The Klan Last Time- Part 2: Out of the Shadows

A Klan rally drew 2,500 people to Trenton, N.C. in 1965. Photo from the AP.

The Ku Klux Klan lived in our shadows long before the 1960s, but the Hooded Order had usually been a tiny fringe group.

But not always: the Klan had played central roles in the state’s political life in the Reconstruction Era and again in the late 1910s and ’20s. Another, lesser Klan heyday occurred in the early 1950s.

“We look back now, it’s hard to believe the way it was. But you have to realize — because I do know, I’ve heard it said over and over — that the best people were all in the Klan: the town leaders, deacons in the church, maybe the mayor. You never knew. It was just like the Shriners, the Masonic order. It was secret.”– D. T. Dale.

Dale grew up in a family of Klansmen in Fuquay-Varina, N.C., in the 1920s. This quote is from an article that I wrote about him in 2003. You can find that article here.

The Klan came out of the shadows again in the 1960s. For roughly 3 years, the Klan found an extraordinary degree of respectability and public acceptance as it took advantage of widespread white fear and anxiety over the civil rights movement and school desegregation.

Duke professor Nancy MacClean’s Behind the Mask of Chivalry is a classic and a great place to look to understand the KKK in the late 1910s and 1920s. At that time, the Klan attracted millions across the U.S.

The KKK papers showed that the new iteration of the Klan barnstormed the Carolina countryside like an old-fashioned tent revival. Between 1964 and 1967, Klansmen and women held rallies almost every night in a different town or crossroad.

Merely within my family’s congressional district—North Carolina’s First District— the Klan’s state leadership held two dozen rallies and cross burnings just between July and October 1966. Tens of thousands attended those rallies and cross burnings.

On most nights, the size of the crowds at those gatherings ranged from several hundred to a thousand persons. But attendance sometimes soared higher. A crowd of 15,000 attended a Klan rally in Monroe, N.C.. In 1965, 6,000 attended a rally and cross burning in rural Sampson County. Five thousand attended a Klan ceremony near Farmville.

This is an updated version of a story that I first published in the winter 1996 issue of Southern Exposure. It’s the 2nd of an 8-post series on the Ku Klux Klan in eastern N.C. that I am putting up between now and this coming Sunday.

By 1966, the Klan had organized more than a hundred “Klaverns” in North Carolina. According to the KKK papers, the Klan had nearly 7,000 dues-paying members here, more than in any other Southern state, including Mississippi and Alabama.

Even membership lists did not accurately measure the Klan’s appeal. According to the KKK records, only a tiny fraction of the people who attended public rallies and cross burnings actually belonged to the Klan.

In a field report on a September 1966 rally near Ernul, in Craven County, for instance, state troopers counted only 11 robed Klansmen, 3 Klanswomen and 10 Klan security guards in a crowd that they estimated at between 500 and 600 persons.

Many people who participated with enthusiasm never joined. Others sat in their cars or loitered on the outskirts, sizing up the proceedings that culminated in the fiery cross.

I’ll post part 3 tomorrow.

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