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Sharon Smith

Letter from the US

Cops and Klan, hand in hand

(June 1994)

From Socialist Review, No. 176, June 1994.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

‘In the 1920s Klan members held posts in the highest levels of the government – including two former presidents’

In the strictest sense of the word, Nazism has never gained a mass foothold in the United States. But the white supremacy of the Ku Klux Klan, created as an underground force to terrorise freed slaves after the Civil War, is fascism’s kindred spirit.

Between 1880 and 1930 over 3,000 blacks died at the hands of lynching mobs. Although its main focus has always revolved around lynching blacks and attacking foreigners, the Klan’s list of enemies traditionally also includes Jews, Catholics, Communists and socialists and, more recently, gays.

The KKK’s affinity to Nazism was clearest in the 1930s and 1940s, as many Klan leaders voiced support for Hitler. At that time one Klan leader in Georgia gave a speech declaring:

‘We ought to get all the Jews out of our country, and I don’t mean send them to some other country! I’ll never be satisfied as long as there are any Jews here or anywhere. I think we ought to kill all Jews just to save their unborn generations from having to go to Hell!’

During certain periods of the 20th century – in the 1920s and again in the 1950s – the KKK’s active membership swelled to massive proportions, not just in the South but in rural areas of the North as well. In the 1920s Klan members held posts in the highest levels of the government – including two former presidents who were Klan members. In 1921 Warren G. Harding was initiated as a Klan member at the White House, and Harry Truman paid dues as a Klan member in the 1920s, years before he was elected president.

Now, having gained inspiration from the fascists’ successes in Europe, the KKK is launching a major recruitment campaign in the hopes that it will grow once again. The various wings of the KKK have got permits to hold 85 rallies across the US during this spring and summer.

Many people who oppose racism don’t take the Klan and other white supremacists seriously enough to see the need to actively oppose them. Lumped together, all the active white supremacists in the US today probably number under 5,000. And, as any anti-racist who has witnessed a Klan rally can attest, the KKK still recruits its members from the uttermost fringes of society.

It is sorely mistaken, however, to dismiss the potential to grow on this basis. As a general rule, the KKK tends to grow during periods when living standards are falling and unemployment is high – and when racist scapegoating goes unchallenged. When politicians blame poverty and unemployment on immigrants and blacks, the KKK seems to merely echo more strongly the same racist sentiments voiced by those in government.

During the 1920s, which witnessed a dramatic crackdown on immigration combined with a witchhunt against socialists, the KKK claimed a membership of 4 million – 40,000 of them Protestant ministers who preached white supremacy from their pulpits.

During the 1930s, however, despite the hardship caused by the Depression, Klan membership was reduced to a small fraction of its former size. The reason was simple: the workers’ movement grew massively during the 1930s in the US, joining together hundreds of thousands of black and white workers in a common struggle, against a common enemy.

In the late 1950s Klan membership again rose, peaking at 40,000, mostly in the South. Its terror this time was directed against the spreading civil rights movement, often with the complicity of the local police.

The scale of the violence was such that many in the civil rights movement who had been committed to non-violence began calling for armed self defence for blacks. Under pressure, many politicians who once openly supported white supremacy and segregation found themselves forced to vote for the 1964 Civil Rights Act. And as the civil rights and black power movements flourished throughout the 1960s, the Klan continued to shrink in size and influence.

Since that time white supremacists have remained a small and insignificant minority in the US. In the 1970s, to combat their own irrelevance, the numerous far right organisations forgot their differences and agreed to form alliances and share platforms. The Klan has adopted the Nazi salute as its own, while the traditional uniform of long white robes and hoods has been replaced by military uniforms during public rallies.

Today the KKK is barely distinguishable from a fascist organisation. Meanwhile many racist skinheads, initially attracted to fascism, have joined the ranks of the KKK.

White supremacists clearly recognise that, as in Europe, the potential now exists for them to grow. And the police seem determined to help them do so. Despite the racial hatred the Klan preaches, police have emphasised their commitment to allow white supremacists the right to ‘free speech’ wherever they choose to rally this spring and summer. But this has meant much more than legally allowing the KKK to hold rallies. Rather, it has meant armed confrontation with anyone opposed to the KKK.

On one occasion this spring, in Indianapolis, police used three armoured tanks to disperse 400 anti-Klan protesters, while sharpshooters pointed rifles from nearby rooftops. For this reason, ‘The cops and the Klan go hand in hand’, has been a popular chant among protesters.

But more than anything else, government policy makers have fuelled the growth of far right ideas.

Last fall Clinton declared that US borders are ‘leaking like a sieve’ and demanded a crackdown on immigration. Meanwhile, the states of Florida and California have filed suit against the federal government, alleging that they are owed billions of dollars for the money immigrants are draining from their state economies. And one school district in the state of Florida now requires that teachers must instruct their students that American culture is ‘unquestionably superior to other foreign or historic cultures’.

The Klan is still quite small. But for the first time in decades it has a real opportunity to grow, perhaps quickly. This is why even in its early stages it can’t be ignored. History has shown that the only way to weaken the far right is through building a strong and forceful opposition – which confronts the fascists whenever and wherever they organise.

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