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THE Ku Klux Klan, with its long history of violence, lynchings, burning crosses — all in the name of Jesus and white supremacy — is the oldest and most infamous of US hate groups. writes PETER FROST

Black US citizens have always been the Klan’s main enemy, but that hasn’t stopped the hooded Klansmen turning their hate on to Jews, Mexicans, other immigrants, and latterly to gays and lesbians, civil ceremonies and same-sex marriages. Today much of their spleen is vented on Muslims.

Despite all that hate the Klan has always seen itself as a strictly Christian organisation always strongest in the Bible belt of the Southern states.

One theory on how the Klan got its name has them using the word for circle, kuklos, from the classical Greek. Most scoff at the idea of these racist rednecks knowing anything of classic Greece.

Arthur Conan Doyle, who put a Klan member in one of his Sherlock Holmes stories, believed the name replicated the sound of a rifle being cocked.

The defeat of the slave-owning states in the civil war really upset those who believed God had given them, the white races, the right to rule over lesser breeds.

It didn’t take long for some of these white supremacists to found undercover organisations that would try to reverse the victories of the civil war that had only finished in April of 1865.

The first Klan was founded in 1865 in Pulaski, Tennessee, by six veterans of the Confederate Army. It started as a secret vigilante group that targeted freed slaves and their allies black and white.

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This seriously weakened the black political establishment. Murder and violence frightened some black people out of politics.

Early in its history the Klan introduced laughable ranks and titles like imperial wizard, grand dragons, grand titans and grand and exalted cyclops, all part of what they grandly declared was an invisible empire.

The white-hooded costumes, violent night rides, lynchings, tar-and-featherings, rapes, burning of black churches and other violent attacks on those challenging white supremacy became the hallmarks of the Klan.

The Klan became less popular as the Southern Establishment introduced official segregation and Jim Crow laws. The negro had officially become a second-class citizen and persecution by the Klan became almost unnecessary.

The popularity of this racist group would wax and wane with three distinct periods of growth in its history. The first after its founding, then in the 1920s and finally with the growth of the black civil rights movement from the late ’50s and ’60s.

In the ’20s a rekindled Klan organised against new threats to what it saw as the purity of the white race and its protestant religion. Catholic and Jewish immigrants from eastern and central Europe were the new enemy.

That fear of immigrants drew many members into the Klan. In 1925 it was claiming four million members. It certainly had enough to stage a huge march on Washington. It also boasted huge social and political influence, with hundreds of Klan-backed candidates elected to local, state and even federal office.

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A series of sex scandals, internal political wrangling and battles over power undermined its support. Newspaper exposés of corruption by Klan leaders dramatically reduced its membership and influence.

The Klan arose a third time during the 1960s to oppose the growing civil rights movement and to preserve segregation.

It was fighting a losing battle against an unstoppable political force but that didn’t stop bombings, murders and other attacks.

One of the most heinous Klan crimes was the murder of four young girls killed while preparing for Sunday services at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama.

Since the ’70s the Klan has struggled with splits and divisions. Infiltration by government agents has led to prosecutions and court cases.

Today the Klan takes it place on the extreme right wing of US politics with many other tiny and ineffectual white supremacist, racist and even overtly nazi organisations.

There are at least a dozen varieties of Klans, each one claiming to be the true church, the true descendents of the Klan that came to birth in Tennessee a century and a half ago. Best estimates suggest that there are perhaps only up to 10,000 US citizens who support various manifestations of today’s Klan.

Some Klan factions are openly racist and fascist, sharing their platforms with nazis who publically praise Adolf Hitler.

Others take a much more subtle approach, cloaking their racism with more reasonable-sounding demands for civil rights for whites.

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Today US society is still deeply racist. Examples of segregation, although in theory illegal, are still easy to find. Hate crimes such as the Charleston church shooting in June this year, where Dylann Roof (above) shot nine black people dead at a prayer meeting, show the racist attitudes of the Klan are alive and well. Dylann Roof paid tribute to the Klan on his web site.

Fortunately more and more people white and black are combating racism wherever it raises its ugly head. But sadly it will still be a long time before the cowardly white-hooded nightriders and their fiery crosses are banished from the Deep South forever.

This article first appeared in the Morning Star 12 October 2015

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