|Ku Klux Klan|
While the scale of Ku Klux Klan (KKK) activity has fluctuated through history and its nature has varied across geography, Klansmen have always framed their enemies in conspiratorial terms. Accordingly, the character, methods, and motivation of the Klan’s enemies have varied in the conspiracy theories that Klansmen have promulgated during different historical periods and in different places. Nevertheless, logical patterns in the historical development of their conspiratorial theories are evident.
Beginning with the first Klan groups of the 1860s, KKK conspiracy theories have repeatedly opposed economic, social, and political changes that threatened, undermined, or overturned the power of white supremacy in U.S. society.
Diabolical Republicans: Reconstruction-Era Klan Ideology
During 1866–1871, a faction of “Radical Republicans” adopted the political strategy of granting citizenship, legal protection, militia membership, and voting rights to the recently freed slaves, in order to create an electorate that would support their nationalistic and liberal-capitalist project.
To southern Democrats, black enfranchisement meant that intelligent, virtuous, and patriotic government was succumbing to ignorance, stupidity, thievery, and vice. To counter the Republicans, agents of the Democratic Party revived the tradition of the prewar “regulators” and slave patrols.
Secretive ritual fraternities, quickly subsumed under the label Ku Klux Klan, endeavored to destroy the Republican Party infrastructure and reestablish control over credit, the transportation of cotton, and black labor. More generally, they aimed to restore racial subordination in all aspects of political, economic, and social life.
The Ku Klux Klans, as well as the Democratic Party mouthpieces that supported their terrorist operations, raised alarms that “diabolical” Union Leagues were conspiring to reduce the South to “Negro domination” (Trelease, xxx). Enfranchisement of blacks undertaken by a “New England conclave ... lorded over by Beelzebub of the fallen” had brought the state “under the domain of Negro supremacy”.
Founded upon “malice and cowardly hatred ... for the white inhabitants of the South” and a “desire to maintain power at the cost of principal and honor,” the Republicans were inflicting an “outrage on liberty and free government.” They were implementing “despotic” measures to “supercede State authority with the government of the bayonet”.
Breaches of deferential behavior and decorum threatened to disrupt the entire fabric of white supremacy. The arrival of Yankee troops in the South had aroused “insolence, impertinence, impudence and ingratitude” among the former slaves. Black parades were deemed “outrageous spectacles.” Petty theft and consumption of alcohol prepared the way for insurrection.
Exceptional and isolated cases of violence against former masters were sensationalized: black assassins had killed overseers and armed groups of slaves had terrorized the white populace, seizing plantations to parcel out among themselves. Insubordination and disregard of curfews were characterized as “insurrection” and refusal to work was defined as “mutiny”. Blacks were being incited to rape and rapine at Republican meetings.
Klansmen proclaimed that Republican Party Union Leagues were responsible for stimulating a bloody and terrible wave of assault, arson, and murder. The South was being reduced to anarchy because vindictive Republican judges dealt lightly with Union League criminals. Open talk of acquiring land and voting became incitement to race war.
The Democratic press also printed lurid tales that Republicans who lived on terms of equality with blacks were engaging in “cohabitation ... accompanied by the most unbridled and groveling licentiousness”. Tales of Republican depravity were linked to images of threatening black men and, through metaphors of theft, violence, and putrefaction, to the financial decline of southern towns.
Complex changes in transportation, credit, and shipping technology were transformed into a simple, racist explanation for southern poverty. Yankee speculators, like a horde of locusts, had descended to prey upon the South through the political manipulation of gullible freemen.
The “invasion” of Republican-sponsored interstate railroads were likened to political “machines” and “rings”. The new railroad lines that passed from Virginia to Georgia were seen as engines of corruption whereby Yankee speculators who had bought black votes imported women and liquor to influence legislators.
The greatest ambition of enfranchised blacks, Klansmen claimed, was to coerce white women into sexual favors and intermarriage. The ensuing “amalgamation” of the races, it was claimed, would create a race of mulattos.
The South would “be ruled out of the family of white nations”. Conflating sexual fear and partisan politics, Klansmen posed as chivalrous avengers: vindictive Republicans were represented as unleashing lust-crazed savages upon war widows and defenseless virgins.
Since white womanhood symbolized the heart of culture and refinement, their ravishment by animalistic black men represented in the minds of the Klan the destruction of the South as a whole: an assault on either connoted an implicit carnal attack on the other.
Although localized and lacking synchronization, Ku Klux Klan violence, including uncounted whippings, beatings and rapes, murders, and massacres, played a major role in disarming black militia and preventing black voting in at least eight states. Republican parties were destroyed at the local level and in many cities, while Georgia and Louisiana were entirely “redeemed.”
The Republican Congress, in turn, passed a series of Federal Enforcement Acts enabling military intervention, suspension of the writ of habeas corpus, and enough indictments and convictions to break the back of the Klans in 1872. By this point, however, the Klans had served their purpose.
After 1863 the federal government lost the will to maintain Reconstruction. Interracial state governments steadily collapsed in the face of intimidation at the polls by white paramilitaries, open intimidation by mobs, and pogroms against black communities.
Although paramilitary groups—such as the “whitecappers” who drove off independent black farmers in Mississippi during 1892–1893 and again a decade later—were occasionally revived, lynching and the implementation of legal segregation served to maintain a rigid caste system in the South.
The Second Ku Klux Klan: A Catholic Conspiracy
Claiming to have received a mystical vision that had instructed him to unite native-born white Protestant men in battle against aliens, radicals, political corruption, prostitution, and religious infidelity, William Simmons revived the KKK in 1915.
His Klansmen harassed presumed slackers, enemy aliens, and immoral women. By the mid-1920s, the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan had become a national, predominantly urban, mainstream social movement of 4 million members who represented a generally balanced cross section of white Protestant denominations and social classes.
While racist ideology and vigilante violence continued to characterize Klaverns in the South and Southwest, as the order moved into regions and communities with no history of vigilantism or in which the black population was small, different concerns shaped Klavern activity.
In the context of the time, these Klansmen were not more reactionary, racist, ethnocentric, religiously bigoted, or socially alienated than the general white Protestant population. United by a commitment to civic activism and social order, however, Klansmen were more likely to express and act upon their concerns: curtailment of vice; open and honest government; modern roads, sewage systems, and schools; enforcement of conservative Protestant morality, especially Prohibition; and Protestant control of the public schools.
What differentiated the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan from other reactions to disruptive change was the conspiratorial outlook and bellicosity that continued to permeate their worldview. While Klansmen had employed conspiracy theory and countersubversive rhetoric during Reconstruction, the primary enemy whom many deemed responsible for subverting their world had changed, probably because of the new geographical contexts in which the Klan was now operating. Akin to the carpetbaggers of Reconstruction lore, Catholics and, to a lesser extent, Jews now played the role of concrete, alien conspirators in the Second Ku Klux Klan’s ideology.
Enough Americans agreed with Klan leader Hiram Evans that “We must teach alien peoples the fundamental principals of human liberty before we can permit further masses of ignorant, superstitious religious devotees to come within our borders” that Congress would pass a highly restrictive immigration bill in 1924. They may also have agreed that Catholics owned houses of prostitution and committed a disproportionate number of crimes.
Non-Klansmen probably gave less credence, however, to Evans’s warnings that “the Dago on the Tiber,” Jesuit assassins, and the Knights of Columbus were stockpiling arms in Catholic churches, in preparation for a merciless massacre of U.S. Protestants and a papist takeover of the federal government.
Klansmen distributed phony literature that endorsed candidates seeking to “Catholicize” the United States (Rhomberg). Using spurious statistics, they argued that increasing Catholic power threatened the separation of church and state. Catholic priests were adjudged to be “foreign emissaries operating in the United States”.
Catholic control of the press, organized labor, and the public schools, combined with the control of “polyglot peoples” by Catholic political machines, was enabling the “hierarchical church [to spread] its tentacles, like an octopus, into the very vitals of the body politic”.
Klansmen declared that they were fighting “to maintain a free republican form of government against the subtle political encroachments of the self arrogated, infallible, universal autocracy known as the Roman Catholic hierarchy”. Catholics, they maintained, were imbued with the “monarchical ideal of the individual as subject instead of citizen.”
The Knights of Columbus was charged with training and equipping an army bent on conquest for Rome. Papist agents, Klansmen warned, had poisoned President Warren G. Harding and put hidden religious symbols on the dollar bill, in preparation for the pope’s arrival in the United States.
Klan recruiters displayed photographs of the Episcopal church on Mount Alban, in Washington, D.C., to claim that a new Vatican was under construction. Indiana Klansmen asserted that every time a male child was born, the congregation buried a rifle beneath a Catholic church and that church steeples were built high so that Catholics could “rain down fire on cities after the Pope declared war on Protestants”.
The sewer system under Notre Dame University was said to contain an arsenal of heavy artillery and explosives. The KKK circulated a phony Knights of Columbus Oath, a pledge to “hang, burn, boil, flay, and bury alive” all non-Catholics. Such propagandizing was effective in rousing public vigilance.
KKK anti-Catholicism also focused on the theme of lechery. In North Manchester, Indiana, nearly 1,500 people turned out to ambush the pope, said to be arriving by train. Catholic stores were boycotted and Catholics were dismissed from schools and hospital boards in other parts of the state.
While the Klan decried Jewish violation of the Sabbath and accused Jews of trying to take the Bible out of the public schools, the Klan’s antisemitism dwelled on economic and social themes more than religious ones.
Depending on local economy and tangible property, Klansmen charged the “International Jew” with “cosmopolitanism”. Portraying exploitation, destructive competition, and economic concentration as unnatural anomalies caused by the perfidy of a small minority, Klansmen upheld “good,” small-scale capitalism.
Enlisting the infamous czarist police forgery Protocols of the Elders of Zion, Klansmen, like other antisemites of the 1920s, described bolshevism as Jewish controlled and Jewish financed. The regime, in promoting female equality, divorce, and “free love,” had in their view nationalized women. “Hebrew libertines” were deemed the secret force behind the white slave trade and a popular culture that was bringing moral ruin upon the nation’s youth.
Although the specific enemies were different from those of their Reconstruction-era ancestors, 1920s Klansmen also attacked alien outsiders in woman’s name. They employed a similar rhetoric concerning gender and sexuality to illustrate political concerns. Recitations of sexual subversion by Communists, Catholics, and Jews centered on charges that each would recast the family and morality, destroying civilization.
The Klan’s appeal to middle-class fears about female sexuality was a highly effective recruiting technique, yet it ultimately proved precarious. The irony of the Second Ku Klux Klan is that its leadership fell victim to same type of scandal that had motivated rank-and-file Klansmen to join the order. In 1925, Indiana Klan leader D. C. Stephenson, in an alcoholic frenzy, raped, bit, and brutalized a twenty-eight-year-old neighbor whom he had been courting.
During his trial another woman sued Stephenson for desertion and child support. Throughout the nation, Klansmen resigned in disgust. Scandal also rocked other realms. In LaGrande, Oregon, a Klansman was convicted of performing an illegal abortion on a clerical assistant with whom he had been engaging in sexual relations.
In Denver, members of the American Legion raided the offices of the Klan vice squad and uncovered a complex network of tip-offs, graft, and protection. More generally, the Klan’s ultimate failure to enforce Prohibition led to disillusionment throughout the nation.
In the South, however, Klan activity never disappeared. Here, racist rhetoric remained apocalyptic, since it was believed that the slightest concession would embolden blacks to undermine the whole apparatus of white supremacy. Klansmen continued to warn of “indigestible races,” “mongrel populations,” “defiled blood,” and “racial pollution” as threats to the body politic.
Here too, where Klansmen saw themselves as an army in training for a war between the races, there was pervasive extralegal coercion and violence. Lynching, flogging with rawhide straps, and other forms of vigilante violence were employed to terrorize African Americans, labor organizers, and people who broke moral codes.
From Anticommunism to Antisemitism: The Klan after World War II
As economic destitution, unionization, and New Deal programs combined to undermine white supremacy in the South during the 1930s, Klansmen fused racism with anticommunism and antifederal government rhetoric. As Franklin D. Roosevelt redefined U.S. liberalism in terms of active government and a welfare state, Klansmen charged that he was subverting U.S. principles and destroying the foundations of states’ rights.
The political alliance forged between the New Deal and the labor movement provided Communists with an opportunity to establish a legitimate role, providing ammunition for the administration’s enemies. Anticipating the anticommunism of the early cold war, Klan Wizard Evans was one of the first to charge that the Congress of Industrial Organizations “is infested with communists”.
In Alabama and Georgia, urban police, rural sheriffs, and Klansmen worked together to terrorize Communist Party organizers. Northern anti-union corporations also employed vigilantes to flog union men. World War II, however, provided a new context for activism in the South as African Americans, liberals, and labor organizers linked white supremacy to Nazi racial policies.
Nevertheless, Klansmen posed as guardians against Communist subversion, in a context where the term “communism” was used by many southerners to describe almost anyone who did not exhibit strict orthodoxy on the racial issue. Southern segregationists continued to maintain that civil rights activists intended intermarriage and destruction of the white race through “mongrelization.”
Klansmen, however, concluded that the real force behind these changes was the international Communist conspiracy. Klansmen labeled Martin Luther King, Jr., a “rabble rousing nigger Communist,” and asserted that Rosa Parks was a Communist agent.
They believed that the ultimate aim of these Communists was the destruction of tradition in order to pave the way for their takeover of the United States. Their plan involved the gradual weakening of the moral fiber of the nation until it disintegrated from within.
Antisemitism played an ambiguous role in KKK anticommunist rhetoric: Jews formed a sort of continuum between the racial threat of blacks and the ideological threat of Communists. As Alabama Klansman E. L. Edwards put it, “The good niggers don’t want this integration any more than we do. It is the NAACP [National Association for the Advancement of Colored People] that is trying to jam it down our throats and it is backed by Jew money.”
It was, he said, “Russia’s intention to Mongrelize the world, to mix the white race with the black so as to bring it under Communist control.” Jewish Communists were credited with providing the brains and the driving force behind integration, yet most Klansmen still adhered to a religious view of Jewish difference.
Robert Shelton, leader of the largest Klan organization of the 1960s, blamed international Jewish financiers for World War I and the Great Depression, but he also went so far as to say that if Jews converted to Christianity, they would be welcomed into the Klan. Other Klansmen declared that Jewish biology expressed itself through the “Jewish” ideology of communism.
Some postwar Klan leaders, however, would come to view Jews as an enemy of the white race because of who they were and not only for what they did. Elaborating upon the themes of Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a number of postwar Klan organizations would expand and develop antisemitism in such a way that it eventually emerged as an all-encompassing conspiracy theory in Klan ideology.
The White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan of Mississippi, the most violent Klan organization of the 1960s, saw the Jews as the major destructive force in the United States. White Knights leader Samuel Bowers delivered religious sermons lambasting Jews as the “anti-Christ” and “Demons of the Synagogue of Satan”. For him, the preservation of a constitutional republic was a means to an end: the preservation of Christian civilization.
It was this sort of dualistic antisemitism that would help create a revolutionary impulse during the late 1960s. Some of the most militant White Knights, as well as members of the United Florida Ku Klux Klan, also joined the National States Rights Party (NSRP), a small but active group of vehement antisemites who excoriated the “Federal Bureau of Integration” as a tool of the Jews. Influenced by the Christian Identity preaching of Weseley Swift, NSRP ideology was “forward looking” in the context of ideological development on the racist right.
In the 1970s, many Klansmen would be converted to the ideas of historical revisionism and Christian Identity. Historical revisionism held that the Holocaust was a figment of the Jewish imagination, a lie that had been concocted to gain the necessary sympathy for the creation of the State of Israel.
Christian Identity theology provided Klansmen with an eschatology that viewed Aryans as the true Israelites, as God’s chosen people. According to the “seedline” interpretation of Genesis, blacks and other “mud people” were the result of a separate creation, given to whites by God as “beasts of the fields”.
Jews, however, were quite literally evil personified, having sprung from sexual intercourse between Eve and Satan in the Garden of Eden. Convinced of the inherent evil of Jews, and believing that Jews had taken over the United States, some Klansmen concluded they must wage a holy war to reclaim their nation from the “Zionist Occupation Government”.
In the 1960s, although some tiny groups of Klansmen in northeastern states affiliated with George Lincoln Rockwell’s American Nazi Party, the great majority of Klansmen, many of whom would have fought in World War II, rejected Nazism as a totalitarian, anticapitalist, un-Christian form of tyranny.
Before the mid-1960s, moreover, the largest Ku Klux Klan organization in the United States, Robert Shelton’s UKA (United Klans of America) respected, identified with, and even revered the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the House Un-American Activities Committee. Klansmen presumed that the FBI was a meritorious ally in a common battle against un-American subversion.
In 1965–1966, however, the House Un-American Activities Committee declared the Ku Klux Klan to be un-American and exposed its terrorist activities. In response, Robert Shelton asserted that “left-wing elements” were “using the Klan as bait to destroy the Committee itself because of its Southern membership”.
Alluding to aggressive interviews by FBI agents pursuing Klan murders in Alabama, Shelton also declared that “the FBI and Justice Department have harassed members of this Klan and other right-wing organizations, causing them to lose their jobs”.
Yet he also reached out, offering that “it’s not necessary for them to infiltrate. If they fill out an application, they can do so and we’ll welcome them into the Klan and have fraternal unionism”.
The United Klans, unlike the NSRP and the White Knights, thus remained supportive of the system in that they presented illegitimate infiltration of the government rather than the national security state itself as the cause of their woes.
Between 1966 and 1971, however, the FBI accelerated its COINTELPRO–White Hate Groups program against the Klans. Using prosecution under federal law, media exposure, selective enforcement of misdemeanor law, tax audits, poison pen letters, informants, “snitch-jackets,” and other disruptive covert action techniques, the FBI discredited a number of top Klan leaders and replaced them with informants, created and aggravated internecine factionalism, and scared off most rank-and-file members, thereby neutralizing Klan activity throughout the South. By 1972, the UKA newspaper would declare:
“[The United States government] has been transformed [in]to a corrupt, unnatural and degenerate monstrosity.... we need to put a bullet into its brain and hammer a stake through its heart. If that means blood and chaos and battling the alien enemy from house to house in burning cities throughout the land, then by God it is better that we get on with it now than later” (United Klans of America).
A prelude to the so-called Nazification of the KKK in the late 1970s, such statements marked a significant transition in KKK conspiracy theory. By the mid-1970s, conservative notions of nationalism and masculinity had been challenged by the defeat in Vietnam, economic decline, rising crime rates, and feminism.
According to the KKK, Jewish teachers had repressed expression of Christian faith in public life and Jewish women had promoted feminism and lesbianism in a conspiracy to limit the white birthrate. The welfare state, meanwhile, was said to pay minorities to give birth to illegitimate offspring, who would grow up to a life of crime, even as the Jewish media promoted immorality among all Americans.
This view held that the Zionist Occupation Government—a Jewish cabal that controlled the intelligence community, finances and banking, the media, and foreign policy—had brought war in Vietnam, moral decay at home, and, through their promotion of feminism, homosexuality, abortion, the welfare state, and racial miscegenation, would bring about the genocide of the white race.