Fighting the Klan in Reagan’s America
The KKK was on the march in the 1980s. What strategies worked to stem their rise?
The recent far-right rallies in Charlottesville and Boston seem to offer two possible visions of the future. Will the resurgence of white supremacist organizing take us down a path of chaos and spiraling violence, as in Charlottesville? Or will the far right — a still relatively powerless, if vocal, minority — be outnumbered, humiliated, and beaten back with little fanfare, as in Boston?
At times it can seem like this dramatic reappearance of racist, far-right movements is a return to an uglier time. It’s harder to visualize such events as peaks in a long-running continuum.
But examined from the perch of history, this is precisely how they appear. In fact, one of the last major resurgences of white supremacist organizing occurred relatively recently — not way back amid the rise of fascism in the 1930s, but at the start of the 1980s. Examining this history not only provides some much-needed perspective — it may provide lessons for antifascists today.
The events of the past seven months might seem strikingly familiar to someone living through the 1980s. That, too, was a time of headlines about neo-Nazi and Klan gatherings, outbreaks of violence between racists and counter-demonstrators, and a presidential administration that seemed unwilling to confront white supremacy — or worse, sympathized with it.
Klan activity had subsided in the 1970s, largely because of federal action against the organization. By the start of the 1980s, however, organized white supremacy had returned in force. Recovering from a low of 1,500 in 1974, the Klan’s membership ballooned to between ten and twelve thousand by 1981.
This membership jump was a drop-off from a couple decades earlier, when the Klan had roughly forty thousand core members, and a small fraction of the millions of members it boasted at the height of its popularity in the 1920s.
But Klan activity was inarguably on the uptick. It set up paramilitary training camps (“All defensive,” the head of the Carolina Knights of the KKK maintained, even as he explained that they were “building a white Christian army”). Its members and allies won major party nominations in states like California and Michigan. It offered to assist the Immigration and Naturalization Service in patrolling the US-Mexico border. And it held rallies in cities around the country, from Chicago and Washington DC to Hannibal, Missouri and Meriden, Connecticut.
The Klan’s revival emboldened white supremacists across the country.
“In the past I felt that racism was not to be brought up into polite company, but with this resurgence of (KKK) activity, people are much more willing to express the racism they buried,” said one Fairfax County education official at the time.
A wave of cross burnings broke out across the country. Attacks on synagogues multiplied. The House Judiciary Committee convened a hearing to discuss near-daily reports of anti-black violence. Twenty-four African Americans and two white women who were with black men were murdered at random in seven cities over the course of fifteen months. A white sniper shot down four African Americans in thirty-six hours in Buffalo, just two weeks before two black taxi drivers in the city were killed and had their hearts cut out. Over the span of sixteen months, eleven black children were murdered in Atlanta.
This was just a small, early sample of the racial violence that would plague the country through the decade. Arthur Kinoy of Rutgers University Law School warned that the United States “was on the edge of a national crisis of untold dimensions if this spreading pattern is not halted.”
The Klan, meanwhile, had embarked on a public rebranding effort. Leaders attempted to portray the organization as a “new” Klan, one that had renounced the terrorism of its past. “It’s not like the old Klan. We don’t do any nightriding or burn churches. We’re into politics now,” one Klansman told the Atlanta Constitution in 1978. “You can’t get anywhere with violence anymore.” Rather than burn crosses, they handed out pro-Klan literature at schools and set up the Klan Youth Corps, envisioned as as an alternative to the Boy Scouts.
In reality, as the years went by, the Klan became more extreme. By 1985, anti-Klan activists were warning of a “Nazification” that was overtaking Klan organizations. Its leaders no longer called for just a restoration of segregation. They increasingly desired a race war, with the goal of eventually establishing a “white Christian republic.”
“The current upsurge in activity comes at a time of economic and social uncertainty,” the American Friends Service Committee wrote in 1981. “One aspect of the Klan resurgence is the scapegoating of racial minorities . . . for the economic difficulties of our time.”
It was a point Randolph Scott-McLaughlin, a civil rights lawyer who was involved in a major case against the Klan, would make a year later at an assembly of anti-Klan campaigners:
Most of the rank-and-file Klansmen, at least the ones I encountered in Chattanooga, were poor, uneducated, working-class whites. And the Klan gave them something to be proud of; it gave them a perspective, a purpose. And that’s the attraction the Klan has for white working-class America. And unless you all can develop some other method, or some other means of expression, you won’t be able to defeat the Klan.
It would be misleading to claim that the Klan was a purely white working-class organization. Just as the “alt-right” movement today is populated by the middle and upper class, so too was the Klan of the 1980s filled with highly educated members who worked as accountants and occupational therapists.
J. W. Thompson, a journalist who went undercover in the Klan at the start of the decade, found that it enjoyed financial and other kinds of support from wealthy and prominent individuals in local communities; he once attended a Klan meeting at the home of a well-off Birmingham physician.
Nonetheless, there was a clear economic component to the Klan’s recruitment. It began targeting distressed farmers in rural areas, and one of its major organizing efforts in the early 1980s was in Texas, where the Klan took advantage of competition between white and Vietnamese fishermen to support a campaign against the latter. The racist skinhead movement also fed on the discontent of working-class youth.
Another likely factor in the Klan’s resurgence was the election of a president viewed as sympathetic to the Klan’s goals. Indeed, it was particularly ironic to see a video of Ronald Reagan denouncing bigotry making the rounds in the aftermath of Charlottesville, given that Reagan was beloved by the Klan. Imperial Wizard Bill Wilkinson endorsed Reagan for president in 1980, and gushed that that year’s GOP platform “reads as if it were written by a Klansman.”
Reagan quickly repudiated Wilkinson’s endorsement. Nonetheless, as the late Ron Walters put it, Reagan was “anathema to the entire civil rights community and the civil rights agenda.” Antiracist campaigners throughout the 1980s expressed frustration at his Department of Justice for dragging its feet when investigating murders of blacks or going after the Klan.
In 1984, Wilkinson called the GOP platform “pure Klan,” and again gave Reagan his imprimatur. This time, it took Reagan a month to repudiate Wilkinson’s endorsement, during which time his spokespeople dodged questions and refused to disavow it. Dorothy Gilliam, the Washington Post’s first black female reporter, wrote that the prevarication suggested the GOP was “dallying in order to make maximum political use of the endorsement.”
The resurgence of violent racism and the revival of the Klan was certainly alarming. But it didn’t go unchallenged. It also spurred a flurry of counter-organizing on the broad left.
The Massacre That Started a Movement
The rise of the far right, coupled with Reagan’s election and his proposal to weaken the Voting Rights Act, lit a fire under antiracist organizers, who feared it would take the United States “back down the road to 1877.” But if there was a single event that most galvanized anti-Klan organizing, it was the Greensboro Massacre in November 1979.
Greensboro wasn’t the first time in recent memory that antiracist demonstrators had been attacked by the Klan. A 1978 campaign of protests by African Americans in Tupelo, Mississippi had sparked a counter-movement of Klansmen, and a civil rights demonstration in Decatur, Alabama in 1979 had been attacked by one hundred Klan members armed with bats, axe handles, and guns.
But it wasn’t until Greensboro that the Klan killed antifascists.
The events of November 3, 1979 involved the Workers Viewpoint Organization (WVO), a communist group whose members were attempting to organize workers at a local textile plant and had spent years working on housing and education issues in Morningside, a local black community. Vehemently opposed to the increased activity of the Klan and similar groups in Greensboro and around the country, the WVO organized a “Death to the Klan” rally in the neighborhood.
The WVO would later come in for criticism for its use of violent, deliberately provocative, and inflammatory rhetoric in the lead-up to the march. Fliers called for the Klan to “be physically beaten and run out of town,” and at a press conference a WVO leader declared that the Klan “must be physically beaten back, eradicated, exterminated, wiped off the face of the earth.” It was partly such rhetoric that would later engender some resentment among Morningside residents, who were angry that the WVO would risk a violent confrontation so close to their homes and their children.
But as the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission later determined, this was based on a naïveté among the WVO about both their own rhetoric and the violence of the Klan.
The WVO had no history of violence to back up their language, other than target shooting and karate training. The Greensboro Klan, on the other hand, had members who’d been convicted for firing into a home, had conspired to blow up a local union hall, had organized paramilitary camps, and had planned to blow up a local gas storage facility. They had burned crosses and broken the legs of a black man for living with a white woman. They were quite ready to back up their violent words with violent deeds.
The other entity with a hand in the disaster was law enforcement. An agent of the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms had infiltrated the Klan, and later testified that he had seen weapons at several Nazi meetings, that Klansmen had discussed harassing demonstrators at the rally, and that one Klan member told him he had made a homemade pipe bomb “which would work well in a crowd of niggers.”
Several Nazis later testified that the agent had even offered to school them in how to make explosives and turn semi-automatic weapons into automatic ones, taught them how to make Molotov cocktails, and encouraged them to bring guns to Greensboro.
Yet none of this was relayed to local police — not to mention the WVO marchers.
Local police, not surprisingly, weren’t any better. Despite surveilling the Klan and knowing in advance they were coming to the march, the police didn’t stop and search the cars, didn’t inform the demonstrators, and were nowhere to be found when the violent encounter took place — instead arriving “in droves about two minutes after the shooting,” according to a news report at the time. Worse still, the police had their own informant, Edward Dawson, in the Klan, who it later turned out had obtained a copy of the WVO marchers’ route from the police and recruited local Klansmen to confront the demonstrators.
Six years later, the Greensboro Police Department’s legal adviser would testify in court that “racial and political animus” had played a role in the police’s refusal to intervene, as they had “stigma or bad feelings” about the march’s organizer. The Greensboro Commission determined that “even a small but noticeable police presence would almost certainly have prevented loss of life” that day.
Instead, a nine-car caravan of Klansmen and Nazis drove up to the anti-Klan marchers. One Klansman shouted, “You asked for the Klan, here we are.” A few demonstrators kicked and hit the cars with sticks. Then Nazis and Klansmen pulled out shotguns, semi-automatics, and other guns, and fired into the crowd for eighty-eight seconds, leaving four dead. A fifth died two days later.
The massacre, and the ensuing subsequent trials and investigations, would hold public attention for years to come. It would take until the third trial, in 1985, for the Klansmen responsible for the murders to be found guilty of any wrongdoing.
In the meantime, however, the lethal incident — and, more importantly, the Klansmen’s initial acquittal — provided the fuel for antiracist organizing efforts around the country.
Providing the Motor Power
The Greensboro Klansmen were acquitted on November 17, 1980. On December 6, more than two hundred representatives of various leftist organizations — a “mostly young, racially mixed crowd,” the New York Times reported — gathered in the city for a two-day anti-Klan conference. Panels and workshops included “What to do When the Klan Plans to Rally in Your Neighborhood” and “Germany 1930s/USA 1980s — the Danger of Fascism.”
One speaker, a longtime Greensboro activist, declared that the acquittal had “stimulated a movement that otherwise might not have been motivated” at a local level. Another charged that “the government is trying to stifle the movement against the Klan” and urged participants to “put aside our ideological differences to fight our common foe.” They called for a march and demonstration at Reagan’s inauguration next following month. (An anti-Klan rally on White House grounds ended up taking place, though it encompassed causes as disparate as nuclear energy and violence in El Salvador.)
A week later, the Southern Organizing Committee for Economic and Social Justice — a multiracial group of southerners organizing against racism, economic injustice, and environmental destruction — warned that the Greensboro verdict gave violent racists “a green light to kill those they disagree with.” It urged people across the country to view it as an “emergency” that could not be faced with “business as usual.”
By early December, anti-Klan organizing had sprung into motion across the country. Black and white citizens launched lawsuits against Klan violence, with civil liberties and legal groups providing teams of attorneys. Adopting the tactics of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) began its Klanwatch project, documenting Klan actions around the country with clippings from 13,000 US newspapers. A politically diverse array of groups was involved, from civil rights organizations like the NAACP and the National Urban League to Hispanic, feminist, and gay activists.
“Organized labor is playing a strong role, particularly in textile-producing states in the South, where Klansmen frequently oppose union organizers,” the Los Angeles Times reported.
One of the most significant organizing efforts at the time was the National Anti-Klan Network (NAKN), an umbrella organization of students, women’s, civil rights, labor, civil liberties, and leftist groups.
In February 1981, NAKN held a national conference, its third, at Howard University. Five hundred representatives attended. Although the meeting featured speakers, sponsors, and observers from liberal and black unions, such as the National Alliance of Postal and Federal Employees, as well as church groups, it was still, the Boston Globe noted, a “gathering of the Left.” Another organizer denied that it was a “‘Left’ movement right now,” but admitted that “the push, the energy does come from the left. We usually provide the motor power.”
Planning a “spring offensive,” the conference featured “America’s Klan Buster No. 1” of the 1930s and ’40s, Stetson Kennedy, who suggested urging congressional scrutiny and using Reconstruction-era anti-Klan statutes to prosecute the Klan.
Many turned to education to try stem the Klan’s rise. Determining that “the only way we can offset the work of the Klan and groups like the Klan is through education,” the National Education Association (NEA) produced a book on the KKK’s history, a response to teachers’ reports of racist incidents in classrooms. Appalled by a piece in a popular children’s magazine that cast the Klan in a benign light, the Council of Interracial Books for Children began designing a lesson plan about the Klan. The American Federation of Teachers also produced anti-Klan material.
Likewise, the Southern Student Activist Network sponsored a series of lectures featuring recent victims of Klan violence as part of a nationwide anti-Klan campaign. The NAKN embarked on a media blitz through Georgia, fundraising to buy airtime on radio and television stations and send representatives to small towns to speak to government leaders, teachers, and various other audiences about the Klan’s history of racist violence.
Such efforts were not naive — as sociologist Kathleen Blee later found, many Klan members neither came from racist families nor were particularly racist themselves when they first joined, but instead got involved for social and cultural reasons.
“We want to go into communities before there is violence,” explained one member. “Our concern is that cities and communities not simply react.”
To that end, the NAKN also set up a national conference on strategies for countering the Klan, focusing on equipping locally based anti-Klan groups with the right tactics and information to combat the Klan in their neighborhoods.
Local communities found their own ways to resist the Klan. When the Klan planned to enter a float in a Georgia town’s annual holiday parade, the city council cancelled the parade for the first time and replaced it with an interracial church service. In Nashville, a newspaper launched an expose of the organization, while a local civic organization held public forums and set up an education program for schools, churches, and community groups, leading to the disappearance of all six of the city’s Klan chapters.
Not all of the anti-Klan activism was successful. In May 1981, the NAKN brought people from twenty states for a two-day lobbying blitz to push the federal government to deal with the cascade of racist violence, but found the government “plans to do nothing at all.”
“At the White House, at the Justice Department and — except for a minority of lawmakers — in the halls of Congress, we found a total refusal to recognize this crisis or to deal with it,” a NAKN co-chair reported dejectedly.
Taking It to the Courts — and the Streets
With the Reagan administration sitting on its hands, groups like NAKN and the SPLC took the fight to the courts themselves.
Claiming they were “doing the work of the Justice Department,” NAKN began shepherding victims of Klan violence through the courts and filing costly private suits against the Klan. One, for instance, was on behalf of John McCollum, a mine worker who had been shot in the face with shotgun pellets at a Klan march in Carbon Hill in 1979.
Though the strategy was partly launched in the wake of government inaction, it proved to be surprisingly effective in dismantling Klan chapters.
“Civil suits filed by the SPLC and other watchdog groups have historically delivered a more effective stop on white power organizing than have criminal prosecutions,” says Kathleen Belew, a historian at the University of Chicago who’s spent a decade researching the “white power” movement. “Such actions have stopped paramilitary training and armed marches, delivered multimillion-dollar settlements that crippled movement organizing, prohibited association between activists, seized membership rolls and headquarters, and more.”
One high-profile case involved the shooting of five black women in Chattanooga in 1981. When the Klan members received a lenient sentence, several civil rights organizations filed two lawsuits against the organization: one on behalf of the five women, another a class-action one seeking an injunction against the Klan, brought on the basis of Reconstruction-era anti-Klan statutes. The Klan lost the suit and was ordered to pay the women $535,000 and barred from setting foot in the black community.
The Klan was feeling the sting from such efforts as early as 1983. That February, Wilkinson filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy for the Invisible Empire, Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, the faction that had been involved in the Decatur violence. Wilkinson complained that civil rights groups and government agencies had conspired to litigate the organization out of existence.
And he wasn’t completely wrong. That was certainly the aim of the SPLC and its director, Morris Dees. The SPLC won court orders against the Klan in Texas and North Carolina. One of its major early successes was a 1984 Alabama case in which the mother of a man who had been lynched by Klan members won a $7 million judgement and the deed to the headquarters of the United Klans of America, striking a “death blow” to the organization. While the men involved had been previously convicted, Dees had suggested to the man’s mother that she file a civil suit against the Klan that would hold them liable as a corporation.
Three years later, the SPLC won $1 million in damages for a group of marchers who had been attacked by Klan members while commemorating Martin Luther King’s birthday. In 1994, the chief defendant, the Invisible Empire, disbanded under financial pressure, and its office equipment was given to the NAACP.
By the middle of the 1980s, the Klan was in decline. A 1984 report by the Anti-Defamation League found that the Klan had witnessed “a fall off of both hard-core members and sympathizers,” and that its national membership had dwindled to around 6,500, nearly half of what it had been a few years earlier. (Though it should be noted that membership numbers are not necessarily the only or best way to measure the influence of such groups.)
While it’s difficult to determine how much the legal assault contributed to the drop in Klan membership (and some of those who departed subsequently showed up in the emergent militia movement), such actions were an important source of resistance against what seemed to be an encroaching tide of violent, racist hatred.
Meanwhile, as lawyers battled in the courts, activists took to the streets.
Throughout the decade, Klan rallies across the country were met with counter-demonstrations. Often they ended in violence, from isolated scuffles to near-riots. A 1981 Klan rally in Meriden, Connecticut turned into a bloody scene, with anti-Klan protesters hurling bottles and rocks at Klan members who hid behind a forty-person wall of policemen, before they beat a hasty retreat.
Other times counter-demonstrators amassed enough people to shut down Klan rallies with little violence. A year later in Meriden, in stark contrast to 1981’s event, antiracist protesters featured as a nonviolent counter-presence to another Klan rally, their 1,500-strong crowd dwarfing the thirty-five Klansmen. The crowd’s chants drowned out Klan members, who weren’t audible even when using a megaphone with an amplifier. They were escorted by a sizable police contingent (which also searched them for weapons before allowing them to assemble).
Greensboro remained the site of anti-Klan demonstrations for years to come. Three months after the murder of five WVO activists, around five thousand politically diverse protesters gathered for an anti-Klan rally. Seven years later, activists challenged another Klan march through a variety of nonviolent means, including a “Love Rally and Peace Festival for Racial Unity” in a nearby park, a silent vigil across the street from the rally, and a much larger countermarch the day before the Klan’s demonstration.
Several times, the Klan called off marches in Washington DC because of counter-protesters (or, at one point, to meekly assemble in a smaller group in suburban Maryland.) When they eventually held the DC rally, its first in the capital in fifty-seven years, it was a decidedly diminished affair.
Far from the Klan’s heyday in 1925, where anywhere between 35,000 and 50,000 Klansmen and women proudly marched down Pennsylvania Avenue, this time a mere three dozen Klansmen turned up. Faced with hundreds of counter-protesters, they were soon convinced by the police to abandon their march down the avenue in favor of a more low-key, fifteen-minute affair in Lafayette Park. Klan members removed their robes and placed them in shopping bags for the gathering; police shuttled them through the back streets.
Though the DC protest did ultimately degenerate into violence, albeit out of anger at what was viewed as trickery by the police, it also demonstrated the power of a large, united coalition to repeatedly undermine planned shows of force by white supremacists. We’ve seen a similar phenomenon recently, when last weekend’s massive counter-protest in Boston led far-right demonstrators to cancel rallies in thirty-six states and retreat to the safety of the internet instead.
The Fight Against Fascism
The growth in racist organizing didn’t die out in the 1980s. These battles would continue into the 1990s, when the far right morphed into the militia movement; into the Obama years, when right-wing, anti-government militias surged again; and into the present, with the rise of the white supremacist “alt-right.”
Nonetheless there are lessons we can learn from the anti-Klan campaigning of the 1980s.
For one, while street actions such as counter-protests were an important form of resistance, preventing white supremacists from feeling a false sense of comfort in openly espousing their beliefs, they were neither the only form of fightback, nor even at times the leading one. As Randolph Scott-Thompson told those assembled at NAKN’s third conference, what was needed was “an organized, consistent response combining a variety of techniques.”
In addition to mass counter-protest, this ranged from the legal approach favored by groups like the SPLC to the education drives launched by NAKN and other groups. It also encompassed the actions taken by local communities, the majority of whose residents were not sympathetic to the Klan, and who used a variety of techniques to gradually peel off local support for the Klan and its activities.
Secondly, antiracist campaigners were a politically broad coalition that united in their opposition to white supremacy. While the energy and organizing experience often came from leftists, they were joined by liberal organizations, as well as nominally apolitical entities like church groups, plus activists for a variety of political causes, from feminism to gay rights. Organized labor was also key to these efforts, with several of the country’s largest and oldest unions joining in the fight.
Finally, while such antiracist efforts are key responsive efforts, it’s important to remember that the fight against white supremacy is a long-term one that involves attacking the root conditions that allow it to thrive. As anti-Klan campaigners in the 1980s pointed out, worsening economic conditions were partly to blame for the increasing impulse among some Americans to turn to organized racism, as well as social alienation and other factors. This is a far less immediately gratifying strategy, but arguably the most potent one in the long run.
Today’s resurgence of white supremacy is scary. The far right of 2017 arrives at protests far more heavily armed than Klan marchers of the 1980s. But we should not allow its loudness, nor its propensity for violence, to obscure the fact that it is beatable, nor the fact that it has been waging a losing war for the last fifty years.
We outnumbered them in the 1980s. And as Boston showed, we still do today.