THE KU KLUX KLAN AND FASCISM
Speech Given to the National Anti-Klan Network Conference, Atlanta, June 19, 1982
by Ken Lawrence
Urgent Tasks No. 14/Fascism in the U.S.?
Our movement has done a good job of surveying the history of 115 years of Ku Klux Klan racist terror — seeing how it developed and how it was stopped in the past. We have fairly well internalized most of those lessons and put them into practice in many ways, but if we are going to achieve a truly successful strategy to counter the Klan we have to understand not only how the Klan is the same organization of racist terror that it has been for 115 years, but also what is distinctive about it today that it wasn't 115 years ago.
Today the Ku Klux Klan is probably (I say probably because there are some qualifiers to this, but I think we can generally agree it is) the main face of militant fascism in the United States. That is such a commonplace for us to say that we almost don't think about it when we say it, so I ask you to think about it for a minute . . . because the Klan was not always a fascist organization. Yes, it was always a racist terrorist organization, but it was not always a fascist organization. The Ku Klux Klan was born in 1866. Fascism was not born until the ruins of World War I darkened Europe. The Klan was around for a half century before fascism existed in the world, and the Klan actually taught the fascists a great deal in their early years.
So when we think about it that way, let's compare what were the Klan's politics in its different resurgent periods of the past with what are its politics and its aims and strategies today.
In the 1860s the Klan, as Randy Scott-McLaughlin reminded us in his excellent presentation earlier, was led by the notorious General Nathan Bedford Forrest of the Confederacy. Forrest's military strategy, as every Southerner knows, was to be "fustest with the mostest" — he wasn't known as a military genius. It seems sometimes like a third of the counties in the South are named for him. Streets are named for him, housing projects are named for him, parks are named for him. He is known everywhere. Well, who was General Forrest? Before the Civil War he was the largest slave trader in Memphis, and during the war he was its greatest war criminal when he ordered the massacre of the garrison that was guarding Fort Pillow, the Black troops who surrendered to his much larger force. Rather than accept their surrender he ordered them slain to the last man, then gloated to his diary how the blood of the dead soldiers dyed the Mississippi River red. That's who General Forrest was. When he took over leadership of the Klan in 1867, it represented the guerrilla continuation of the war he had tried to fight as a Confederate General. In essence he exchanged his Confederate grey for a white sheet. The earliest Klan, then, was a restorationist movement of the Confederacy.
The Invisible Empire was something quite different when it arose in the 1920s. It was essentially a bourgeois, nativist movement. As the Southern Poverty Law Center film documents so well, in fact, the KKK had the potential to go further than it actually did, because the truth is not only that in many places you had to be a Klansman to be elected to office, and you certainly at least had to have the active endorsement of the Klan, but the Klan came very close to capturing, on separate occasions, the national Democratic and Republican Parties. That's what kind of a movement it was. It was a right wing, white supremacist, but essentially mainstream bourgeois movement. That is, it intended to control, through the traditional political legal apparatus, the politics of the United States government and as many state and local governments as possible.
When the Klan was resurgent in the 1960s, it was essentially a backward-looking movement attempting to preserve what was most reactionary and most peculiar of the institutions of the segregated white South. It was under that banner, represented everywhere by the battle flag of the Confederacy, that it went out and did its beatings, bombings, lynchings, mutilations, and castrations.
It is something quite different today.
Today, it is as likely to fight under the banner of the twisted cross, the Nazi swastika, as under the banner of the Confederacy. In fact, it is the genius of the Klan leaders today that they have managed to merge those two movements into a single whole, and to create a coherent ideology out of those two divergent strains.
The fascist movement has a somewhat different history in this country. There is no way I can cover it in a brief talk, but some highlights are essential if we are to understand this, particularly since I think two extremes of this organization have somewhat misread the history — the history of the 1930s especially.
The fascist movement got its real insurgent birth in the United States from Henry Ford through his newspaper, the Dearborn Independent. And the fascists today, by which I mean the Nazis and the Klan, consider his book, The International Jew, to be one of their bibles. Yet Henry Ford, as every school child knows, is a hero of the United States and someone whose image we are offered as a model. The truth is that Ford built his automobile empire as close as he could to the New Order fascist dictatorship to which he aspired for society as a whole. He even established, for example, an entirely segregated two-city system, one for whites and one for Blacks. Inkster was the Black suburb of Dearborn, the white center for what was then the largest factory in the world, the River Rouge Ford plant. That little fascist mini-state was not broken until the CIO organized it in the 1940s, the last of the automobile empires to fall.
Built on the movement that Henry Ford founded, the fascists, but not the Klan, flourished in the 1930s. It is well to remember that one of the largest mass movements in the United States, and one of the few outside the mainstream political parties that was capable of packing Madison Square Garden in those years, was Father Coughlin's Christian Front. Huey Long built a similar movement in the state of Louisiana which was led by the notorious anti-Semite Gerald L. K. Smith, who became one of the most important figures first in the reconstitution of the fascist movement in the 1950s and gradually bringing it into concert with the Ku Klux Klan over a period of time.
So we need to understand not only the Klan history, but also the quite independent fascist history, which have merged to become a single movement with an ideology that is quite different from the ideology of the Confederacy of Nathan Bedford Forrest, or the nativism of David C. Stephenson, the Klan leader of the 1920s who was the main political figure in that rebirth, or even of Sam Bowers and Robert Shelton of the 1960s. Today many of those key figures of the sixties have accommodated themselves quite well to this new ideology of fascism which they did not previously profess in their earlier guise. Thus we see the rise in North Carolina of the United Racist Front which carried out the Greensboro massacre and which represents, I think, the peak of their ability to fuse these two movements.
The Ku Klux Klan did not become fascist overnight, and the development was uneven.
Naturally racists, even when divided by important points of ideology, have considerable political agreement of which they are conscious. So it is no accident that one of the leading fascist organizers of the thirties, Gerald L. K. Smith, also was a close kin to the Klans of the fifties and sixties, and that most of the Klans borrowed heavily from his journal, The Cross and the Flag.
The earliest attempt at merging the two movements was in 1940 at Camp Nordland, New Jersey, when the German American Bund and the Ku Klux Klan met, 3,500 strong, on a Bund platform beneath a fiery cross. Anti-Semite Edward James Smythe presided, having spent three years working to consummate such a coming together. Arthur H. Bell, the KKK's Grand Giant, shook hands with August Klapprott, the Bund's vice president, and Klapprott declared, "The principles of the Bund and the Klan are the same."
But that merger was not to be. A storm of unfavorable publicity forced the Klan's Imperial Wizard, James Colescott, who had originally authorized participation in the meeting, to recant, and to repudiate the Nazis. Eventually Colescott's literature listed fascism among the foreign "isms" the Klan officially opposed, and Smythe's dream was stillborn.
But from that time on, some of the most committed Nazis viewed the KKK as their most likely road to power. Among these was J. B. Stoner, who was a Klan Kleagle (organizer) in Tennessee during World War Two, but was also organizing a "national anti-Jewish political party" and distributing the Protocols. In 1958 the National States Rights Party was founded by Edward Fields, who had worked with Stoner in the forties, and Matthias Koehl. (Koehl later succeeded George Lincoln Rockwell as head of the American Nazi Party.)
Stoner's Nazi sympathies were never veiled — he told the Atlanta Constitution in 1946 that Hitler had been too moderate and that his party wanted "to make being a Jew a crime, punishable by death." But he also practiced law jointly with KKK leader James Venable of Atlanta. During the early years of the NSRP, Stoner's role was low-profile (the 1958 Birmingham church bombing for which he's been found guilty was committed during this period), but he eventually emerged as its national chairman and main spokesman.
The United Racist Front, a Klan/Nazi umbrella organization formed in September 1979 in North Carolina, carried out the Greensboro massacre in November of that year, and NSRP leaders Stoner and Fields saw the opportunity to hasten the fascist development of the whole movement. Fields organized the New Order Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, combining the two movements in the name. Though considered by Klan-watchers such as the Anti-Defamation League as a relatively insignificant splinter, this was actually a shrewd tactic.
The New Order Klan simultaneously projected its politics (by organizing a union, then calling a strike to protest the hiring of Mexican workers at the Zartic Frozen Foods plant in Cedartown, Georgia) and promoted "Klan unity" (by inviting leaders of the various Klan factions to a meeting to "honor" two of the Greensboro killers). These moves paid off handsomely as one local Klan leader after another has aligned himself with Stoner and Fields.
What is the difference then between this new guise of the Klan and the past that I have talked about? One difference, and this is one thing I've learned from the writings of David Edgar[*], is that the role of racism and the role of anti-Semitism and the role of scapegoating in general is quite different ideologically for a fascist movement from that of a right-wing conservative movement or a traditional Klan-type movement. That is, it is not to put people in their place. It is not to make a sub-class out of them and to exploit, or super-exploit, their labor. It is genocidal. It is exterminationist.
I urge everyone, despite its horror, to acquire the manual of the current Klan/Nazi strategy, and to understand what that strategy is. That book is the novel The Turner Diaries, written by William Pierce of the National Alliance under the pseudonym Andrew MacDonald. It is a stirring call to power. To cast it in literary terms, it is the flip side of The Iron Heel. Where Jack London projected a look back at the revolution of the future to see its horrors, William Pierce uses that device to show how the revolution that creates the New Order comes into being.
Upon reading this book you will find that the strategy described is very similar to the strategy of the Nazis in Europe, which ideologically is summed up by the person responsible for creating it, a French fascist, Michel Faci, who uses the nom de guerre LeLoup. He calls it the Strategy of Tension. The Bologna and other bombings are attempts at social destabilization which have as their assumption that the fascist movement has reached its peak "respectable" strength and that now is the time to polarize society and build on the fears, the tensions, and the disarray that can be created by disrupting the fabric of politics as usual. That's the politics of The Turner Diaries.
The book begins, for example, after a period of difficulty and repression of the right, with bombing the FBI building in Washington. It goes from there onward to a situation of nuclear war which is launched, not by the government, but by the fascists who seize control of the nuclear weapons. Let me read you just a couple of passages.
Pierce has many dialogues where he differentiates between the politics of his movement and the conservatives. He always personifies these political views, as any good novelist does:
he didn't understand that one of the major purposes of political terror, always and everywhere, is to force the authorities to take reprisals and to become more repressive, thus alienating a portion of the population and generating sympathy for the terrorists. And the other purpose is, to create unrest by destroying the population's sense of security and their belief in the invincibility of the government.
Other passages in here indicate a similar desire to destabilize society and view that period of destabilization very much as the secret National Front document quoted by David Edgar described the situation they anticipate arising in England.
The culmination of this he describes as follows:
August 1, 1993. Today has been the Day of the Rope — a grim and bloody day, but an unavoidable one. Tonight, for the first time in weeks, it is quiet and totally peaceful throughout all of southern California. But the night is filled with silent horrors; from tens of thousands of lampposts, power poles, and trees throughout this vast metropolitan area the grisly forms hang.
In the lighted areas one sees them everywhere. Even the street signs at intersections have been pressed into service, and at practically every street corner I passed this evening on my way to HQ there was a dangling corpse, four at every intersection. Hanging from a single overpass only about a mile from here is a group of about 30, each with an identical placard around its neck bearing the printed legend, "I betrayed my race." Two or three of that group had been decked out in academic robes before they were strung up, and the whole batch are apparently faculty members from the nearby UCLA campus.
He describes how they did this:
Squads of our troops with synchronized watches suddenly appeared in a thousand blocks at once, in fifty different residential neighborhoods, and every squad leader had a long list of names and addresses. The blaring music suddenly stopped and was replaced by the sound of thousands of doors splintering, as booted feet kicked them open....
One of two things happened to those the troops dragged out onto the streets. If they were non- Whites — and that included all the Jews and everyone who even looked like he had a bit of non-White ancestry — they were shoved into hastily formed columns and started on their no-return march to the canyon in the foothills north of the city. The slightest resistance, any attempt at back talk, or any lagging brought a swift bullet.
The Whites, on the other hand, were, in nearly all cases, hanged on the spot. One of the two types of pre-printed placards was hung on the victim's chest, his hands were quickly taped behind his back, a rope was thrown over a convenient limb or signpost with the other end knotted around his neck, and he was then hauled clear of the ground with no further ado and left dancing on air while the soldiers went to the next name on their list.
The hangings and the formation of the death columns went on for about 10 hours without interruption. When the troops finished their grim work early this afternoon and began returning to their barracks, the Los Angeles area was utterly and completely pacified. The residents of neighborhoods in which we could venture safely only in a tank yesterday were trembling behind closed doors today, afraid even to be seen peering through the crack in drawn drapes. Throughout the morning there was no organized or large-scale opposition to our troops, and by this afternoon even the desire for opposition had evaporated.
That's a little bit more than you probably wanted to hear; it's more than I want even to consider, but I think it's important to understand what that strategy is. It's very different from bombing a church here, lynching a civil rights worker there, in order to keep people in their place. It is actually a vision of seizing control of the entire society, exterminating minorities and Jews and creating something quite different.
To accomplish that strategy, which they are deadly serious about, something quite different from their previous approaches to organization and mass political action are necessary — and are in effect now. One area of that work that I've followed carefully has been the gun shows throughout the South and how they recruit through them.
I want to show you two documents, both popular pamphlets I've bought recently at gun shows. One is a manual that shows how to convert semi-automatic weapons to fully automatic machine guns with parts that are commonly available for sale without any records being kept at these gun shows. The other is a book entitled Elementary Field Interrogation, which is a torture manual, literally. It is written, according to a publicity blurb put out by the publisher, by a former Phoenix program interrogator for the CIA during the Vietnam War who has now dedicated his services to the fascist movement. There are plenty of illustrations of these tortures in case you can't figure it out for yourself from reading the text. They are sufficiently horrifying, more so even than some passages from The Turner Diaries, that I won't read them to you. But I urge you to familiarize yourself with this grizzly stuff anyway.
The night riders and lynch mobs of the past had no need for torture manuals or machine guns. But the fascist paramilitaries who train in the Klan, Nazi, and "survivalist" camps in preparation for what they call "the coming race war" do need them. These are significant differences from the KKK's previous incarnations, and we need to understand them.
Then of course, the other thrust, the ideological thrust that David Edgar told us about, is the so-called Historical Revisionist movement. This is the latest copy of their journal, which looks quite scholarly and impressive — the Journal of Historical Review. The envelope in which it arrived bears a non-profit organization postmark from Torrance, California — Liberty Lobby's West Coast headquarters of Willis Carto — which means they have a 501(c)(3) tax exemption. Pierce's National Alliance does not have such a tax exemption right now, but the ACLU has a case in Federal District Court in Washington suing to get him one, so he will probably have one soon.
Now, the traditional Klan did not need this kind of document — a torture manual. It did not need this kind of document — a document about creating fully automatic weapons to build an army with. It did not need to deny the Nazi Holocaust. And it did not have books like The Turner Diaries, which all of the resurgent Klans, every one of them from Edward Fields to Don Black to Bill Wilkinson, use as their manual. In fact, they all have bulk discount prices for copies of it which, among other things, proves that they are considerably more unified as to program and strategy than they ostensibly appear to be. They didn't need those in the past because they had a different program then. Therefore I want to suggest that our program has to learn not only what we know and what we try to practice based on the movements of the past that successfully defeated the Klan in its earlier guises, but also the lessons that have been learned, sometimes under quite different circumstances, by anti-fascists both in this country and around the world.
I'm not going to spin that program here.
It's going to take some time to do it, some debate. I hope that we're ready for debate. It's taken us three years to get to that point, but I think we're ready.
I do want to say, though, that it's going to take a more unified movement than the one we have thus far built. This is much too small a meeting. I don't want to take anything away from the accomplishments, particularly of the work that Lyn Wells and others have done to bring people here, but we all know this is too small a meeting. It needs to be much bigger. And one of the reasons is that this movement, our anti-Klan, anti-fascist movement, is fragmented right now — I believe needlessly so. There is a considerable amount we can do to try to heal that fracture and make it a stronger movement. For my part, I gave a talk somewhat similar, but on a different theme, at the national conference of People United — the other national anti-Klan coalition — in Baltimore a few months ago, and stressed basically the same thing. The two national coalitions should get together. There is plenty of evidence we can. A lot of people from People United are here at this conference, and some of our members were at the other one. Many of us belong to both coalitions. Whatever the reasons may have been in the past that kept our movement fractured, they aren't valid any more. If we're going to defeat a newly resurgent fascist Klan, we need the strongest possible movement we can have.
Thank you very much.
*"Racism, Fascism, and the Politics of the National Front," a Race and Class pamphlet, available for 50 cents plus postage from Institute of Race Relations, 247 Pentonville Road, London N1 9NG, England.[return to text]