A little historical background: In the 1960s, Eastern North Carolina was still primarily an agricultural economy, even more so than it is today. At the time, the people of the Hooded Order realized that tens of thousands of white, middle-class farm owners, tenant farmers and small town merchants were struggling to hold onto their land, their homes and their businesses.
This is an updated version of a story that I first published in the winter 1996 issue of Southern Exposure. It’s the 4th 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.
They were casualties of the rise of agribusiness, mechanization and government agricultural policies that forced farmers to “get big or get out.”
Much like today, many of those people watched an old world crumbling, but had yet to find any hope for how they might make it in the new world.
Across rural and small-town North Carolina, ministers worried as people moved away and church congregations dwindled. Parents could no longer expect sons and daughters to stay near them in their old age. Children left for towns and cities where opportunity was greater.
Those who remained had to work even harder, longer hours. They often felt as if they had to squeeze more from family helpers and hired labor. Frequently the men added a factory night shift to a full day’s farm work, and increasingly their wives left the farm to work in a factory.
While some said good riddance to the old ways, many struggled to hold onto whatever they could of them.
So much seemed fragile and on the verge of collapse: farm life, a closeness to the land, a deep connection to place, a sureness about one’s place in the world, an intimacy of family life born from the generations living and working together. I could go on and on.
I’m not trying to make excuses for the souls that gathered in the flickering light of all those burning crosses. But I am trying to understand better what brought them there.
With black protestors marching in nearly every town by 1964, I suppose it seemed natural to many white people to take out rising anxieties about the economy and the future on black people. That was the way of the world in which they had grown up. Fear of agriculture’s demise and white supremacy’s downfall intermingled and created an atmosphere in which the Ku Klux Klan thrived.
Kevin Phillips, author of what was called the “Southern strategy” that carried Richard Nixon to the White House in 1968, taught the Republican Party that the art of politics was, as he put it, “knowing who hates who.”
Klan organizers did not write books about political strategy, but they depended on the same dynamic for their success. They understood how threatened many white Carolinians felt at the prospect of their children attending classes with black children. As black activists and federal officials heightened efforts to end the separate schooling of black and white children, the Klan attempted to tap into white people’s deeply rooted fears of “social equality” and “miscegenation.”
“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin or his background or his religion.”
– Pres. Obama, after the Charlottesville incident
In public, Klan leaders spewed racial bigotry, but they did so within a political agenda, not one of violence or lawbreaking. According to SBI intelligence reports, KKK leaders consciously sought to foster a respectable, nonviolent image.
Typically, on September 22, 1966, Sybil Jones, the head of the state Klan’s ladies auxiliary, told a rally that the Klan “is not a hate organization, instead it stands for just and right.”
Klan leaders emphasized that the Klan was a Christian organization. They contrasted the Klan with fraternal groups such as the Lions, Moose, Masons and American Legion, accusing them of loose morals because they allowed gambling and served alcohol.
Publicly, they disavowed violence and supported political activism against the civil rights movement and the Great Society. They encouraged citizen participation in local government and PTA attendance. They endorsed and campaigned for candidates squarely in the mainstream of the Democratic Party.
“There is strong evidence,” SBI Director Walter Anderson reported in an October 1966 internal memo, “that the KKK is engaging in an all-out effort to make their influence known in the election.”
Bolstered by a rising respectability, Klan activists longed to escape the ignominy of the cornfields. According to the SBI, they planned to hold more public meetings in courthouses, schools and auditoriums, including Dorton Arena in Raleigh.
To be continued– I’ll post part 5 tomorrow.