The Minuteman Project wasn't the first to organize a vigilante border patrol. That honor belongs to the Ku Klux Klan.
Although Chris Simcox and Jim Gilchrist are seen as the fathers of the Minuteman movement, citizen vigilante border patrols are not a new concept. Simcox and Gilchrist are following in the footsteps of other anti-immigrant activists before them, and it is well-trodden ground.
Klansmen were on the Mexican border 28 years before the Minutemen co-opted the concept. And they were talking about the Hispanic immigration threat more than five decades before that.
In 1926, Klan Imperial Wizard H.W. Evans warned that "to the South of us thousands of Mexicans, many of them Communist, are waiting a chance to cross the Rio Grande and glut the labor marts of the Southwest."
In an article that traces the history of the Klan in San Diego from the 1920s through the 1970s, The Journal of San Diego History describes an atmosphere of fear that persisted for decades. "Any Mexican worker who challenged authority or appeared suspicious of one thing or another would forfeit his life," Mercedes Acasan Garcia, a maid during the 1920s, said in a 1979 interview. Garcia tearfully recalled lynchings, whippings and burnings of Hispanics. "Since they were ragged wetbacks, nobody cared who they were and nothing was done about it."
With such a history of anti-immigrant violence, Klan boss David Duke and his California leader, Tom Metzger, had little trouble directing the energies of their followers to the Mexican border a half century later.
In 1977, after shoring up their ranks with Marines from nearby Camp Pendleton, the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan kicked off its Klan Border Watch. Klansmen were supposed to drive the border from Texas to the Pacific Ocean in a caravan, instructed to report suspicious people to the Border Patrol. Media attention was huge, and cameras at times outnumbered Klansmen eight to one. The event wasn't much more than a publicity stunt, although Metzger boasted of leading 500 volunteers from four states.
Metzger split with Duke in 1979, critical of what he saw as Duke's showmanship and inveterate womanizing. But, in the spring of 1980, Metzger formed his own rogue Klan chapter and led a "security force" of around 40 Klansmen to John Landes Park in Oceanside, vowing to rid it of Mexicans. Metzger's followers carried black shields emblazoned with "KKK" in white letters. They wielded bats, chains and nightsticks and wore hockey masks and helmets. Some brought attack dogs. Protesters met the Klansmen at the park and pelted them with rocks. Seven people were injured.
That same year, Metzger parlayed the attention he had gained, along with growing anti-immigrant sentiment, into a victory in the Democratic primary for his local congressional district. He got some 33,000 votes, although he lost the general election handily.
Today, Metzger is dismissive of the staying power of the Minutemen. "They remind me of the big splash about the militias a few years ago," he told the Intelligence Report. "When the Murrah Building in OKC went up they all disappeared. The Minutemen are similar and when the blood really flows on the border, most will be long gone. They go out of their way to claim not to be racist. They are hypocrites of the worst order. They go on and on that they want no racists among them. What a joke."