Sunday, June 05, 2016

Book Notes. Klansville, USA: The Rise and Fall of the Civil Rights-Era Ku Klux Klan by David Cunningham

There are countless books written about the Civil Rights Era, which are matched by an array of films. These tend to be biographical in nature, focusing on the life of (or a year in the life of) a Civil Rights Leader; or about specific campaigns in flashpoints such Montgomery or Selma. Another raft of publications revolves around the various Civil Rights organisations, such as SNCC, SCLC, CORE or the NAACP. All of these stories are written in the context of the continued threat of white supremacist violence; some of it spontaneous, much of it well organised. The most extreme form of this white terror was the Ku Kulx Klan, the racial terror group with a penchant for fancy dress.

Despite the presence of the KKK in many of the things I have previously read, I knew little about them in practice; such as who they were, the complexities of their motivations, their internal divisions and varieties, their history, their relationship to government, and the makeup of their membership. However, David Cunningham's "Klansville USA: The Rise and Fall of the Civil Rights Era Ku Klux Klan" is a detailed examination of this group (or rather, series of groups); who sought to resist desegregation and fight against the Brown decision, the Civil Rights Act and The Voting Rights Act of the 1950s and 60s. It is a work of meticulous studiousness, rich in source material and detailed in analysis, which until the final chapter is written with a remarkable degree of scholarly detachment.

The history of the KKK, as presented here, is one of peaks and troughs, in which the underlying continuity of violent enforcement of white hegemony with associated ritual and costume; has come and gone. While some historians have seen the KKKs of the 1870s, 1920s and 1960s as completely distinct; Cunningham suggests that the continuities in ethos, and within families is also important.

The book centres around North Carolina, as it was in this relatively progressive Southern State that the KKK expanded and recruited a mass membership like nowhere else. Much of the book is taken up with examining why such a comparatively liberal state, which sough to establish a reputation for trade and moderation quite different from Alabama or Mississippi, should become 'Klansville'; the HQ of white terrorism. The first observation is that while governers such as George Wallace in Alabama led massive resistance to Federal-led desegregation on behalf of the majority of whites who wished to defend their privilege; the compliance of the North Carolina regime channelled white resistance into more fringe or unorthodox expressions. Cunningham is anxious not to let that observation become the last word on the matter however, but probes further into the Carolina Klan. Comparisons with contemporary Florida (another more federally compliant state) reveal that soft policing at best and collaboration with the Klan, at worst; were also critical features in the extraordinary growth of the KKK. Comparisons within North Carolina itself reveal that the KKK were most successful recruiters in counties where the abolition of Jim Crow would have the most marked effects. These were where a high percentage of the population were African American, and the labour market was more competitive. Curiously though, while this was the case, Klan recruitment on an individual level was less related to direct economic threat, but also strongly related to family ties.

Cunningham then looks internally at the Klan. Specifically, he explores the various characters, factions and organisations which made up this nefarious outfit in the middle years of the Twentieth Century. By far the strongest of the Klans he examines are the United Klans of America (UKA), and their leadership, ritual, social make-up, activities, leaders and crimes are considered. The picture that emerges is that while the UKA was united in its opposition to desegregation, and weirdly obsessed with inter-racial sexual taboos, there were huge variations within the movement too. Some members were never more than fringe contributors who believed that the NAACP were a revolutionary movement which needed to be countered. At the other end of the spectrum were those for whom the UKA was the defining purpose of their lives. There were those who never moved beyond the rallies and white-only family picnics, to those who stayed behind for the covert operations, night riding, intimidation and violence. 

Cunningham also explains the Cold War context of the Civil Rights conflict in the Jim Crow South, rather well. The great threat perceived by most Americans in the 1950s onwards was of a Communist assault on them. Foreign policy and Vietnam came to dominate the narrative, but below that was the suspicion, fuelled like people like Sen. McCarthy, that there was a massive plot to undermine America from within. This narrative fuelled both sides of the Civil Rights confrontation. For Liberals, Jim Crow was a massive propaganda coup for the reds. Indeed the images of the actions of people like Eugene "Bull" Connor, were seized upon and broadcast throughout the Soviet bloc. Cuningham though explains that the KKK were also fuelled by the Red Scare, being convinced that the NAACP were merely fronts for the American Communist Party, controlled and funded by Moscow - who were using the Civil Rights issue as a way of destabilising America. As such, KKK speakers were able to perform the logical contortion that they were standing up for liberty - and be believed.

The final section of the book covers the decline of the KKK in North Carolina, which was as rapid (if less visible), than its massive growth a decade earlier. By the 1970s, it was a shadow of its former self, and by the the late 1980s had ceased to function. Cunningham notes that this was not because the participants were reconciled to the Brown decision, and the Civil Rights Acts; but rather that the battleground then changed to more subtle forms of segregation, and racism. It is true that the once mighty UKA ran out of steam, and failed to continue to mobilise white fears. Participation in UKA Klaverns, rallies, and criminal acts, declined which then led to declining funds, and dissatisfaction with the the leadership, and internal squabbles. Cunningham's book demonstrates though, the extent to which a major change in policing the KKK led to the demise of the North Carolina's once powerful UKA. As the House Unamaerican Activities Committee investigated the KKK (!), Lydon Johnson ordered that the FBI launch a COINTELPRO operation against the Klan. This in many ways, mirrorred the way in which the Bureau had interfered with the various Civil Rights groups for years. While the relatively progressive North Carolina authorities had policed the movement there was space given for the Klan to work unhindered. However (despite Hoover's reservations), the FBI played a critical role in infiltrating, confusing, dividing and disrupting the UKA. At least one major split in their ranks was directly orchestrated by a Klansman in the pay of the FBI, while the Bureau managed to imprison several key Klan organisers, speakers and recruiters, on a range of historic offences. This is a very insightful and useful piece of historical writing, and an aspect of this history about which I knew very little.

Cuningham concludes his book with a summary of the legacy of the UKA's decade of dominance in North Carolina's white cultural resistance to desegregation. He notes that the growth of the right wing Republican party as the party of white Southerners happens at this point. He also cautions against being to optimistic that the trials of Klansmen such as Byron de Beckwith indicate that America has moved on, and come to terms with its murky past. Punishing historic crimes he suggests, might be a distancing manoeuvre, which helps to avoid exposing the ills of the present. Finally, Cunningham breaks with his studied academic neutrality  - a tone in which the whole book is written. While his analysis about matter such as which professions were most represented in Klaverns, is clinical; he generally avoids value judgements about what this means. That is, until the final section in which he summarises his findings in order that we might then take the rise and fall of the UKA as a warning from history; and so be empowered to prevent its recurrence.

Civil Rights literature is greatly enhanced by books like this, which judiciously and thoroughly investigate the 'other side' of the conflict. They add greatly to our understanding of those tumultuous, and formative days. Cunningham has done a great job in assembling and analysing the evidence which tells this odd and disturbing story. The book makes the KKK emerge from the cartoonish caricature in which terms it so often portrayed, into becoming something which is far more troubling. Mere cartoons are unreal and quite unlike anyone we know. The truth is that  countless ordinary people were swept up into a hate movement with a terrorist wing, which they supported alongside doing quite ordinary things such as work, gardening and raising children. Such an observation is truly disturbing.

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