One problem with discussing race with white people (or people in general, actually), is that they take they view that as long as they are personally nice to a small group of black people, they are not being racist, even if they support political policies that disenfranchise black people as a group. To them, racism only exists among a small subset of people that one could call “lifestyle racists”: Klansmen, neo-Nazis, racist heathens, etc. Such a view ignores the fact that “lifestyle racists” are relatively rare in 2015, and most of them don’t live in mainstream society, because these delicate snowflakes can’t fathom the possibility of having to endure even casual contact with those they deem “lesser.” This view also ignores the fact that for a long time, the Klan was considered to be a fairly respectable organization that had the tacit support of the white population.
The Klan is general divided up into four periods. The original iteration of the Klan emerged during Reconstruction, when aggrieved Confederate veterans formed vigilante groups to disenfranchise newly freed blacks and attack their white allies through terrorist attacks. At this time, the Klan was one of many such white terrorist groups operating in the South, and they were quite successful, since they were able to rollback the freedoms blacks had gained during Reconstruction, reinstate white supremacy, and do so with the tacit blessings of the federal government and the rest of the United States. While there was some backlash against the Klan during this period, the group was able to achieve almost all of its political objectives, so it made itself obsolete by the end of the nineteenth century. To this day, there are still monuments to the South dedicated to members of the first Klan, such as Nathan Forrest Bedford. Klansmen become the heroes of D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation and the book version of Gone with the Wind paints the Klan in a positive light, when Ashley Wilkes, Rhett Butler, and Frank Kennedy take up the mantle of the Klan to “avenge” Scarlett’s (non-sexual) assault by residents of a shanty town (the movie version merely says that the men went to a “political meeting”).
The second Klan emerged almost exactly one hundred years ago in my hometown of Atlanta, Georgia. Unlike the first Klan, which was loosely organized and operated in secret, the second Klan operated like a business and had a formal organization structure. Members of the second Klan were quite open about their membership, although the exact proceedings of meetings were supposed to be secret. It was sort of like a more political version of the Masons, with extra-judicial killings mixed in with the funny handshakes and silly costumes. The second Klan also increased its “enemies list” to include Jews, Catholics, and other “un-American” elements. The Klan believed that the United States was explicitly established as a country for white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, and it was their duty to protect white Protestant womanhood from all of the nasty, foreign, others who wanted nothing more than to “defile” her. Furthermore, proponents of “popery” could never be “real Americans” because of their dual allegiance to the pope and because Catholicism was believed to be inherently incompatible with liberal democracy. In a way, it’s not unlike what modern conservatives say about Muslims today. This is why I don’t understand traditional Catholics who are so in love with neo-Confederate ideas, because the Klan would have seen them as part of the problem. Don’t believe me? Look at at the cover of this Klan publication from 1926:
Look at what that Klansman is stepping on as he rings the liberty bell. It’s not a football.
At its height, the second Klan had a nationwide membership that was estimated to be between 4-5 million. But as is so often the case, the second Klan collapsed because of a sex/murder scandal involving a white woman, not because of the whole extra-judicial killing thing:
After the collapse of the second Klan in the 1930s, the group remained dormant until the Civil Rights Movement began in the 1950s. The third iteration of the Klan operated in secrecy like the first one, although members often collaborated with local law enforcement to thwart the efforts of civil rights workers. Mississippi took this one step farther by establishing the ominously named Mississippi Sovereignty Committee, essentially a shadow government that did nothing but find ways to crush the Civil Rights Movement, and has been implicated in the murders of at least three people that we know of:
The three deaths in question are those of the three civil rights workers — Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney — who were killed in Philadelphia, Mississippi. Since many of Mississippi Sovereignty Committees files remained sealed, the full extent of the agency’s activities will remain unknown for decades to come.
While there are many unsolved crimes from the civil rights era, the third Klan would ultimately fail in its attempts to beat back the tide of civil rights legislation. Not only that, but the Klan lost the tacit support that it had once enjoyed from many white Southerners. The fourth Klan is essentially a bunch of scattered white supremacy groups that have little connection to each other and little power or influence, outside of their small niche on the Internet. The Klan has become an symbol and a scapegoat for America’s racial problems, an extreme example of what “respectable people” aren’t. But for most of our post-Civil War history, “respectable people” not only joined the Klan, they supported it, either by not speaking out against the group’s violence or by providing material aid. The very fact that we still have monuments and buildings named after Klansmen and that there even has to be controversy about renaming them goes to show how deep the Klan mentality has penetrated the American psyche. Many Klan supporters were “nice” to the individual black people who worked for them, but the idea that these people should have political and social power would have been inconceivable. Simply being “nice” to people isn’t enough to solve deep rooted social problems. America’s racial problems have never been the fault of Klansmen or other “lifestyle racists” but the tacit approval the “silent majority” gave to the disenfranchisement of their fellow Americans who simply happened to be of a different skin color.