Since the KKK and its ilk are reactionary, it’s not too surprising that they strengthen and weaken roughly in proportion to conditions that promise leftward social change, just as state repression does. Historians say that there have been three discrete Klan movements. One emerged during the Reconstruction Era for obvious reasons. The second flourished in the 20s in response to urbanization, increased immigration and the first Red Scare. The third emerged at the tail end of the second Red Scare in response to the emergence of desegregation and the Black Civil Rights movement.
If, contrary to Magic Paper Theory, state tolerance of political expression is largely commensurate with its benefits to white supremacy and the ruling class, you would expect the reactionary expression of white supremacists to get a much easier ride from state power than say, Black Nationalism and communism. You would expect fewer attempts to repress them and when they run afoul of the law, you would anticipate greater leniency. You might even predict that in times of crisis, white supremacists would form alliances with state agents to suppress challenges to the white majority and the ruling class.
That is precisely what history shows us, which is why it’s disingenuous when absolutists call white supremacism a “fringe” concern, where repression is tested first.
Let’s start with Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black himself, who long before he became the patron saint of First Amendment absolutists, made his mark as a lawyer in 1921, defending E. R. Stephenson, a Klansman who had murdered a Catholic priest, seemingly for performing the secret wedding of Stephenson’s daughter to a Puerto Rican. The Klan paid Black’s fee for his work with four other lawyers, who were all Klansmen. Following Stephenson’s acquittal, Black joined the august organization himself. He later claimed he only did this for political reasons, though some biographers claim he sympathized with the Klan, particularly in their hatred for Catholics. Whatever the case, Black joined the U. S. Senate five years later, where he distinguished himself by investigating utility companies and filibustering an anti-lynching law.
Black’s Senate to Supreme Court trajectory demonstrates that, as “fringe” political tendencies go, the Klan has an unequaled record in penetrating all branches of government. President Harry Truman, the great incinerator of Japanese cities, was briefly a member. Three other Klansmen, like Black, became Senators, and others have been state governors, members of the House of Representatives, and mayors. Of course, these men would have a rougher time winning elections now, but that doesn’t mean their accommodation by elites has ceased. You can see it in how their Klan membership is still variously omitted, trivialized, glossed over and forgiven, and in how their ghosts speak through egregious appeals to racism that to this day afflict every presidential campaign.
As a Supreme Court justice, Black wrote one of the concurring opinions in the landmark Brandenberg v. Ohio case of 1969, in which the court struck down an Ohio statute under which participants at a Klan rally had been arrested for incendiary speech. The more lawyerly First Amendment absolutists cite this decision to naysayers because it led to the reversal of prior decisions against Communists. See! Helping the KKK helps the left! But the most recent of the reversals Brandenberg brought about was Dennis vs. The United States, a CPUSA Smith Act decision which was by that time nineteen years old. In other words, the Supreme Court gave the Klan a pass it had withheld from communists for years, reversing decisions against members of a party that had fallen apart long before.
One could credibly attribute the apparent double standard in Brandenberg to different courts rendering decisions years apart from each other, if this double standard did not reveal itself repeatedly in the history of state repression. Take, for instance, the House Unamerican Activities Committee. HUAC is so synonymous with purging and blacklisting communists, few know that it was originally formed to uncover citizens with Nazi ties within the United States, a project it quickly abandoned. In 1946, the committee considered opening investigations into the Ku Klux Klan but decided against it, prompting committee member John E. Rankin (D-MS) to quite correctly remark, “After all, the KKK is an old American institution.”
The same double standard infused the FBI’s infamous Counter Intelligence Programs (COINTELPRO), a series of broadly targeted, centrally coordinated covert actions that began in 1956 to survey, infiltrate, discredit and disrupt domestic political activities the agency considered “subversive.” The programs unsurprisingly cut their teeth on communists, but as new resistance movements proliferated in the 60s, COINTELPRO targeted Martin Luther King; the Black Panthers; Puerto Rican nationalists; the American Indian movement; and a broad range of “New Left” organizations, including Students for a Democratic Society, the Weathermen, almost all groups protesting the Vietnam War, various unaffiliated anti-war protestors and the National Lawyers Guild. Perhaps tellingly, the ACLU was not a target.
Officially, COINTELPRO also targeted white supremacist groups and, in particular, the Ku Klux Klan, but according to a report the Congressional Black Caucus presented at the UN in 2001 –
…the “Klan – White Hate Groups” program was of a different order entirely. Senior FBI management and a majority of agents in the field endorsed the Klan’s values, if not the vigilante character of their tactics; from militaristic anti-communism to extreme racial hatred; from ultra-nationalism to misogynist puritanism.
…FBI monitoring of the Klan was strictly confined to the organization itself. No serious efforts were made to explore the supplemental role of White Citizens’ Councils, many of which were active Klan fronts, let alone investigate the obvious and widespread police complicity in racist violence. Bureau surveillance of the Klan was purely passive, hardly the directed aggression reserved for left-wing targets.
Church Committee hearings and internal FBI documents revealed that more than one quarter of all active Klan members during the 60s were FBI agents or informants. But this infiltration aimed less at disrupting Klan activities than directing them against other groups COINTELPRO targeted, particularly the Black civil rights movement. By way of assistance, foreknowledge or cover-up, the FBI facilitated Klan attacks on Freedom Riders; the bombing of a church that killed four black children; several murders of civil rights workers and more.
Consider the relationship the FBI had with the Klan beside the war it waged against the Black Panthers, the group the agency was most ruthlessly dedicated to eradicating. The report states:
Between 1968-1971, FBI-initiated terror and disruption resulted in the murder of Black Panthers Arthur Morris, Bobby Hutton, Steven Bartholomew, Robert Lawrence, Tommy Lewis, Welton Armstead, Frank Diggs, Alprentice Carter, John Huggins, Alex Rackley, John Savage, Sylvester Bell, Larry Roberson, Nathaniel Clark, Walter Touré Pope, Spurgeon Winters, Fred Hampton, Mark Clark, Sterling Jones, Eugene Anderson, Babatunde X Omarwali, Carl Hampton, Jonathan Jackson, Fred Bennett, Sandra Lane Pratt, Robert Webb, Samuel Napier, Harold Russell, and George Jackson.
While there may have been genuine attempts by members of the FBI to sabotage some of the Klan’s activities, there are seemingly no accounts of the FBI blackmailing, framing or murdering any Klan members as it had in its operations against left-wing groups. Unlike other targets such as the Black Panthers, the Klan survived COINTELPRO in good health.
It was certainly robust in 1979, when, eight years after COINTELPRO allegedly ended, a posse comprised of Klansmen and members of the American Nazi party murdered — in broad daylight — five members of the Communist Workers Party (CWP) who’d organized a “Smash the Klan” rally in Greensboro, North Carolina. An FBI Klan infiltrator and a federal agent working undercover in the Nazi party helped to organize and lead the caravan. The Greensboro police helpfully stayed away. All-white juries acquitted the defendants even though four local news crews had filmed the massacre.
Though the relationship of federal authority to white supremacist groups is more amicable historically than its relationship with anything comparably extreme on the left, it’s not a love affair. While groups like the KKK share the ruling class interest in preserving white privilege, they don’t respect the law, and some if not most regard the government as an enemy. The extent to which state authority shortens or lengthens the leash is dependent on social conditions. In times of aggressive challenges to the status quo, as in the 60s and 70s, their usefulness as a paramilitary clearly outweighs other concerns. This along with their quotidian utility as reactionaries, discourages the ruling class from ever crushing them or their progeny entirely.
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- Magic Paper Theory
- The White Supremacy Difference
- Precedent Hardly Matters
- Putting the Libertarian in Civil Libertarian
- Free Ramsey Orta