The KKK Are Not and Have Never Been a Progressive Movement

Updated March 29, 2016 4:19pm PDT
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Remember when CNN lived up to its slogan as the most trusted name in news?

Yesterday, as Super Tuesday results were being announced, CNN contributor Jeffrey Lord said that the Ku Klux Klan lynched and killed black Americans to “further the progressive agenda.” 

Democrat Van Jones began this interaction by highlighting Trump’s hypocrisy in roundly condemning Islamist terrorism while developing convenient amnesia and refusing to condemn the support he has received from David Duke, a former Grand Wizard of the KKK. 

Lord retorted “this is what liberals do: you were dividing people by race,” to which Jones responded “the Klan divided people by race…the Klan killed people by race.” 

Lord delivers the historical revisionist blow: “and they did it to further the progressive agenda.” CNN Senior Reporter Dylan Byers later referred to this interaction as a “microcosm of the national discussion over racial divisiveness." 

This is a deliberate and oft-employed mischaracterization of who and what the Ku Klux Klan is and does. Beyond the variant manifestations of the organization in its three past and present movements, the Klan is a violent white nationalist group whose major ideological tenets are a Protestant-based white supremacy, white nationalism, anti-immigration and white nativism, anti-Semitism, and racial purity, among other things. 

I deliberately do not refer to the Klan as an extremist group because I don’t believe that the majority of the ideologies they express are fundamentally different from the ideologies that founded or are perpetuated by institutions in this country.

The first wave of the Klan came about in the post-Civil War American south; it lasted from the late 1860s and was suppressed by federal enforcement via the Civil Rights Act of 1871. Enforcement of this federal suppression is what led members to make costumes (including the iconic robes and cone-shaped masks) to hide their identities. The Klan ultimately sought to overthrow Republican state governments in the south and derail efforts during the Reconstruction. This first wave was characterized by violent threats against black leaders and victimization of newly emancipated, formerly enslaved, black residents. 

The second wave was founded in 1915 and gained traction nationwide throughout the 1920s. This wave was deeply anti-Semitic and anti-Catholic; during this wave, its anti-immigrant sentiment was established. This wave also adopted the standard white robes and added cross burnings and parades to its repertoire of terror. 

The third and final wave, the present wave, emerged and organized around resistance to racial integration and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Many white nationalists, including Klan members, vehemently oppose integration, interracial coupling, and multiculturalism as they will necessarily come at the expense of the safety and security of white people: a so-called “white genocide.” Even this brief and incomplete history of the Klan grossly understates the violence and trauma it has inflicted upon black communities–in no way is it possible to conclude it existed to further any progressive agenda.

To begin to pretend that Klan violence served to further a progressive agenda is to deliberately misunderstand the ideological switch between Republicans and Democrats that happened somewhere between the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Abraham Lincoln, the man who issued the Emancipation Proclamation, was a Republican; and Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederate States of America, was a Democrat. These words did not mean the same thing during the Klan’s emergence in the 19th century as they do now. The second wave of the Klan opposed Republican state Reconstruction efforts because while Lincoln sought to slowly normalize the post-Civil War South, Radical Republicans–including Ulysses S. Grant– used Congress as a vehicle to rapidly upgrade the rights of newly freed blacks. 

The first wave of the Klan was driven by ideologies affiliated with what we would now call the Republican Party, but was the pro-slave and anti-Reconstruction Democratic Party at the time. Lord’s deliberate misrepresentation of this switch is intellectual dishonesty. 

But then Lord has a habit of doing this: last year he called upon the Democratic National Convention chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz to apologize for the Democratic Party’s historical support for “slavery, segregation, lynching, and the Ku Klux Klan.” In his open letter, Lord refers to the flying of the Confederate flag as a "controversy", a word now being used to describe his revisionism around white supremacy and, really, any action or event that requires white people to reflect on the current state of racial inequity in this country. 

“Controversial” frequently bears dog whistle implications. The media has consistently and flippantly characterized Trump’s virulent racism, violence-affirming, and inciting rhetoric as “controversial” while simultaneously using “controversial” to demonize Beyoncé’s “Formation” or Kendrick Lamar’s Grammy performance. 

With regards to white people, “controversial” generally refers to violent bigotry that reflects structural norms; when applied to black folks or other non-white communities, it is weaponized to indicate a pearl clutching offense to white sensibilities. 

The Ku Klux Klan is a hate group that exists solely to spew a doctrine of white supremacy and whose existence is, ultimately, violent. Stop making apologies for their bigotry or their so-called right to spew hate speech in public.

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Zoe is a womanist INvested in black communities and continually DIvesting from the violence of respectability politics and all things pertaining to structural whiteness.