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By Scotty Reid
After an associate made me aware of the PBS documentary film Klansville, USA which is about the Klu Klux Klan in North Carolina I decided to check it out. The Klan in North Carolina is said to have had a membership base from 10,000 to 15,000 members making it the largest in the United States hence the title of the book and film Klansville, USA. I decided to watch the film with a healthy dose of skepticism because of what I heard in an interview on NPR from this month although it was a replay of an interview from the previous year in 2013 when the film came out. Being a native North Carolinian and hearing stories about the Klan in our hometown of Mt. Holly, North Carolina from my older family members, the film portrayal of the Klan was inaccurate in my opinion.
One interesting bit of information I picked up from the film listening to the rhetoric used by Bob Jones and the rest of the Klan leadership about Black people taking something from them (poor and working class whites) like jobs and displacing them from their place above Blacks on the ladder of the white supremacy system in the United States, the same rhetoric is being used today by members of the Republican Party directed towards immigrants and Muslims (non-white people). The documentary said that when the Klan lost its membership due to financial corruption in its leadership, their members migrated towards supporting the Republican Party in North Carolina and this was also occurring in other southern states, which are now known as Red States.
“What we’ve tried to do in Klansville is offer a 360-degree perspective, shifting the focus from those who supported the civil rights movement to those who saw integration and social change as a threat to their way of life,” said American Experience Executive Producer Mark Samels. “What made these people go to extremes and join a hate group? From where does racism spring? What keeps it alive in this nation? These are hard questions, but only by searching for answers will we make the progress we need to make.”
While it is legitimate to look at the Klan movement in North Carolina from the perspective of those part of that terrorist movement and compare it to white terrorism today, I was somewhat concerned by some of the views presented in the film that made it seem to as though the Klan in North Carolina was not as engaged in as much violence like the Klan organizations in other southern states. The film tries to present a narrative that this was by design but that is only partly true.
Partial transcript from the documentary reads,
David Cunningham, Sociologist: In North Carolina, violence, intimidation and terrorism didn’t take as pronounced a form as it did in places like Mississippi and Alabama and Georgia. So it was relatively easy for politicians of the period to say, “Well, the Klan is certainly militantly supporting their position, but they’re not engaged in sort of the deadly violence as we would see in other places during that time.”
Michael Frierson, Filmmaker: The Klan leadership in North Carolina, they knew how to maintain the party line. “We’re not a violent organization. We are a fraternal organization with a right to free speech like anybody else.” On the other hand, you have this faction within it that you can keep at arm’s length, maintain your sort of respectability and at the same time have folks that you can wink, wink, nod, nod, go out and intimidate people.
Narrator: The North Carolina Klan’s favorite form of intimidation was cross burning — in neighborhoods, in front of public buildings, even on the lawn of the governor’s mansion. Jones and his fellow klansmen didn’t see much risk in such actions. Even some FBI agents believed that cross burnings didn’t hurt anyone. Plans for what klansmen considered to be real violence were subject to Jones’s approval, giving him a chance to veto actions that might go too far.
David Cunningham, Sociologist: Jones had a lot to lose here. What violence represented for him, was something that could threaten that way of life and that livelihood.
Narrator: The former lightning rod salesman didn’t want to risk what the klan had brought him: a Cadillac, status, a new life. Jones claimed that his klan was non-violent, but he had built his empire on hate-filled rhetoric, promising militant defense of white supremacy. It was a delicate balancing act.
David Cunningham, Sociologist: What Jones was brilliant at, that I don’t think any other Grand Dragons or state leaders were able to do was to enable that militance, to attract people to the Klan, but also control that militance and kind of contain it.
Mark Potok, Southern Poverty Law Center: Bob Jones felt that he would be more successful appearing to be nonviolent. He would not incur the wrath of the north, of the FBI, the federal authorities. And in some ways, he was right. Unluckily for him, meanwhile, we had in other southern states an incredibly violent bunch of Klan groups that really did bring down the furies.
This less violent Klan was not what I gathered from speaking to my elder relatives who told me about the violence of the Klan in North Carolina and more importantly about the Black counter-violence to deter white terrorism. What I also took from the narrative of Klansville, USA, is that like nearly every movie to come out of Hollywood about the civil rights movement and that time, Black armed resistance to white terrorism is almost completely left out of the story. There appears to be a concerted effort to keep Black people and other oppressed people non-violent and never posing a serious resistance to white supremacy both socially and institutionally by any means necessary.
Except for the latest civil rights film Selma and the earlier documentary Spies of Mississippi, usually these fictional accounts and so-called documentaries entirely skip or gloss over the roles the police and FBI played in white terrorism against Black people during this time. Today in the United States most of the violence and terrorism against Black people is not by white robed terrorist sneaking around under the cover of night but by uniformed police agents of the state who are often cleared of their crimes against Black people whenever the FBI and Department of Justice “investigates”.
Immediately following the film Klansville, USA, I decided to watch the documentary Negro with Guns again to refresh my memory about Black resistance to the terrorism of the Klan in North Carolina. Robert F. Williams, the subject of the documentary, Martin Luther King Jr. and Truman Nelson, authored the book of the same name.
The book Negroes with Guns tells a very different story about Klan activity and the good white people in North Carolina who would never lower themselves to associate themselves with such open racial hostility.
Excerpts from Negroes with Guns,
The lawful authorities of Monroe and North Carolina acted to enforce order only after, and as a direct result of, our being armed. Previously they had connived with the Ku Klux Klan in the racist violence against our people….
We started the picket line and the picket line closed the pool. When the pool closed the racists decided to handle the matter in traditional Southern style. They turned to violence, unlawful violence.
Across from the picnic area, on the other side of a stream of water, a group of white people started firing rifles and we could hear the bullets strike the trees over our heads. The chief of police was on duty at the pool and I appealed to him to stop the firing into the picnic area. The chief of police said, “Oh, I don’t hear anything.
Then the crowd started screaming. They said that a nigger had hit a white man. They were referring to me. They were screaming, “Kill the niggers! Kill the niggers! Pour gasoline on the niggers! Burn the niggers!”
From the chapter The Ku Klux Klan Swings into Action,
After their rallies they would drive through our community in motorcades and honk their horns and fire pistols from the car windows. On one occasion, they caught a colored woman on an isolated street corner and made her dance at pistol point.
An armed motorcade attacked Dr. Perry’s house, which is situated on the outskirts of the colored community. We shot it out with the Klan and repelled their attack and the Klan didn’t have any more stomach for this type of fight. They stopped raiding our community.
It is my sincerest belief that Klansville, USA is deceitful propaganda portraying the North Carolina KKK as less violent and the white people of North Carolina being some sort of moderate racists. How can you make a film about the Klan in North Carolina and never mention the non-violent Freedom Riders coming to Monroe, NC and being violently attacked by the Klan and the Freedom Riders eventually being rescued by Robert F. Williams and the Black Guard from a white mob.
When the Freedom Riders brought their nonviolent campaign to integrate interstate bus travel to Monroe in 1961, they were met by Klan violence and turned to Williams’ Black Guard for protection. During the riot that ensued, Williams sheltered a white couple from an angry African-American mob only to be accused later by local and state authorities of kidnapping them.
The film never mentions that after Black people repelled a violent attack by the Klan by firing on them with their rifles, two weeks later the local Lumbee Indians attacked a Klan Rally with guns, routing them and sending them fleeing so fast they left behind their women and children like cowards. I recall similar stories told to me by my Uncle Franklin Reid who along with his younger brothers put the KKK members who attacked their home fleeing into the night after my uncles emerged with guns blazing after a cross was lit in their front yard in the middle of the night. My uncle mentioned other gun battles Blacks got into around Mt. Holly, North Carolina with the Klan.
One last fallacy presented by the film I have to address is the notion that the FBI under the vile and racist lawbreaker J. Edgar Hoover went after the Klan because of minor incidents of violence is a crock. The NAACP and leaders like Robert F. Williams had been calling on the federal government to do something prior to taking up arms and it was only after instances of Black counter-violence did the FBI move to dismantle the Klan not based on their terrorism but based on the thievery of Bob Johnson. Prior to this film, I had never once heard the Klan described as a victim of CointelPro. The FBI counter-intelligence program was designed with the specific goal to infiltrate the civil rights movement and to destroy the Black Liberation movement and Robert F. Williams himself was under its surveillance with the FBI being helped by the treacherous activities of none other than Thurgood Marshall who was an FBI informant and would later be rewarded with a nomination and confirmation as the first Black United States Supreme Court Justice.
When I told my mother who was a young girl and teen growing up in North Carolina during this period about the narrative of Klansville, USA, she said they (white people) always lie in their so-called history books and so we should not be surprised they did not include Black armed self defense in the film as a contributing factor as to why the North Carolina Klan was not engaging in the same level of successful violence against the Black community as seen in other parts of the South.
It seems to me that those involved with the making of Klansville, USA are part of a wider effort in media to keep pushing the myth or assumption that Black armed self-defense was non-existent and the only legitimate resistance to white terrorism is non-violent resistance. Of course, they have their black accomplices in this propaganda effort.
People say believe half of what you see, son, and none of what you hear. – “I Heard It Through The Grapevine”