The disruptive face of a dwindling KKK

Saturday's rally in New York shows that Klu Klux Klan's strength is declining.

A handful of Klu Klux Klan members stood defiant in their robes, their faces bared before the imposing pillared granite courthouses in downtown New York.

While they had won the right to rally here on Saturday, they'd lost their fight to do so anonymously, with their faces masked. Several still tried to shield their identity from the dozens of news reporters and photographers pressed up against the police barricades by ducking behind a flag that was half American, half Confederate.

It was an anticlimatic finish to a week-long buildup in the national press and a series of legal battles that went all the way to the US Supreme Court, which ruled only minutes before the rally began.

Ultimately, only 16 KKK members and two skinheads showed up. The paltry number is testament to the fact that the once-powerful hate group remains a lightening rod for publicity and public scorn (an estimated 8,000 New Yorkers came out for a counterprotest).

But today's Klan is only a fragmented, disorganized shadow of its former self, despite recent efforts to reinvigorate its membership.

"As horrible as racism is today, it's important to recognize that in comparison to 50 or 100 years ago, we've made tremendous strides," says Brian Levin, a professor of criminal justice at California State University at San Bernardino. "White supremacy has really been pushed out of mainstream social discourse."

Today's KKK

Klan watchers estimate there are more than 160 independent groups nationwide, each with only a handful of members, bringing the total number to 4,000 to 5,000.

At its height in the 1920s, the KKK was powerful, unified movement with 5 million members - including, says Mr. Levin, President Harry Truman and the late US Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black. Both later repudiated it.

The Klan was an accepted part of the American establishment during much of the first half of the century, despite being credited with as many as 5,000 lynchings between 1880 and 1940.

National Imperial Wizard Jeffrey Berry of the American Knights, which organized the weekend rally, insists he simply wants to revive the Klu Klux Klan's traditional principles of white pride.

At a court hearing challenging the city's denial of a permit to march with their masks on, Mr. Berry said his group was simply a peace-loving white civil rights group. He then stunned the court by adding: "This is the '90s. Like Rodney King says, 'Why can't we all just get along?' "

White pride or racism?

But the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), which tracks hate groups around the country, contends that Berry's American Knights are following the more menacing Klan model, distributing crudely racist literature and epithets.

At a rally in Jasper, Texas, after James Byrd Jr. was dragged to death by white supremacists, Berry told the crowd, "We hate Jews, we hate [blacks].... Tell me one thing your race has accomplished."

But on Saturday, surrounded by dozens of police in riot gear and with no microphone, Berry stood mostly silent, speaking only a few times to complain that the courts had silenced him. Seventy-five minutes after arriving, he and his colleagues threw their fists in the air in a Nazi salute and shouted, "white pride," then turned and left.

"This is the typical shtick of the in-your-face Klan of the American Knights," Levin says. "They get a lot of publicity and end up really bleeding the cities' resources."

And Berry's not done with New York. He vowed he would be back, primarily because the group failed in its original goal - to challenge and overturn New York's antimask law.

Such laws, particularly one drafted in part by the ADL in Georgia in the 1940s, are credited with helping to break the Klan's back.

"A lot of bigots were willing to burn the cross if you didn't know who they were," says Abraham Foxman, national director of the ADL. "But the moment they were forced to be out in the open, they weren't courageous enough to stand behind their bigotry."

Why they came

Indeed, a desire to see whether the Klan members had the courage of their convictions prompted Karen Gray of Brooklyn to join the throngs along the barricades to counterprotest.

"In the civil rights movement, people came out and marched without hoods and got killed, got beaten up, death threats," she says. "I just wanted to see if they had the courage to do it."

The American Knights has successfully challenged antimask laws in Indiana and Pennsylvania. Only the Georgia law has so far withstood constitutional scrutiny because it was narrowly defined, prohibiting the wearing of a mask for the purpose of threatening or intimidating someone.

The ADL drafted similar language and will present it to the New York State Legislature this week - hoping to ensure Saturday's victory will be repeated when the KKK challenges the law again.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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