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The Klu Klux Klan: A Sad Legacy Lives On

Skull and crossbones engravings pave the way to Stone Mountain
Skull and crossbones engravings pave the way to Stone Mountain

It was an assignment that sent shivers down my spine: Cover the 1915 rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan. In my eyes, the KKK embodied all the evils in our society - racism, anti-Semitism, heterosexism, and bigotry. It conjured up images of cross burnings, lynchings, and mob violence. The very thought of it frightened me. But at least it seemed like an easy topic to write about. Unlike most things in life, the KKK was a black-and-white case of right versus wrong. Anyone who opposed it was right, and all who joined it were dead wrong. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I'd encounter a town full of racially diverse people who said otherwise.

Perhaps I should have heeded the warnings of Leroy, an African American I met at a museum in Chattanooga, Tennessee. When I asked if he had any personal experiences with the KKK, he said no - but that one of his friends recently had. As soon as he said that, his friend happened to walk by. We called him over to join us. He did so, jovially, and we chatted for a while. The instant I asked him about the Klan, however, his entire demeanor changed.

George Coletti took this photo of crosses burning in a field in Stone Mountain Village ten years ago. A Christmas tree is in the background.

"I don't - I don't want to talk about that," he stuttered, nervously. Then he turned on his heels and darted away.

Leroy shook his head as he watched his friend disappear. "Can you believe it's 2001 and just the mention of an organization that started in the 1800s could do that to a 60-year-old man?" he asked. "That's one powerful organization. You better watch out."

Once again, I felt the shivers, and they continued as I conducted my research. I discovered hundreds of web sites for hate-based organizations like the Klan and the Aryan Nation on the Internet. Some of these stites come with warnings that downloading their information (or calling their 1-900 numbers) would automatically register my computer or telephone line with the FBI.

Sifting through racist ideology in search of historical facts was a nauseating process, so I tried calling organizations like The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the African-American departments of universities instead. Still, I couldn't find a single person who wanted to tell me about the Klan. So Jennifer and I decided to simply go to the Klan's second birthplace to see what we could find. We packed up The Warrior and headed out to Stone Mountain, Georgia.


Along the way, I studied the brief history I'd dug up. Most sources agreed that the original KKK was born in Pulaski, Tennessee, just after the Civil War. It initially attracted Confederates who despised the Reconstruction policies of the North and evolved into a violent, hate-based organization. Fortunately, it fizzled out within a few years.

White supremacist sentiment started brewing again during World War I. Apparently, some Americans didn't like the influx of immigrants from Great Britain, Germany, Russia, and Italy. Anyone with an "alien" accent, religion, or skin color was viewed with great suspicion.

Graffiti mars Stone Mountain

Then came the premier of a major motion picture called "Birth of a Nation." By all accounts, this was a ground-breaking film. It was the first movie to use techniques like close-ups and night photography, and it had a gripping story line. The problem was it ended with a glorified scene of the Ku Klux Klan riding into the sunset to fight for the "good" of the country. White audiences responded so positively to this image that an entrepreneur in Georgia decided to make some money off of it.

William J. Simmons grew up on stories about men in white sheets. His daddy had been a Klansman back in the 1860s. The fervor created by "Birth of a Nation" seemed the perfect opportunity to resurrect white supremacy-and pad his wallet in the process. One evening, he gathered a group of 15 men-including the speaker of the Georgian legislature-and led them to the top of Stone Mountain, just outside Atlanta's city limits. Together, they constructed an altar of an American flag, an unsheathed sword, and a bible. Then they slipped into white sheets and conical-capped masks and gathered in a semi-circle as Simmons set a giant, wooden cross on fire.

 In August 1925, the KKK marched on Washington

When the "Birth of the Nation" premiered in Atlanta later that week, Simmons ran an announcement of another birth in the newspapers, that of the "World's Greatest Secret, Social, Patriotic, Fraternal, Beneficiary Order." Like the movie, his Klan was an overnight success. By most accounts, it had 100,000 members by the summer of 1921, and 2 to 4 million members by 1926. Across the nation, Klansmen were elected to state legislatures, courtrooms, and even the U.S. Congress. Their stated purpose was to "defend the country from aliens," and they did so by terrorizing anyone who wasn't white and Protestant.

Again, the shivers.

Stone Mountain turned out to be a gorgeous, white granite mountain covered with foliage. The same year Simmons resurrected the Klan on its peak, a group called the United Daughters of the Confederacy commissioned a sculptor to carve a memorial of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson onto its side. It was an eerie backdrop.


Burnin' down the house!

Jennifer and I weren't sure where to begin our research once we rolled into the quaint little town surrounding the mountain, so we chose the Civil War Museum. When we asked to speak with the in-house historian, the woman behind the counter eyed us suspiciously. "What do you want to know?" she demanded. When we said we were researching the Klan's rebirth, she snapped: "It never died in the first place. Stone Mountain has nothing to do with the Klan. You are wrong."

The first thing I learned as a journalist is that nobody likes a stranger poking around in their dirty laundry-not without an honorable intention, anyway. So we explained that our mission was to inform students about hate groups like the KKK so they could combat them in the future. She looked us up and down for a few moments before suggesting we talk with the oldest living resident in town, a 92-year-old white woman named Myrtice. We thanked her and scuffled down the street.

Stephanie gazes over Georgia

Southern hospitality granted us immediate entry into Myrtice's home. She had few memories of the Klan ("You'd hear a lot about them, but you'd never see them. You just knew they were there") but her relative Pam said the Klan used to parade through town at least once a year and burn crosses at either Stone Mountain or a nearby field.

The KKK often burns giant crosses, usually as warnings

"We were never afraid of them because we felt like they were guardians. A cross burning was a form of entertainment for us because we lived out in the country. A lot of people think that the Klan only caused problems for blacks, but they were also vigilantes. If they thought a family was unnecessarily abusing their kids, they'd leave bundles of switches on their front porch to let them know they were being watched."

Let's get something straight here: The Klan did more than "cause problems" for African Americans and other people of color. They lynched them and hung them from trees. However, Pam's impressions fascinated me. At her suggestion, we visited the Coletti family next. The Klan had done a great deal more than leave switches on their front porch, but amazingly, they expressed little resentment.

"My grandparents were Lebanese, and a lot of locals didn't particularly care for those with accents back then," Mr. Coletti said. "One night, the Klan burned down their hotel. My granddaddy eventually made friends with the Grand Wizard of the Klan, though, and we never had trouble with them again."

He suggested that we go to Shermantown next - the section of town where African Americans have traditionally lived. There, we met Eugene, a 90-year-old woman who vividly remembered the Klan marching through town when she was a teenager. "We was at church having rehearsal when the pastor made us turn out the lights and get on the floor," she said. "He didn't allow us to look out the windows. It was the only time I've ever had to be silent."

Yet, even she insisted that the KKK "were all right with us."

"My mother worked for one of the Klan and they was friends," she said in earnest. "He treated my mom just like she was human."

Then we met the Rev. Morris, a 72-year-old African American who had lived near Stone Mountain his entire life. He, too, remembered the rallies and cross burnings, but said he didn't pay any attention to them. "Stone Mountain has got a bad name because of them, but they never did stir up no trouble. Anyway, it's over now. There's no Klan no more."

Rev.Morris was right about the second incantation of the KKK; within a few decades, an internal power struggle had torn it apart. It rose again during the Civil Rights Movement, however, and its many splinter groups are alive and well to this day. In fact, they are more dangerous than ever before. Just two and a half years ago, in Jasper, Texas, an African American named James Byrd, Jr. was dragged for nearly three miles from the back of a pickup truck by three white supremacists. How could the Reverend say there was "no Klan no more"?

By this point, our brains had reached the saturation point. Jennifer and I headed to a pizza parlor, ordered some food, and tried to sort through all we'd heard that day. There seemed to be four possible explanations:

  1. The people of Stone Mountain Village honestly believed the Klan wasn't so bad.
  2. They were in denial.
  3. They were so sick and tired of strangers picking at the same old wounds, they tried to convince us there was no Klan history in their community, to make us go away.
  4. They felt utterly powerless. The Klan had lurked in the shadows their entire lives, burning crosses and wreaking havoc. They could either risk their personal safety to try to combat the Klan, or they could shut their doors and be blind to it - and they'd chosen the latter.

Each scenario depressed us more than the one before.

Georgia just changed its state flag to de-emphasize its former Confederate self

By the time we finished our meal, we realized that everyone we'd interviewed that day had been over 50. So we asked our waitress, a perky 19-year-old, about her impressions of the Ku Klux Klan. She looked genuinely surprised. "The Klan? I don't know anything about them."

She didn't know that the most powerful incarnation of the Klan started right on the mountaintop overlooking her hometown?

"No, I sure didn't. Sorry!" she chirped.

We asked a 30-year-old African American next. He'd lived in Stone Mountain Village his entire life. Surely he'd heard the stories.

"The Klan started here?" he mused. "That's news to me."

Suddenly, my shivers were replaced by sadness.


Please email me at: stephanie@ustrek.org


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