As they have since the South was subjugated and slavery aborted, the dragons and grand masters emerge out of the woods at times when the country faces racial tensions – the 1890s, the 1930s, the 1950s and ‘60s, the 1970s, and, now, the 2010s.
The Ku Klux Klan once numbered five million, a terrifying force for the cause of white supremacy as they broke, on horseback, through the woods, their identities concealed by sheets and hoods. Today, a greatly weakened Klan again will try to tap into fears about loss of white heritage and power, as it holds a pro-Confederate flag rally at the South Carolina state house, where last week the controversial Confederate battle flag came down after the killing of 9 black parishioners at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., on July 17.
The group, the Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, has denounced the acts of the white supremacist shooter, Dylann Roof, who had posed with Confederate flags and, reportedly, vowed to start a race war. But the decision by South Carolina legislators to remove the flag to the state’s “relic” room sparked the Pelham, North Carolina-based KKK group to file for a protest permit.
“I suspect we are on the precipice of a new wave of Klan activity,” Leonard Zeskin, the author of “Blood and Politics: The History of the White Nationalist Movement from the Margins to the Mainstream,” told NBC News.
Now numbering less than 4,000 and fractiously splintered in some 23 groups, the Klan’s decision to take the national stage is in some ways a test of the voltage of white supremacy in the nation.
But it also raises questions about the Klan’s relevance in an age when savvier white supremacist groups are trying to appear more mainstream, by arguing for “white civil rights,” as opposed to the Klan’s goal of complete racial segregation.
One such tactic emerged this week: As of Saturday, 39,000 people had signed a change.org petition to remove the African-American monument from the state grounds in South Carolina, because it “depicts slave ships, mistreatment and words such as ‘segregation’ and ‘Jim Crow’ … that can and [do] serve to invoke in the white community feelings of shame, humiliation and offense, serving as a constant reminder of the dark history of slavery.”
To be sure, the debate has included other bold public defenses of the Confederate flag, which many Southern whites see as a benign remembrance of ancestral valor. This week, some people waved Confederate flags as Obama’s motorcade sped past during a visit to Oklahoma City. That protest was one of some 90 pro-Confederate flag rallies to have taken place since a South Carolina honor guard retired the flag last Friday.
Given such outpouring nationally for symbols of the Confederacy, the Klan is sensing that the time is ripe to rebuild what some of them call the “invisible empire,” experts on hate groups say.
“The KKK's specialty, their key recruiting and support-building tool: making white Americans feel they were under siege,” writes Janell Ross, in the Washington Post.
But whether an outpouring of support for the Confederate flag can help fuel a resurgence of the Klan is far from certain, especially given that the vast majority of Southern heritage groups denounce the Klan and its tactics.
Instead, many experts, including historian James Loewen, see the spike of pro-Confederate Klan activity, including Saturday’s rally in Columbia, more as a sign of how little public support the Klan has today as opposed to earlier Klan eras. The group is expecting no more than 200 people to show up, even as it’s held membership drives as far from Columbia as Orange County, Calif.
One reason why is because of a broader push across America and the South to rethink Confederate symbols – including a proposal by New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu to remove that city’s landmark monuments to Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee and Confederate President Jefferson Davis. That effort has forced many Americans to rethink their views on the cause of the Civil War – whether it was fought over states' rights or slavery.
“The truth about the [ties of white supremacy to symbols of the] Confederacy has always stared us in the face, and now we can look at it,” says Mr. Loewen, an expert on the neo-Confederate movement and author of “Lies My Teacher Told Me,” the 1995 bestseller.
For some, however, the fight over the Confederate flag is sharpening a deeper question, especially for those related to Southern Civil War fighters, about what happens when Southern heritage is suppressed by an “intolerant” majority.
“Everybody from other parts of the country looks at the South, points a finger and says, ‘Were it not for that benighted region, we’d be a pure and shining nation,’” says Michael Hill, president of the secessionist League of the South. “We’re ‘the other’ in American history, and if we’re going to be the other, why not go all the way and really be another [nation].”
Given such heightened emotions, Gov. Nikki Haley has asked people to stay away from the rally. One group that will not is Black Educators for Justice, a Florida group with links to the New Black Panther Party, which will hold an anti-Confederate flag rally at the same location, at the same time.