Despite claims that the Klan is resurgent, the reality is that it’s in sorry shape. That’s not to say that members aren’t dangerous
Is the Ku Klux Klan on the rise?
To read certain British papers — and, truth be told, most European newspapers can’t get enough stories about Americans and the Klan — the answer is an unqualified yes. One of them even claimed this April that the Klan has not been so active since the 1960s, when its members routinely engaged in murder.
But there’s not much to back up that claim.
In fact, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center’s (SPLC) annual count of hate groups and their chapters (or klaverns, in the case of the Klan), the number of klaverns in America has dropped from a recent high of 221 in 2010 to 163 last year. The SPLC has estimated that there are, at most, 4,000 to 6,000 Klansmen in America today, a far cry from the estimated 40,000 Klansmen active in the 1960s.
In addition, the Knight Riders, Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, whose 13 klaverns made up part of the 2013 count, dissolved in early January 2014. The leader of the Florida-based group closed it down after a member pleaded guilty to weapons charges in connection with that member’s plans to terrorize minorities.
“Far from being resurgent, the history of the Ku Klux Klan in recent decades has been one of periods of stagnation alternating with periods of decline,” said Mark Pitcavage, director of investigative research for the Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish human rights group. “It’s common for extremist groups in general, and Klan groups in particular, to make extravagant claims about their membership, but the reality is that they can never back up those claims with real-world evidence.”
There was a rash of local media stories in March and April about Klan activities, sparked entirely by leafleting by two of the country’s 27 named Klan groups, the Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, based in North Carolina, and the Traditionalist American Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, based in Missouri. And it was quite a leafleting splurge — the Loyal White Knights distributed propaganda in seven towns in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Virginia, Texas and Louisiana, while the Traditionalist Knights leafleted two towns in Pennsylvania and Illinois.
Both groups sought new members with their flyers, and both claimed at various points to be setting up neighborhood watches for crime. But there was no real activity on their part beyond their anonymously distributed flyers. What they really seemed to be seeking was the dues that come with new members.
They may be having some success. The Traditionalist Knights grew from three klaverns in 2012 to seven in 2013. At the same time, the Loyal White Knights grew from 16 klaverns in 2012 to 52 in 2013, making it the largest Klan group in the country by chapter count and also, with its pamphleteering, the most visible.
But that growth likely came from absorbing the detritus of other groups. “When a Klan group grows these days, its growth is primarily due to cannibalism,” Pitcavage said. “Members of one Klan group defect and go to another. A couple of years ago, everyone wanted to join the Traditionalist Knights. Before that, it was the United Northern and Southern Knights. Now, the Loyal White Knights are getting chapters from all over, but that’s because people are abandoning other groups.”
The case of the Loyal White Knights, which today boasts that it is “the most active Klan in America,” is illustrative. It was only formed in 2012, and it was built from the rubble of the now-defunct Rebel Brigade Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.
The Loyal White Knights made its first splash with a rally in March 2013 in Memphis, Tenn., where it went to protest the city’s decision to rename three parks, including one honoring Nathan Bedford Forrest, a slaveyard owner, Confederate officer and, after the Civil War, first national leader of the Klan. Although the event only drew some 60 white supremacists, the buildup, following the White Knights’ promise to bring “thousands,” got serious attention in American newspapers. And, as usual, many European papers joined in with credulous forecasts of a huge rally.
But what was far more noticeable than the number of racists — who faced down a crowd of more than 1,000 anti-racists — was the fact that one Klan group, the Alabama-based United Klans of America (UKA), came to join the anti-racists. The UKA’s national leader, Bradley Jenkins, said that the out-of-town Klan groups had no right to dictate policy to Memphians, harshly criticized their racism, and, ultimately, announced that he was teaming up with a local black street gang in order to hold a joint counter-protest. In the end, that didn’t work out because the leader of the Grape Street Crips noticed that it was raining and decided to stay home.
That kind of bizarre drama is far more typical of the contemporary Klan than any effective defense of white supremacy. In fact, most Klan groups spend more time and energy attacking one another than they do their oft-named enemies.
That came to the fore again with the press attention that the Loyal White Knights and the Traditionalist American Knights got out of their leafleting — press attention that is the lifeblood of publicity- and dues-hungry Klan bosses. Predictably, the publicity set off the internecine rivalries that typify today’s Klan scene.
It started with the Traditionalist Knights leader, Imperial Wizard Frank Ancona, rewriting Klan history to describe a completely different group. “We don’t hate people because of their race,” Ancona told a reporter. “We are a Christian organization. Because of the acts of a few rogue Klansmen, all are supposed to be murderers and wanting to lynch black people and we’re supposed to be terrorists.
“That is a complete falsehood.”
That was followed days later by a riposte from Robert Jones, a leader of the Loyal White Knights, who accused Ancona of harboring a terrible secret. “This guy’s group, Traditionalist American Knights, ain’t even been around three years,” he told the New Lenox (Va.) Patch. “Frank Ancona is also Jewish and his wife is Jewish and he’s being exposed all through the Klan world as a fake and he ain’t even white… . His wife actually practices the Wiccan religion, which is basically devil worshipping to me… . I just thought I’d let y’all know that.”
Ancona responded by denying that and describing Jones and other members of the Loyal White Knights as “drunks and druggies.” “If I was a Jew, I’d admit it,” Ancona said. “We don’t want their white trash Hoosier types. Apparently their messing around with alcohol has destroyed their few remaining brain cells.”
Regardless of the number of brain cells in play and the sometimes almost comedic infighting among Klan groups, the sad reality is that the American Klan scene does continue to produce people who can be seriously dangerous.
That was brought home once again in April, just as the publicity over the Loyal White Knights and Traditionalist Knights was dying out, when Frazier Glenn Cross was arrested after a murder spree that left three dead at Jewish institutions in Overland Park, Kan. Cross, who changed his last name from Miller around 1990, once led a kind of paramilitary organization called the Carolina Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. That group was wrecked by an SPLC lawsuit in the 1980s.
Last year, there was another reminder. A Klansman named Glendon Scott Crawford was arrested, along with another man, for allegedly plotting to build a massive X-ray weapon that authorities said he hoped to use against Muslims and that he called “Hiroshima on a light switch.” What’s more, officials said, Crawford had actually taken significant steps toward building the device that he hoped would turn Muslims into “medical waste.” Crawford is slated for trial this summer.