Some of our nation’s most horrific and tragic acts of the past 150 years have occurred by the hands of members of the Ku Klux Klan. The organization’s views on racial supremacy, immigration, and social terrorism are well-documented in the annals of history. Observations into a gathering of this group shed light onto the most profoundly influencing characteristic of this culture: fear. This study will examine the art and language, governance, and organizational survival of the culture, and how these elements contribute to the organization’s mission.
The meeting — attended by 72 individuals of all ages (including as young as 12), sexes, economic statuses, and professions — was conducted in a town-hall type format, with three male leaders (Phil L., Jesse M., and Bill D.) organizing the event. Participants were encouraged to vocalize their opinions and ideas, and a general sense of camaraderie was fostered among the group. Those not in the culture, however, were unwelcome and generally seen as detrimental to the culture and its members. The culture’s many facets — although not apparent to its members — is one where a fear of loss of identity is the basis of every cultural product.
Symbology and Speech
Phil L. is the United Northern and Southern Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, Volusia County Chapter, “Imperial Klaliff.” During his speech, Phil L. continually used terminology exclusive to the KKK culture, which was specifically designed in 1915 by Imperial Wizard William Simmons as a means of “reviving” the movement. (1) Words such as “Klonvocation” (gathering), “Kludd” (chaplain), and “Klaven” (group chapter) are designed to further incorporate the letter “K” into the organization’s lexicon while maintaining at least a modicum of mystery to outsiders. These language rules were followed strictly; so much so the vocabulary itself became an art form, with a sophisticated canon and style. Those in the audience who used the language incorrectly or verbiage from outside the culture were corrected and, sometimes, admonished.
The stringent adherence to the cultural lexicon is deeply rooted in a fear of openness. Bill D., an elder in the group, stated the KKK has always used code words and symbols to identify themselves among their peers, but keep their identities secret to those “who are out to keep whites from taking their rightful place.” He cited police and government agencies who target Klansmen for arrest and incarceration as a main reason for using secretive language.
According to Phil L., the sight of hooded KKK members burning crosses is largely a thing of the past, used mostly at public displays by a small, radical faction of the organization and as propaganda to recruit new members. (2) Instead, the vast majority of today’s KKK uses its cultural images (logo, clothing, and propaganda) less to incite fear among African-American, Jewish, and foreign-born people, and more to identify themselves to each other. At the meeting, nearly every attendee had some form of identifying symbol or marker on him or her — ranging from a tattoo of the KKK cross-and-flame logo to waving Dixie flags to red belt buckles. The markers went beyond mere apparel, however, as there were strict rules defining the usage and placement of these artworks. As with the language, an unspoken canon was developed; again, based on fear of persecution.
Throughout the meeting hall, posters of famous Klansmen lined the walls. A special segment of the room was devoted to art created by group members; each of which designed to perpetuate the KKK message. What was perhaps most interesting was the boldness of each of the pieces, which included paintings, drawings, and sculptures. The artists used hard lines and striking colors in their creations. There was, of course, a theme of superiority throughout the works, with images of whites dominating other cultures or icons. In the works depicting individuals, the lack of a pleasant expression was exceptionally notable. The artists portrayed the individuals as angry and violent, which was in stark contrast to the tenor of the meeting itself. While Phil L. asserts violence and anger are no longer a part of the real KKK message, it’s difficult to accept this when the artwork, symbology, and language connote a culture of fear — both afflicted and inflicted.
Every culture’s method of governance contributes to the creations and values of the populace, and the KKK is no different. In addition to the specialized jargon the organization uses to identify ranking members, it also employs clothing, seating placement, and preferential treatment to further exalt these members. However, what was perhaps most fascinating was how this aspect of the culture had a loosely defined ceiling. Bill D., clearly the oldest and most anger-filled member at the meeting, was regarded more with tolerance than with respect. His hate-filled rants did not have the riotous impact he had hoped, I believe, and group leaders often interrupted his speeches. Phil L. said Bill D. “comes from a different generation; one where men were set into action by rage, rather than calculated strategy.”
This is culturally significant in that middle-aged members — the new leaders of the organization nationwide — have evolved the ways of the group to conform to the new sensibilities of the larger American culture today. Phil L. and his contemporaries among the KKK know rage-filled acts of violence would no longer be tolerated or effective. Instead, the leaders of the Klan today have created a culture of subversion and subtlety. Their crimes against other races and ethnicities are no longer a physical one. Instead, the Klan goal is to place Klan supporters in various level of government so that a more global approach to suppression can be achieved. Phil L. claims there are “at least 40 members of the U.S. Congress actively involved in the KKK or Klan-supporting activities.”
The structure of the new KKK — especially the individual groups — is very formal, with rituals and ceremonies peppering almost every facet of the group. (3) Persons ascending to ranks of authority are rewarded with new cultural icons (patches with symbols, titles, ribbons), and the desire to advance in the hierarchy is pervasive, especially among the youth.
Contrary to Internet reports and information from various media sources, Phil L. says the KKK is alive and more active than ever before. He attributes the survival of the organization to two initiatives: a. The re-focus of the organization’s mission; and b. The commitment to recruiting young members.
By placing KKK supporters in positions of power, Phil L. claims the group will enjoy an extended period of new-found prosperity. From a cultural perspective, this strategy has been employed — from the earliest civilizations — to varying degrees of success. The goal is to build the sense of racial and ethnic superiority in places where policy is made to affect change beneficial to that culture. This, I believe, is far more frightening than a hooded figure spewing hate and violence — at least those individuals are open and easy to see.
Central to the perpetuation of any culture is the intrinsic need for those to physically progress those values, traditions, creations, and language. Where once the KKK was a closed organization, with the only new members being legacy individuals, the new Klan devotes a great deal of time, effort, and money into the recruitment of young people. (4) The KKK utilizes every part of its culture as recruitment tools, including fear, history, art, action, and desire for change. At the meeting, there were at least 13 members present under the age of 18, the youngest being a 12-year-old girl wearing a Dixie-flag shirt. After speaking with one of the young people, “Jake T.,” it was clear his participation was due entirely to the tradition of the culture. Jake T.’s parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents were all in the Klan, he said. Jake T. is a talented painter, as one of his works was on display in the art section of the room. His oil painting on canvas, entitled “Better than You,” was a representative work depicting a sword-wielding white man standing over a slain black man. The detail was exquisite and he made great use of perspective and leading lines to draw the viewer in to the work. When asked why he felt superior to African-Americans, he replied, “Because we’re just better. We always have been.”
His response evidenced a conditioned approach toward racial superiority, perpetuated over more than a century of grooming. His was a microcosm of a larger condition pervasive throughout the KKK group. The social interactions were limited among this observer, many faces were obscured, and conversations within earshot were non-existent. These are all indications of fear-based reactions to an outside invading their culture.
Culture of Fear
This organization was selected for study because it is part of a mysterious and divisive culture outside of a realm of comfort. Before attending the meeting, the preconception of hate-mongering, venom-filled, distasteful content was expected. What was most surprising was the incredible organization of the group, with clearly defined rules and leadership, and an atmosphere of openness among its members (not available “outsiders”). It was most disconcerting to learn not only how many people are still active, but also the direction and subversive activities of the group.
When examined closely, however, the underlying current of the group — which drives every aspect of their culture — is a tremendous and subconscious fear of loss of identity. This fear is evident in the art, language, activities, promotional material, recruitment, and structure of the culture as a whole. Ironically, the means with which this group historically attempted to alleviate this fear is through fear-inducing activities. This method has largely changed in recent years, but until people — as individuals — can eliminate this terror from their lives, there will always be a KKK and a culture of fear.
1. The Ku Klux Klan Rebounds, Mark Pitcavage, Anti-Defamation League, 2007
2. The Ku Klux Klan – A Secret History, The History Channel, DVD, 1998
3. Letter from Cole Thornton, Imperial Wizard, United Northern and Southern Knights of the Ku Klux Klan (http://unskkkk.com)
4. Klan Getting Younger and Stronger, John Meacham, Newsweek, Oct. 2006