This book began several years ago during a trip to Tennessee when I saw a statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest.
At the time, I knew several things about Forrest: How the former slave trader and plantation owner rose to the rank of general during the Civil War. How his daring exploits earned him a reputation as a brilliant cavalryman and natural military genius. How he was both ruthless and insubordinate.
I also knew this: In 1867, the Confederate general reputedly became the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, a paramilitary group dedicated to the restoration and maintenance of white supremacy.
Throughout American history, we can find many stories that reveal a darker side to the character of our nation. So what do we do about the dark side?
That statue made me think about the Southern white men who joined the KKK. It made me think about the violence they inflicted on tens of thousands of freed people and whites sympathetic to the plight of the former slaves.
And it made me wonder why.
In my search to answer that question, I found the stories of the Klansmen who feared that they would suffer personal loss if the former slaves had the same rights and privileges as whites. These Klansmen donned robes and hoods and carried guns and whips in order to terrorize—and punish—black Americans who dared to vote, attend school, buy land, choose their own employers or worship as they pleased.
I found the stories of freed people such as Anne Ulrich Evans and her husband and children, who slept on their cabin floor to shield themselves from the Klansmen’s bullets; Hannah Tutson, who refused to give up her land to her white neighbors and was brutally whipped; Henry Lipscomb, who was determined to vote, saying, “A man can kill me, but he can’t scare me”; Elias Hill, a crippled preacher who was whipped for preaching; Jim Williams, who was murdered because he was determined to protect his community. I also read about white schoolteachers such as William Luke, whose last words were “I have only sought to educate the negro.”
Over 140 years have passed since the formation of the first KKK. In 2006, I attended a Klan Congress. (The KKK no longer calls it a rally.) I wanted to know: How does the present-day Ku Klux Klan compare to the Reconstruction-era Klan? How are they alike? In what ways are they different? What sort of men and women join the KKK today? What are their goals? What compass guides their lives?
The three-day Congress was held in Arkansas, deep in the Ozark mountains. When I arrived, I met ordinary men and women, some who had traveled from far parts of the United States to attend.
The Congress opened with a tour of the National Office, where I saw the membership room, the recruiting room, the souvenir room, the publishing room, where they print their pamphlets, and the media room, where Klan leaders broadcast an internet television show and air shortwave radio programs.
That first night, the National Director called for a revival in America. A recruiter from Arkansas spoke, saying, among other things, “God is a God of segregation” and “The God that made the races made them to stay separate."
Throughout the weekend, other members spoke about the “threat” (as they called it) that Jews, homosexuality, racial integration, nonwhites and public schools posed to America. The speakers claimed that God intended America for white people only.
On the second day, I watched as men and boys wrapped a tall cross in kerosene-soaked rags, covered it in burlap, and then carefully stood the cross on end.
On the last day, I attended a Sunday church service, held on-site. In his sermon, the National Director of the Klan called the invasion of America by nonwhites a “national calamity." After speaking again about the “threats" and “dangers” to America, he called the work of the Klan a “holy mission."
At the end of the service, as Celtic music played, one by one or in family groups, the Klansmen and women stood in front of the altar. Facing the congregation, they stretched out a right arm in a straight-armed salute and dedicated themselves to their race, their God and their country. They and the congregants shouted, “White Power.”
That night, the Congress ended with the pageantry of fully robed Klansmen and a tall cross burning against the night sky.
This book, They Called Themselves the K.K.K., is about a time in history when the actions of many people—our country’s leaders and ordinary people—didn’t live up to our nation’s creed and the words of our Constitution and Declaration of Independence. Throughout American history, we can find many stories that reveal a darker side to the character of our nation. We can also find stories that instill pride, courage and hope.
So what do we do about the dark side?
We shine a light on it. That’s how we release its power.
I hope this book is such a light.