan re-emerging

September 1, 2014

Scott Shephard, who calls himself a reformed racist after over 20 years of membership in four different Ku Klux Klan groups, including the White Citizen’s Council of the rural Mississippi Delta, recounts his own tale, “Over the years I was in the Klan, I participated in lots of rallies and intimidation. There were cross burnings on peoples’ yards, or on public property, and lots of beatings. I witnessed many, and kinda encouraged some. But I didn’t get involved with any violent activities. There’s no other way to put it.” 

Shephard eventually rose to become the Grand Dragon – the Klan leader – of the Tennessee state Klan, running for elected office as a white supremacist, before leaving that life after going into alcohol rehabilitation, where he said he “was exposed to people of all races, religions, sexual preferences. We had to sit down with these people. When you get to know people, you accept them.

“I went in one person, and I came out another.”

Today, at 55 years of age, Shephard is a funeral director and embalmer in suburban Memphis and is twice-divorced. He said he became involved with the Klan at 17, and although he insists he did not come from a racist family, “it was an alcoholic family. There was violence and abuse in my family that set some roots to my story.”

The Ku Klux Klan. It’s a sordid and embarrassing chapter in our nation’s history, a remnant of the Civil War, and a legacy of racial profiling, terror and intimidation. It continued into the 20th century as northern industry moved to integrate factories and businesses, threatening the livelihoods and way of life for those filled with fear and hate. 

Yet, in the early years of the 21st century, with an African American president, years of economic turmoil followed by static growth and lingering unemployment and underemployment, along with the hot button social issues of gay marriage, immigration turmoil, abortion and gun control, Ku Klux Klan groups have quietly re-emerged, and not only in the south, where Shepherd lives. Although local law enforcement agencies assert there have been no incidents or activities affiliated with the Klan, numerous websites and the Anti-Defamation League, Michigan Region, reveal that the Klan has rebounded, although certainly not to their historic levels.

Desperate for publicity, and always eager to spread hate and terror, the Southern Poverty Law Center said the North Carolina-based New Emperor Knights of the Ku Klux Klan says its Missouri chapter is raising money for the white police officer who shot and killed 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.

“We are setting up a reward/fund for the police officer who shot this thug,” the Klan group said in an email. “He is a hero! We need more white cops who are anti-Zog and willing to put Jewish controlled black thugs in their place. Most cops are cowards and do nothing while 90% of interracial crime is black (and non-white) on white.”

“The KKK believes the U.S is drowning in a tide of non-white immigration, controlled and orchestrated by Jews, and is vigorously trying to bring this message to Americans concerned or fearful about immigration,” said Deborah Lauter, civil rights director of the ADL. The immigration debate is credited with re-energizing the the Klan in Michigan and 18 other states in the midwest, south, Great Plains, and mid-Atlantic states, she said. Lauter said Phil Lawson, Imperial Wizard of the United Northern and Southern Knights, in Fraser, Michigan, the largest KKK group in Michigan, is quoted as saying that membership has grown at an “astounding pace” over the last decade.

“There is no one Ku Klux Klan, of course, but dozens of different Ku Klux Klan groups of varying sizes scattered around the country,” said Heidi Budaj, director for the Michigan region of the ADL. “The midwest has been a historical area of strength for Ku Klux Klan groups, but everything is relative: the Klan has been in long-term decline for some time, nationally and in Michigan.

“Although various Ku Klux Klan groups may have or claim to have some sort of presence (organized or individual members) in Michigan, the actual presence is small,” Budaj continued. “Only one Klan group has actually been headquartered in Michigan in recent years, the United Northern and Southern Knights of the Ku Klux Klan (in Fraser).” Recently, they changed their headquarter’s address to Illinois.

Imperial Grand Wizard Cole Thornton, a retired electrician now living in Florida, said on a Klan website that the United Northern and Southern Knights of the Ku Klux Klan is active and successfully recruiting. In a story in the Orlando Sentinel on July 21, 2014, Thornton, whose real name is Charles Denton, refused to reveal membership numbers, but said “the Klan advocates for white Christian civil rights.”

According to a message from Lawson, which cited a proclamation from Thornton, qualifications for membership in the order shall be: “An applicant must be a white person, of no Jewish ancestry, a native person born in the United States...The applicant must be of sound mind, good character, and free of any homosexual activities or thoughts, they must have a commendable reputation and a respectable vocation, and they must be a believer of the Christian religion.” Their loyalty, allegiance and devotion is to the Klan order.

The Southern Poverty Law Center, which counts chapters of the Ku Klux Klan every year, reported that there are currently three chapters in Michigan, the United Northern and Southern Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, located in Fraser; New Empire Knights of the Ku Klux Klan in central Michigan Beal City in Isabella County, ; and Invisible Knights of the Fiery Cross, headquartered in Gladwin, in Gladwin County, next to Isabella County.

Gladwin County Sheriff Mike Shea said, “As far as I know, we don’t have any indications of any activity in Gladwin County. If there’s any activity in Gladwin County, I and my administrators and associates don’t know about it.” 

Tony Wickersham, Macomb County sheriff, said, “There’s nothing really. Not many hate crimes. I know there has been ethnic intimidation and someone has been provoked because of their race or religion, but nothing with the KKK.”

Neither the Fraser Police Department, nor the Isabella County Sheriff, returned calls.

Oakland County Undersheriff Mike McCabe said their office hasn’t observed any KKK activity in 10 years or more in Oakland County. Yet in 2009, an Oakland County African American family discovered a burning cross in their yard.

Despite smaller numbers and a lower profile, the Klan is still, in every way, a racist and exclusionary organization looking to make its members feel superior to everyone else. Mark Potok, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project, which investigates hate and racist organizations, said, “The modern-day Klan, with its membership much shrunken, is fundamentally racist – anti-Latino, anti-immigrant, anti-gay.”

After all, the first question on the Klan’s membership application asks, “Are you a native-born, white, non-Jewish, American citizen?”

“I was involved in several Klan groups – actually four different ones. If any Klan had a white supremacist agenda, I was there,” Shepherd said. “I was also involved with the National Association of the Advancement of White People, with David Duke for several years.”

It is estimated there are about 5,000 members of the Ku Klux Klan nationwide, with strong membership in states like Colorado, Indiana and Illinois, as well as traditional southern states like Mississippi and Arkansas, which Potok hastens to point out is small compared to its historical eras.

“In the 1920s, there were estimated to be about 4 million members of the Klan. That was the second era of the Klan. In the third era, the mid-1960s, during the civil rights era, there were about 40,000 Klansmen. Then the Klan was incredibly violent,” Potok said. “Today, a lot of them are sitting around drinking beer and writing posts on the web.”

The ADL asserts that the Klan has embraced the Internet as a way to spread anti-Semitism and racism, and that it is a convenient publicity tool for them, allowing them to reach a wide cadre of disaffected individuals. 

Internet postings by alleged Klansmen are not hard to find, and they exist in Michigan. For example, on the Michigan Rollcall website, a Klan-affiliated website, recent writings include, from January 2014: “I live in oakland county (sic). Warren, Roseville, Troy, Rochester. Area. I DAILY see beautiful whites on dates with negros. Especially at bars they leave 2 a.m to go have sex with them. In europe the RACE TRAITORS are publicly SHAMED! In America its normal & the TRAITORS are treated nice. WE men! need to UNITE and treat them as there (sic) true form. WHITE TRASH! As alone were not a FORCE! IN GROUPS in public we could shame TRAITORS. IF they have a problem. DEAL WITH OUR GROUP.”

What drives someone to post a hate-filled rant, seeking and receiving responses? Similar to those in other radical right wing movements, whether political or social movements, “There’s a lot of resentment in America right now now about the way America is changing, and all of the cultural changes,” Potok said. 

The ADL concurs. “The Ku Klux Klan has experienced a surprising and troubling resurgence due to the successful exploitation of hot button issues including immigration, gay marriage and urban crime. Klan groups have witnessed a surprising and troubling resurgence by exploiting fears of an immigration explosion, and the debate over immigration has in turn helped to fuel an increase in Klan activity, with new groups sprouting in parts of the country that have not seen much activities. They hold anti-immigration rallies and recruitment drives and distribute racist literature, with a new emphasis on the immigration issue, and Hispanics.”

“The biggest reason (for the hatred) is that the American population is changing demographically,” Potok noted. “Whites will be the minority for the first time in 2043. There are changes in very real and concrete ways. There is very real anger and hostility, and it’s driving people to the radical right, whether it’s the Tea Party or other movements.

“The Klan is a little different,” Potok continued. “To some it’s a bit romantic. After Reconstruction, it was portrayed as the great white savior, the white woman’s savior from southern black Negroes. But to other sectors of the radical right, like the Neo-Nazis, they’re ignorant country bumpkins who live in trailers. They’re not far wrong. Klansmen are all very rural. There are no urban Klan members today. They’re all working class or below, working in agricultural jobs or minimum wage jobs. Many members of the Klan are made up of Klan members family and friends.”

The Ku Klux Klan initially rose in the south during Reconstruction in the years following the Civil War by groups of angry conservative white men. 

The Klan was initially formed in 1866 in Tennessee. Since “klan” is similar to “clan”, to members it meant a “circle of brothers.” In March 1867, with the federal passage of the Military Reconstruction Acts, and the prospect of voting rights for blacks, the Klan became more than a social circle, it became a political organization. According to the New Georgia Encyclopedia, “From 1868 through the early 1870s, the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) functioned as a loosely organized group of political and social terrorists. The Klan’s goals included the political defeat of the Republican Party and the maintenance of absolute white supremacy in response to newly gained civil and political rights by southern blacks after the Civil War.”

This era, which encompassed terrorism and murder, is referred to as the First Ku Klux Klan, and it faded away in the early 1870s as their Democratic candidates triumphed in the south, Jim Crow laws secured white domination, and there was very aggressive federal intervention of the Klan in 1871 and 1872. Some small local Klan groups continued as backwoods rifle clubs, but they lost their political clout and legitimacy. 

The KKK sprang to life again in the 1920s, reinvented in 1915 in Georgia by William J. Simmons, an ex-minister and all round rabble rouser, and it spread throughout the country like wildfire, with its tentacles reaching well into Michigan, including in the metropolitan Detroit area. At that time, the KKK broadened its hatred to include not only blacks, but Jews, Catholics, Poles, Italians and Irish, the lower economic immigrant groups of the day, which explains its wider appeal. 

Its attraction fed into the militant patriotism that had been aroused by World War I, and it stressed fundamentalism in religion. In the mid-1920s, when Klan membership was at its peak, it is estimated there were 4 to 5 million who belonged. It is also the only time when there was one singular Klan, Potok said, united as one Ku Klux Klan group with its headquarters in Atlanta.

“In every other era, including today, there is no one ‘the’ Klan. There are 27 different Klans, run by 27 different guys,” Potok said. “Only in the second era Klan was it unitary.”

While Detroit was a station on the Underground Railroad and a meeting place for leading abolitionists, it was also a strong KKK stronghold in the early and mid-20th century. The Great Migration of the 1920s, when southern blacks moved to northern cities for jobs, filled Detroit with rural blacks in addition to European immigrants. Some referred to Detroit of that time as the “most southern” of northern cities.

In the early 1920s, at least 40,000 Klansmen lived in the city itself, and a KKK-affiliated mayor was almost elected. In 1925, Ossian Sweet, a black doctor, moved his family into a white neighborhood, on Garland Street at Charlevoix. According to historian Kevin Boyle, racist mobs attacked the family in their home, and the Sweets defended themselves with guns, killing one attacker. Sweet was tried and acquitted by an all white jury. 

Some Oakland County communities, as well as neighboring counties, became bastions of white working class individuals as factories employed more and more individuals, and grew Ku Klux Klan groups. 

In 1924, the Rev. Oren Van Loon of Berkley Community Church, preached to his congregation against cross burnings by the Klan, and on June 30, 1924, he was kidnapped by the Klan. He was found 11 days later, alive, in Battle Creek, with the KKK brand on his back.

In 1926 in Royal Oak, on Woodward and 12 Mile Road, in what was then a predominantly Protestant area, the Detroit Catholic Archdiocese built a church in honor of Saint Therese de Lisieux, also known as the Little Flower. Two weeks after it opened, the Ku Klux Klan burned a cross in front of the church. Then, on March 17, 1936, a fire, possibly set by the Klan, destroyed the original wood structure. It was rebuilt of stone and copper.

A news clip from Macomb County, on September 30, 1925, reads: “Kluxers order family to move. Smash window and attempt to fire home, it is charged. Mother and children alone, flee in fright. Renewal of activities by the Ku Klux Klan in Macomb County was reported last night when the family of Charles Frohm on the Telegraph Road was told to move within three weeks or suffer the consequences. The latter were not long in coming for they seemed to accompany the warning given by a hooded figure who appeared at the farmhouse, smashed a window and then attempted to fire the building with a large dishpan filled with burning oil soaked with rags...It is said that last night’s warning is the second that have been given the Frohms by the Klan.”

Further, Potok said, “In the 1920s, the Klan owned the government in a lot of areas. They were intimately connected to real power, and had a close connection. In 1928, the Klan helped break the Democratic hold on the south; but reaching that pinnacle led to that era’s demise. By 1930, it is estimated that there were only 30,000 Klansmen, a sharp decline in membership. A combination of having attained some of their goals combined with several state laws that forbade masks, which eliminated their “secret” element, the economic collapse with the Depression, when members couldn’t pay their dues, as well as a lot of bad publicity about the Klan that it was being run by thugs and swindlers, led to a loss of members. 

The Civil Rights era, and its inherent racial turmoil, led to the third era of the Ku Klux Klan. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, this era was the Klan’s most violent in its brutal and thuggish history.

“The Klan arose a third time during the 1960s to oppose the civil rights movement and to preserve segregation in the face of unfavorable court rulings. The Klan’s bombings, murders and other attacks took a great many lives, including, among others, four young girls killed while preparing for Sunday services at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala.,” they wrote. 

Desegregation and court-ordered busing led to Klan activities locally. In 1971, Wallace Fruit, the grand dragon of the Drayton Plains (Waterford) KKK, along with five followers, including Robert Miles, the grand dragon of the Michigan KKK, bombed 10 school busses in Pontiac. They were charged, and convicted, by the FBI with violating federal bomb laws, conspiracy to obstruct federal court orders and conspiracy to violate the 1968 Civil Rights Act. 

But the Reagan era seemed to quiet the Klan down, and little was heard from them or most other hate groups. An auction in Howell, in Livingston County, in 2005, of seven KKK robes and other Klan paraphernalia, brought the Klan back into focus. 

Miles had died in 1992, but his legacy in Howell was long. While the auction highlighted the Klan’s history and ties to Howell, today it does not appear – statistically – that there are Klan members in Livingston County.

But that doesn’t mean anger and hatred hasn’t reared its head again. 

In New York state in 2013, a Klansman was arrested and stands accused of trying to build a massive X-ray machine to murder thousands of Muslims. 

“He was going to put the machine he had built in a large truck,” said Potok. “He was a mechanical engineer working for General Electric. He had built a remote to turn on this mechanical device and was going to pull it in front of a mosque, go to a hotel, and pump out deadly radiation, turn it off, and then drive off. People wouldn’t get sick for a day or two, and so he could get away clean. He was caught, according to the indictment, because he didn’t have the money to do it and he shopped the idea to two Jewish agencies – ‘I have a weapon that will destroy the enemies of Israel’. As soon as he walked out the door, they called the FBI. He goes on trial this fall.”

Rallies and leafleting are taking place throughout the country, even if actual Klan groups remain small.

 

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