On Saturday, the Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan and their supporters will gather at the South Carolina Statehouse grounds in Columbia to rally in support of the Confederate flag, which was recently removed. After being absent from major headlines for many years, the white supremacist group has found its way back into the spotlight in the wake of the June shooting that killed nine black Americans in a historic Charleston church.
Ryan Lenz, editor of Hatewatch.org, said that the group's strategy to appear "larger and more impactful" was to act after heavily covered, racially charged incidents. "The Klan is largely a shadow of what it once was," he said. "When there is an instance or a news event that has some racial element to it, the Klan somehow has managed to insert itself."
But Doug, the Exalted Cyclops of the Loyal White Knights who refused to provide a last name, painted a different picture. Doug, who leads a New York chapter, told ThinkProgress that the Klan was very active year-round through meetings, rallies, and other activities he would not detail. The Loyal White Knights are an active branch of the Ku Klux Klan that has chapters in all 50 states, according to Doug.
A New Strategy
Less than three weeks after the church shooting, the Traditionalist American Knights of the KKK distributed fliers in a predominantly black neighborhood in North Charleston, S.C. "The flier reads, 'Neighborhood Watch. You can sleep tonight knowing the Klan is awake.' It includes a sketch of a hooded Klansman and a finger pointed toward the reader," the AP reported.
The Klan isn't restricting itself to South Carolina. One week after the shooting, a woman of color in New York stepped out of work at the hospital to find a flier tucked underneath the windshield wiper on her car, the words "Good bye Obama!!!" printed at the top in capital letters.
A flier posted in windshields in New York by the Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.
The woman's brother posted a photo of the flier on Facebook, which commenters said was "revolting" and "pathetic."
Lenz said a large part of the KKK's activities in recent years includes distributing offensive fliers like this one, seemingly indiscriminately for the purposes of recruitment, image-building, and racial intimidation – a clear change from the activities of the infamous Klan of the Civil Rights era.
The Ebbs And Flows Of Klan Power
The KKK – derived from the Greek word for circle, kuklos – has risen and fallen many times since its birth among Confederate fighters in Tennessee after the Civil War. But its heyday remains in the 1950s and 60s, when branches of the group expanded into small towns all over the South, growing their membership numbers exponentially as a response to the Civil Rights Movement and, particularly, public school integration. Working-class whites who felt threatened by the social and political advancements of blacks banded together in bombings, shootings, and rallies against people of color. In years to come, government crackdowns and a larger cultural shift would diminish the presence of the KKK.
And until recently, the Klan had all but disappeared. "The last couple of years have been rife with racially charged stories – racist killings, discussion of immigration policy," Lenz said. "These issues cut right to the heart of these ideologies on the far right that white supremacists have been fighting for." The resurgence of white supremacist groups, then, is a white nationalist response to the black community's response to attacks on black bodies.
During the last month, communities of color and their safe spaces have been attacked in a mass shooting and seven church bombings, in addition to several incidents of police brutality. Though these events are reminiscent of attacks during the Civil Rights movement, the Klan has not claimed responsibility for any. These days, the group's activities are often confined to Internet chat rooms and arbitrarily-chosen neighborhoods for recruitment via flier and candy distribution.
The Daily Beast reported that, in the days following the Charleston massacre, residents of several states received plastic baggies filled with peppermints and Tootsie Rolls, along with the contact information for the Loyal White Knights, based in North Carolina. Fliers were seen in Ferguson, Baltimore, and Montgomery during the 50th anniversary of the march from Selma.
"We Should Always Be Vigilant"
"It used to be a huge social organization; politicians and leaders were members, and now it's thrown on paper into front yards," Lenz said. Their handouts have also been seen in Arizona, North Carolina, and South Carolina during times when lawmakers were having discussions on immigration policy. The once-feared Ku Klux Klan now often rides the coattails of racially charged events and subsequent media storms to make its presence known and recruit new members.
Doug said the Loyal White Knights had seen a massive increase in membership since the shooting and Gov. Nikki Haley's push for the removal of the Confederate flag. "Nikki Haley has been our biggest recruiting tool," he said, suggesting that her policies in South Carolina have driven many "concerned and angry" whites to the Klan. When asked about the number of members of the Loyal White Knights, Doug estimated "somewhere in the hundred-thousands," but Lenz of Hatewatch.org remains skeptical.
Regardless of whether the hate group is big or small, powerful or not, its existence alone could be a danger to Americans. "The Ku Klux Klan has never died in America. It has ebbs and flows, but… the very fact that it exists is what America should be concerned about," said Ron Stallworth, a former undercover police officer who infiltrated the KKK, to VICE. "We should always be vigilant of that fact and be mindful of it and ready to combat it in whatever form it exists in."
Saturday won't be the first public rally the KKK has held in recent years, but it may be one of the most high-profile. The nation has had its attention on the Charleston shooting and Confederate flag debate, and for the Klan to step in at this moment certainly makes a statement, even if that statement is simply that they still exist. Doug wouldn't say if members would be dressed in their infamous robes, but did say they'd be donning weapons. "I'm not saying it's going to be violent, but we do believe in self-defense. We're not going out to hurt anyone."