The Klan's diminishing shadow
The retrial of a 1964 case evokes echoes of a racist past in a much-changed South.
PHILADELPHIA, MISS. — The indictment of Edgar Ray Killen last week for the murder of three civil rights workers some 40 years ago has reverberated from one side of this town to another, with its echoes of a sordid past. But it's also sparked a bout of introspection, and an evolving sense of how far Mississippi has come since that long, violent summer ended amid clouds of tear gas.
The Ku Klux Klan has all but disappeared, surviving only in faded memories of the white-hooded hordes who rode into town and challenged the faith - and physical well-being - of those who rose against them.
Since the 1960s, the Klan has dwindled from about 80,000 members to perhaps 7,000 nationwide, vastly decentralized and with most of its orders meeting outside the South. In part, that fraying is due to the efforts of activist lawyers, who have sued the group for everything from federal conspiracy to bankrupting grand wizards. Broader social change has made the Klan a laughingstock even among so-called hate groups such as the neo-Nazis.
Yet not all is sweet as a Southern mint tea, and supremacist ideas live on in coded campaigns for political office and an enduring bitterness.
"Look, white supremacy is alive and well in the South," says Mark Potok, editor of the Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Report in Montgomery.
To be sure, the Killen case will show a stark contrast between the white backlash against federal integration laws in the mid-1960s, when gangs of men would intimidate and lynch blacks, and today's Philadelphia of segregated neighborhoods but integrated public life.
Yet the rhythms of racism are as persistent as they are subtle. And as Mr. Killen faced his bond hearing here on Wednesday, his aged visage was a poignant reminder that the Klan is not completely gone.
Today, its marches and campaigns are mostly for show: Just last week, a Missouri order won a lawsuit that will allow it to sponsor a Clean Roads campaign, complete with a sign. But the past few years have seen several cases of violence simmering across the country, including the "Barefoot Plot" in North Carolina, where police arrested a group of Klansmen for scheming to blow up a courthouse. In north Texas, police uncovered a plot to blow up a gas-processing plant - a mere diversion for a planned armed robbery to boost the group's coffers. And even the 2003 arrest of bombing suspect Eric Rudolph in western North Carolina aroused suspicions of help from sympathetic locals, some with ties to white supremacist groups.
"The Klan is not dying," says Mark Pitcavage, research director at the Anti-Defamation League in Ohio. "It's still a very important part of the extremist fringe ... and still causes problems of all types, ranging from spreading hate and intolerance to intimidation and minor hate crimes, all the way to planned acts of terrorism."
Mississippi has no more "hate groups" than most Southern states. It has about half as many as Georgia, which is home to 54, despite being considered among the South's most enlightened states.
On the other hand, 26 of the 28 national and state politicians linked to the Council of Conservative Citizens, which some describe as a "hate group" for its racial views, come from Mississippi.
"It's less that the politicians are secretly Klansmen themselves and more that these are people who are perfectly willing to appeal to white supremacists for votes, and that's clearly still going on," says Mr. Potok. "There's a coded way of reaching out to whites with ugly views about blacks and others."
Born out of protest against the abolition movement of the 1820s, the Klan also had strong ties to primitivist "fork of the creek" churches, congregations of poor and poorly educated farmers that once ruled the rural South. Clinging to snippets of Genesis, they became a powerful force against integration not only during the Civil War but throughout Reconstruction and the Jim Crow era. Early in the 20th century, they topped out at about 5 million members. Killen himself was an ordained Baptist minister, whose moral authority played into the plotting against the three civil rights workers, authorities say. After a Justice Department investigation of the case, 19 men were indicted on federal civil rights charges. Seven were convicted, but a deadlocked all-white jury freed Killen.
The South responded to the abolition movement in the 1820s with "an ideology of white supremacy, where Southerners came to believe that keeping blacks in place was the paramount necessity," says Pitcavage. "Luckily, as the 20th century progressed, there was a decreasing number of white Southerners who bought into that ideology."
For many blacks, racism was - and remains - implicit in the power structure, including local sheriffs who aided and abetted the Klan for decades. But some point to the Killen arrest as a sign of the South's readiness to address those sympathies with the rule of law. Indeed, two years ago, nearby Meridian appointed its first black police chief - a sign, to many, of blacks' emergence into law enforcement, which in the South largely sided with supremacists during the 1960s.
Moreover, it's hard to prove that blacks are suffering economically more than anyone else due to government policy in states like Mississippi, though some say lotteries affect poor minorities to a great extent. Indeed, one reason many blacks move from the North is the rapidly evolving middle class, which is changing the demographics and culture of the New South.
"One thing that's different from 40 years ago is that even in states like Mississippi, for the most part, [white supremacists] are relegated to the fringe," agrees Mr. Pitcavage
The South, many say, remains the most enigmatic province of America, unique in its ability to change so rapidly - while in some ways not changing at all.
Says Paul Gaston, history professor emeritus at the University of Virginia: "Faulkner had it right when he said, 'The past is never dead. It's not even past.'"