American Experience: Klansville, U.S.A. (2015)

PBS’s “American Experience: Klansville, U.S.A.” (2015) is being re-aired of late. (I wonder why?…) It’s worth watching to learn about, and garner lessons from, the rapid rise, widespread appeal, and ensuing foibles of the NC chapter of the KKK.

The full hour-long documentary is currently streaming on PBS and can also be viewed here (from, apparently, a BBC airing of the same PBS documentary):

From the PBS website:

Following the American Civil War, decommissioned Confederate soldiers in Pulaski, Tennessee established the Ku Klux Klan in 1865 as a fraternal social club. The group quickly became violent, and had already begun to dissolve in 1871 under pressure from the federal government. In 1915, D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation romanticized the Klan, portraying their violence towards African Americans as justifiable and necessary to restore order in a chaotic South. The enormous popularity of the film sparked a Klan revival in the 1920s, and by 1925, four million Americans claimed membership. But bad press and power struggles tore the group apart again in the 1930s.

Having been dormant for decades, the Ku Klux Klan reemerged in the U.S. after the 1954 Supreme Court Brown v. Board of Education decision, gaining momentum in the U.S. as the Civil Rights Movement grew. That the Klan would rise once again wasn’t surprising, but where the reincarnation took place was. North Carolina was long considered the most progressive southern state; its image was being burnished weekly on CBS by the enormously popular “The Andy Griffith Show.” In 1963, North Carolina salesman Bob Jones chartered what would become the largest Klan group in the country. Tapping into the fears and resentments of low-income whites who believed that a changing America would leave them behind, Jones took his message across the state, establishing Klaverns and signing up hundreds of members. Under Jones’ leadership, membership grew to some ten thousand members, earning the Tarheel State a new nickname: “Klansville, U.S.A.”

Bullet points from the PBS site:

  • The Ku Klux Klan was organized after the Civil War by a small group of men aiming to form a brotherhood during the time of Reconstruction in the 1860s. Throughout American history, the organization has come, gone and adapted with the times. In the 1960s, as lunch counter sit-ins and other civil rights demonstrations spread across the U.S., the dormant Ku Klux Klan once again began gaining momentum. That the Klan would rise once again wasn’t necessarily surprising, but where the reincarnation took place was. North Carolina, long considered one of the most progressive southern states, saw a boom in Klan membership under the leadership of Bob Jones, the most influential Grand Dragon in the country. In just three years, he grew the North Carolina Klan from a handful of friends to some 10,000 members — more than the Klans of all other southern states combined.
  • Ku Klux Klan groups marched on Washington, D.C. during their first resurgence in the 1920s. Jones’ parents were active in the Klan, and Jones claimed his mother marched in a Klan parade when she was seven months pregnant with him.
  • In 1963, amidst the growing civil rights movement, Jones petitioned the United Klans of America, a nationwide Klan organization led by Robert Shelton, for a charter to organize in North Carolina.
  • In August 1963 Jones held his first rally as a Grand Dragon. He expected a couple hundred people to attend, but nearly 2,000 showed up.
  • Jones drove all across the state to set up new local chapters. By 1966, his North Carolina Klan had grown to roughly 10,000 members — more than all other southern states’ Klan groups combined.
  • Bob Jones’ wife, Sybil was a leader in the Klan’s Ladies Auxiliary and often spoke at rallies.
  • George Dorsett, the official chaplain for the United Klans of America, raised tens of thousands of dollars for the organization with his powerful sermons. His skills complimented Jones’, and Dorsett soon became an integral part of the North Carolina Klan.
  • Klan rallies became a source of entertainment for residents in rural communities. Here, Jones stands in line for food at a rally at B.H. Ingle’s church in Raleigh.
  • Rallies weren’t just for members, but also for families. According to historian David Cecelski, “Most rallies might only have 20 Klansmen, but they could have hundreds or thousands of people that were there watching and supporting.”
  • Bob Jones hoped to make the North Carolina Klan into a political force, “so that no politician can be elected to any office without our support,” he said.
  • In March 1965, Alabama Klansmen murdered white housewife and activist Viola Liuzzo. Her death spurred the federal government into action against the Klan. President Lyndon Johnson warned members to “get out of the Ku Klux Klan…before it’s too late.”
  • President Johnson’s warning evoked anger and resentment among North Carolina Klansmen. In a show of defiance, Jones and Dorsett hosted the Klansmen accused of killing Viola Liuzzo at a rally attended by 6,000 people on May 15, 1965.
  • Jones planned frequent daytime marches, like this one through downtown Raleigh on June 28, 1965, to show that his Klan had nothing to hide.
  • By the mid-1960s, a federal agent had befriended George Dorsett, and the FBI was paying Dorsett upwards of $500 a month for informing on Jones and the UKA.
  • During hearings held by the House Un-American Activities Committee in the fall of 1965, Jones and other leaders sidestepped questions about Klan funds, causing suspicion to sprout among klan members. North Carolina treasurer Joseph DuBois (center) resigned on the stand claiming, “Only a Communist takes the Fifth Amendment.”
  • On August 14, 1966, in North Carolina’s largest political gathering of the year, more than 5,000 people attended a United Klans of America rally to show their support for Klan leaders being investigated by the FBI.
  • When Bob Jones addressed demonstrators at Memorial Auditorium on August 14, he was facing a possible prison sentence for contempt of Congress for refusing to hand over Klan financial records. Though his hesitance alienated some members, over 5,000 fellow Klansmen and sympathizers showed up to support Jones.
  • In 1967, Dorsett (left) was ousted as the UKA’s Imperial Kludd after he accused Klan leaders of financial mismanagement. Dorsett’s federal agent confidant encouraged Dorsett to form his own Klan group, hoping to divide and therefore weaken the Klan. Dorsett did, though his group quickly fell apart.
  • In 1969, Bob Jones entered federal custody to serve a one-year prison sentence for contempt of Congress. By that time, North Carolina Klan membership had dwindled to fewer than 1,000 active members.
  • A group of North Carolina Klansmen, frustrated with the UKA’s financial management, split from the national group on September 15, 1969 by burning their membership cards.
  • By the end of the 1960s, North Carolina Klan membership was estimated at just 500 active members. The United Klans of America remained active throughout the 1970s and ’80s, but dissolved after losing a 1987 civil lawsuit put forth by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
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