History Repeating

New Documentary Shows The ‘Moderate’ Klan of North Carolina

The Tarheel State had a reputation as the most progressive in the country on race relations. But it also had the biggest Klan chapter in the South.

01.11.15 11:45 AM ET

If you were driving through North Carolina in the mid-1960s, chances are you’d see this billboard:

Klan support in the South was not exactly breaking news. What made these highway signs stand out was the fact that they were fairly common in what had long been considered the most progressive state in the region, where the civil rights movement had been met with a minimum of bloodshed and violence. But the fact is, by 1966 the Tar Heel State had over 10,000 KKK members, more than all the other Southern states combined.

The reasons why are explored in “Klansville, U.S.A.,” a documentary based on the book of the same name by David Cunningham, which will be broadcast on PBS on Jan. 13. And although the documentary deals with events that happened 50 years ago, it also helps us understand contemporary Southern racial politics.

So why North Carolina? As it turns out, the strength of the Klan was a response to the Tar Heel State’s relatively smooth transition from segregation to integration. “White people in North Carolina could not count on their politicians to resist integration like the politicians in Mississippi and Alabama,” Cunningham told the Daily Beast, “so there was this opening the Klan could step into.”

It also helped that North Carolina had a Klan organizer like Bob Jones, a former lightning rod salesman who had been discharged from the Navy for refusing to salute a black officer. Jones began organizing in 1963, claiming to be a voice for poor whites who felt threatened by black progress and who were left behind by the state’s economic upturn.

“Jones was not a charismatic figure as we usually think of that,” said Cunningham. “He was an excellent people person. He was disarming, with a sense of humor. He also knew enough to partner with people who had more charisma.”

The Klan’s appeal was to people leading traditional lives in rural areas. Their rallies, which could attract thousands, were like county fairs and social events, and were in many ways similar to religious revivals of the past. Jones and his followers also claimed they were not a violent organization, unlike Klan outlets in the Deep South. Their major form of intimidation, in fact, was not murder or beatings, but cross burning.

If the North Carolina Klan was, in its own bizarre way, a relatively moderate organization, this was a reflection of the Tar Heel State itself. The state was considered the shining light of the New South, in which the “North Carolina Way,” advocating non-confrontation in race relations, was highly praised. This moderation was reflected in The Andy Griffith Show, set in fictional Mayberry, N.C. A soothing vision of small town life, the popular program featured blacks, but they were always in the background, and seemed to respect the racial boundaries of the day. “That sense of neighborliness also contributed to that broad complicity to maintaining this sense of racial solidarity,” Cunningham said. “Those boundaries drawn along racial lines were very strong and very formal.”

All this contributed to North Carolina’s relatively benign image, but also to a sense of complacency, especially regarding the Klan.

“I think the political class saw the Klan as nothing more than an annoyance,” said “Klansville, U.S.A.” director Callie Wiser. “They weren’t in tune with the working class, and they either believed, or wanted to believe, that the Klan wasn’t as scary as they thought. Their thinking was that these people were just blowing off steam.”

Eventually, however, Jones and his Klan movement were brought down by a number of factors. Following the violence in Selma, Ala. and the murder of white civil rights worker Viola Liuzzo—all recounted in the current film “Selma”—the FBI, which had been indifferent, if not openly hostile, to the civil rights movement, was forced to take on the Klan.

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That, plus a Jones confidant turned informant and Jones’ conviction on contempt of Congress charges after he refused to turn over the Klan’s bank accounts to a congressional committee, reduced the North Carolina KKK to a shell of its former self. Yet racial and economic anxiety, the forces that made the Klan a player in North Carolina and the South, still existed. In North CarolinaCarolina, they were channeled into support for hard-right racial demagogue Jesse Helms, elected five times to the U.S. Senate.

And nationally, they were manifested as opposition to the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which President Lyndon B. Johnson accurately predicted would deliver the South to the Republican Party for years to come.

“People have anxieties, and will continue to have them,” Wiser said. “There are always going to be threats to people’s livelihoods, and when they feel unsure about their place in the world, they will lash out. That fear has not been exhausted.”

“In the areas where the Klan was present in the South, those areas tended to drive the shift towards Republican voting,” added Cunningham.

“The Klan never became a political force, but they were influential in loosening ties to the Democratic Party. This isn’t purely a historical story. We see the resonance of the Klan’s presence continuing. ++Where the Klan was popular, we see more violent crime (PDF).

The Klan wanted to delegitimize authority, and that vigilantist impulse continues to have a legacy today.”