From the outskirts of Harrison, Ark., take Highway 7 North about seven miles. Take a right by the Conoco, down Zinc Road, past the green cow pastures and the farmhouses and four low-slung churches. After seven miles, the road appears to head straight into a wall of trees, before veering left and plunging down a long hill. Over the railroad tracks, where the paving gives way to a dusty, rock-strewn rutted path, bear left on Lead Hill Road. Your pace will slow. This is a road for pickup trucks, not a rented Ford Fusion. Pass a few scattered mobile homes with turkeys and geese wandering, and some poor cows stuck navigating a farm placed on a steep hill. Mostly, pass scraggly trees. At three points, a tiny creek cuts across the dirt road, and you'll have to gun it through a flowing puddle to move ahead. After a couple of miles of this, arrive at a steep, rocky driveway flanked by a gate and a lone American flag.
Welcome to the national headquarters of The Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. I hope you're white.
In the late 1940s, the author Stetson Kennedy went undercover in the Georgia Ku Klux Klan. It was a life-threatening activity. In a book, he included some of the Klan's suggested punishment for "rats" in their midst: "Let's take him out in the woods, fasten him to a log with a staple over his testicles, set fire to the log, give him a knife and tell him to ‘Cut or burn!'"
Things have changed. Over the intervening six decades, the Klan has morphed from legitimate terrorist force to daytime talk show trope—a shorthand symbol for despicable racist ignorance that is itself hated in a far greater measure than it can hate others. The Southern Poverty Law Center said last month that while right wing hate groups in America have grown "explosively" over the past three years, the Klan itself has "declined significantly," with fewer members and far fewer chapters than in its heyday.
Is the biggest brand in hate in danger of catching an inferiority complex? In a quest to find out, I signed up to attend the 2012 Faith and Freedom Conference ("Open to ALL Concerned White Patriots— A Great FAMILY Event!"), held last weekend at the Arkansas headquarters of The Knights Party, the most prominent branch of the KKK. After some mutual feeling-out over email, the organizers agreed to let me in, along with a photographer. The Knights, originally founded by David Duke as a way to morph the KKK into a political powerhouse, have a reputation for being media-friendly. As long as you're not a nigger or a Jew.
Harrison, Arkansas is less than an hour's drive from Branson, Mo., through the sharp, rolling hills of the Ozarks, every flat plain flanked by the rocky walls of the mountain that was blasted away to obtain it. The national headquarters of The Knights Party is far outside Harrison's city limits, in the backwoods of the Ozarks, one of the most marginalized settings in all of America. It's a "compound," I guess, though that name may imply a level of menace and armament that is not apparent.
Once through the gate, the driveway curves upwards and to the right, revealing a large, sloping grassy field dotted at intervals by various flags—American, Confederate, Irish, and who knows what else. Scattered tents were set up for attendees who would be camping out for the weekend. To the left stood a small, white wooden building the size of a very modest starter home; this was the actual National Headquarters building of The Knights. It did not indicate a vast level of financial reserves. Up a sidewalk, past the basketball hoop and scattered toys of the "Kid's Korner," a barbecue grill, and some picnic tables, stood a low-slung brown church. Off to the right, down the sloping grass lawn, was a jungle gym and kid's fort, upon which a dozen or more kids were happily playing when we arrived. There was a big dog, and a little dog. The dogs were both white.
The national director, spiritual leader, chief spokesman, and driving force of The Knights party is Pastor Thomas Robb, who took over the group after David Duke's departure in the 1980s and built the compound where we were now standing. He greeted us in a tan jacket, crisp blue shirt, and nice jeans, with a deep tan and genial, grandfatherly demeanor. Pat Robertson mixed with Wilford Brimley, if he loved racism more than oatmeal. Also present was Robb's son, Jason, a thirtyish guy with a friendly, open face who serves as the group's lawyer. As a condition of our attendance, Jason had us sign stringent legal contracts that he'd drawn up saying that we could photograph only a pre-selected group of speakers at the conference, and none of the attendees' faces, not even with their permission. Everyone is very proud to be there, as long as no one else finds out.
The Klan has clearly made the calculation that any press is better than no press. "The enemy carries our message for us—what I call white power jujitsu," explained one of the weekend's speakers. "We don't necessarily expect a positive story, but we expect you to be fair," said Pastor Robb. He is undeniably media-savvy—the walls of the church are dotted with pictures of him being interviewed by various TV crews—and possesses the smooth, calm, demeanor of a natural pundit. As long as he doesn't get too specific, he is capable of sounding damn near reasonable. He asked about our flight. He told us a story about his little dog swimming through the nearby creek. Had we never heard what was to come, he would have become our best friend in Arkansas.
The Faith and Freedom Conference kicked off at 7 p.m. last Friday night. Inside the church, Foosball, ping pong, and pool tables had been pushed to the side to make room for about a dozen long folding tables with red plastic tablecloths, as well as a few more tables on the far side selling KKK t-shirts and key chains, Confederate flag-emblazoned ties and potholders, and other assorted souvenirs which could you would never want to openly display in even an ironic fashion. The crowd on opening night numbered fewer than 50. The men were mostly schlubby and tending towards middle-aged; the women were mostly plain and homely. There were a handful of biker-looking types mixed in, but not many. Toddlers toddled about here and there. Walking in, we passed a group of tween girls flirting with a skinny tween boy: "Where'd you get so much hair? Last time I saw you you were bald!" This was just a normal social activity, for them, which made me queasy. All in all it was almost indistinguishable from the crowd at an average Southern country church.
The speakers stood on stage at a small podium in front of a "NATIONAL Faith & Freedom CONFERENCE" banner the size and make of a "Grand Opening" sign at a new corner bodega. The emcee of the conference was Dave Long. He works at the local Meineke outlet. Long was a slim man with the nervous, manic tendencies of a vaudeville comedian who constantly feels like he's losing the crowd. Much of the opening night was devoted to scoffing at a story by AP reporter Jeannie Nuss that had come out just days earlier about how Harrison is trying to "rebrand" itself, promote diversity, and disassociate itself from its image as a Klan haven.
"Harrison is ‘too dangerous for minorities?'" Long quoted. The whole crowd broke out in raucous applause.
"Only 34 out of 13,000 residents are black?" he quoted. "Too many!" came the reply.
"Now you know why people move here!" "Haw haw!"
"Who wrote this article? Jeannie Nuss. I just caught that. Noose!" "Haw haw!"
It's quite disconcerting in this modern age to be in a room full of white people who are all spouting the most vile racist slurs that one can imagine, openly, while everyone else laughs and applauds it. There is a Twilight Zone feeling to it, as if you'd stumbled into a secret clubhouse where white people can say those forbidden things—the Valhalla of dumb racist jokes. These things are usually hinted at, or said quietly under someone's breath as they glance over their shoulders to make sure that no non-white people are wandering by. Chris Rock has a bit where he imagines white people, in private, bellowing out "NIGGER!" at full volume as they sing along with rap songs. I can report that for the Klan, no rap accompaniment is necessary.
The main musical act of the weekend was Steve & Bonnie, a middle-aged couple who bellowed out sappy Christian-themed music with musical accompaniment provided by CDs hastily shoved in a small boombox between songs. Bonnie was red-haired and silent; Steve had black hair, a thick greying beard, and a huge protruding belly, and sang with the exaggerated smiles and gesticulations of a beauty pageant contestant. "Dude sings like Carlton Banks," according to my notes.
Steve's big crowd-pleaser was a birther-themed remix of "Where Have All The Flowers Gone?" entitled "Where Have All His Records Gone?" which consisted of seven verses of gems such as "Your classmates don't remember you/Wish I could say the same thing too." (It's worth noting that this crowd doesn't get out into the wider world much.) "Bonnie, you need to set the boom box up on yer shoulder!" barked an audience member at one point, provoking peals of laughter.
We'd point out that nobody's put a boom box up on their shoulder since people stopped listening to cassettes, except that Steve & Bonnie were selling cassette tapes of their music. At least they're consistent.
The other musical act, though, was far better. Heritage Connection is a duo made up of Pastor Robb's two blond granddaughters, who play drums, violin, and guitar and sing Indigo Girls/Alanis Morrissette-style power ballads and mournful folk songs that would not sound out of place in any coffee shop in Brooklyn, if you didn't listen to the lyrics, like these from their big (and catchy!) hit "Aryan Warrior": "He's an Aryan Warrior, traditions very old/Battling Zionist menace to win back that which was stole."
The Quotable White Supremacist
• "The Jews are very smart. They know the best way to undermine a nation is by integration." -Rachel Pendergraft
• "The Jews did not win America. They stole it while we slept." -Merlin Miller, presidential candidate of the white nationalist American Third Position party
• "Satan attempts to destroy individuality. He says we all have to be together." - Rachel Pendergraft
• "God is not transsexual." -Steve Kukla, of Steve & Bonnie
On George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin:
• "[Zimmerman's] not a cracker. He's half matzoh and half tortilla." -Billy Roper, founder of the white power group White Revolution
• "He's Jewish. He's not white at all." -Random person
• "They told me there was a march for hoodies. I told him we were all gonna be there, and we're all gonna wear our hoods!" -Billy Roper
• "We are conquerors. We don't need therapy. We just need more territory to conquer." -Billy Roper
• "China, Japan, I don't care about them. I don't hate them. They're not my people." -Jason Robb
• "We didn't come here with Columbus, we didn't come here with the Vikings. We were here 10,000 years ago. We're coming back." -Paul Fromm
• "Guess what? We've got enough oil to set the world on fire for 10,000 years, and this heathen government won't let us have it!" -John Eslinger
• "Obama might be wearing some pink underwear down there in Arizona, if Sheriff Joe gets his way. But Obama might enjoy that, if some things about his past are true." -Random person
A large percentage of all the songs at the conference were apocalypse-themed, calls for white people to stand strong and fight through these troubled times. There were no outright celebratory anthems. The white nationalists are used to losing, not winning.
Pastor Robb himself gave an introductory speech keyed on his most purposefully palatable talking point: that the Klan is about love of one's own kind, and not about hatred of others. "I don't consider myself a hateful person," he said. "I'm not a tough person... I'm grandpa." Of the Klan's many opponents, Robb told the crowd, "They're not afraid of your hate. They're afraid of your love." This makes zero logical sense, but it goes over well as a soundbite, at least in a room full of racists.
Robb's other clever PR gambit is to disavow any personal responsibility for the crazy bile that would be spouted by the various speakers that weekend. He compared the conference and its speakers to a buffet, in that you should take what you like and leave the rest, and emphasized that "every speaker is independent to himself." This is a convenient way to ignore the fact that he organized the conference and invited all of the speakers personally.
Next up was Paul Fromm, a red-faced Canadian anti-immigration crusader and straight up crazy motherfucker. Oh, he had a nice sort of aw-shucks speaking style that, along with his pleasant Canadian accent, gave him the air of a slightly frazzled professor. But he was perhaps the most extreme extremist of the entire weekend.
"When I go to the Wal-Mart I don't see a group of young Negroes with backward hats on looking to lift somebody's wallet," he said, in praise of the charms of Harrison's non-diversity. "When I took a brief stroll from my hotel, you didn't have some 13-year-old negress trying to sell herself to me." I don't know where Paul Fromm usually vacations—presumably somewhere with plentiful 13-year-old negress prostitutes with very forward dispositions—but I do know that he is crazy as a fucking loon. But he's also rhetorically nifty. "We are being ethnically cleansed from the cities of America!" he thundered. "I don't know if it was the Hutus cleansing the Tutsis, or the Tutsis cleansing the Hutus. Well, they should all be cleansed."
After a few more speakers, Dave Long wrapped up with an exhortation for everyone to come back and buy breakfast at the church tomorrow morning, for the sake of economic solidarity. We decided to eat at a Shoney's.
The headlines on the front page of the Harrison Daily Times on Saturday were "Rabid Bat Confirmed" and "Jewish Missionary Explains Passover to Baptists." We grimly headed back out to the country for day two. My photographer, Bucky, and I are both white guys with buzz cuts, which I suspect contributed at least a little to our friendly reception. (Bucky has a strong New York accent and expressed a desire to pull over and examine the roadside cow shit for magic mushrooms, but he's naturally outgoing and prone to saying things like "Yo, if I was around in Jesus's time I bet I would have been one of the dudes stabbing him," so he got along fine.) A number of the men who had been wearing t-shirts the night before showed up in Klan dress uniform: dark pants and a pressed white button-up shirt with various KKK patches sewn onto the shoulders and over the chest. For some, this gave them the appearance of trim and ready racist shock troops; for the less in-shape, it merely made them look like dumpy middle managers at a white supremacist fast food restaurant. Tight white dress shirts go poorly with back fat.
The Knights of the Ku Klux Klan and their assorted supporters are, as far as I could tell, completely sincere. This is not a cause that anyone takes up falsely for the sake of their own popularity. Its beliefs are deeply held among members. Furthermore, these people genuinely consider themselves good Christians—devout, even, willing to sacrifice earthly economic and social status in order to live a life that they consider to be righteous.
In light of this, it is interesting to find out exactly where the breaking point is— the point at which their beliefs veer into territory so false or despicable that it can never again be reconciled with respectability. I interviewed Pastor Robb and Paul Fromm, as well as Robb's daughter Rachel Pendergraft, who is The Knights' national organizer and a fiery racist speaker in her own right. Assuming that all three are both honest and genuine in their beliefs (and I believe them to be so), I wanted to find just where things went wrong; that is, at what point two honest people in civil discussion could no longer find any common ground.
It doesn't take much digging. From what I could tell, this most extreme level of racist belief rests on three separate propositions, each of which builds on the previous ones:
- 1. A very particular interpretation of the Bible. The ideas that America is the "true Israel" and that modern-day races are ordained by god in specific ways are very important to the Klan's conviction that white Christians are a special people.
- "Integration is contrary to Christianity." - Rachel Pendergraft
- I'm no Biblical scholar, but even if this is an absurd interpretation, it is not that much more absurd than some other tenets of mainstream religious thought. Whereas mainstream religious folks might stop here, though, Klan types proceed to...
- 2. The belief that the various races are fundamentally different. Whites are unique and therefore should stick to their own kind. The idea that factually and scientifically the various "races" are distinct in meaningful ways is a key to racist philosophy. It is also demonstrably wrong. Pastor Robb, in his quest for palatability, tends to pull up his rhetoric here, offering the idea that he holds no ill will for other races; he simply loves his "own kind," and wishes to be around them.
- "Black people can talk about their own interests, and nobody seems to think it matters. Nobody would call Al Sharpton a racist." - Pastor Thomas Robb
- This may disgust liberals, but it certainly falls under the rubric of personal freedom. Then, though, if these people are being honest, they unveil the third and final pillar of their philosophy, namely...
- 3. White supremacy. White separatism is a fact of life in a racially divided society. If the Klan stopped there, they might have a shot at becoming at least a fringe player in right wing politics. But they proceed directly to the idea that white people are superior. They want not a return to "separate but equal," but to separate and unequal.
- "That view [that white people have a disproportionate share of power] is based on the error that all people are equal. Blacks are on the whole less intelligent than whites." - Paul Fromm
- At this point it becomes clear that you are dealing with a strain of insanity which cannot be made respectable, no matter how smoothly it is presented.
The Klan's dress uniform. (Photo by Bucky Turco)
The fact that America is approaching a day when it will not be a majority white nation weighs heavy on the mind of racist leaders. They present this demographic fact, straight-faced, as "genocide" against white people; "absolute treason by our government" for allowing immigrants to enter, as Paul Fromm puts it. For him, it is a straightforward question of power: "If we give up the majority position, we can expect to be dominated." We can expect current minorities to act as bad as we have, in other words.
For Pastor Robb, though, it's a cultural issue. Other races have strong cultures to cling to, he says, but not white people. He seeks to offer that. I asked him how he reconciled his "white love" rhetoric with the volume of nasty racist remarks that were being offered inside his church. "It's anger," he replied. "The substance of our own culture is being discredited. If someone breaks into your home and robs you, you're gonna be angry."
I asked him why he decided to keep The Knights Party under the KKK banner, knowing that the group's history carries baggage akin to that of the Nazi party. "Advertising," he said.
When disaffected people go to seek out white power groups, they look for the Klan. It's a valuable brand in the world of hate. Why quit what works?
This much, at least, is true: today's Ku Klux Klan is a destination of last resort for the castoffs of American society. It is a place that offers an identity to those who feel adrift. I saw several young Klan members who, I felt sure, could have their lives completely altered just by having a different set of friends for a few weeks. I wanted to adopt them, bring them home, and hang out with them until they became skaters or surfers or gamers or ravers or hip hop heads or hippies or, hell, anything but Klan members. The fact that a national conference pulled in fewer than 80 total participants does not speak well for the white power movement's actual white power. Robb would not reveal The Knights Party's membership to me, doubtless because it is so small. The entire movement consists of a small nucleus of vociferous theorists and speakers orbited by a loose constellation of country church folks, extreme libertarians (everyone here is a Ron Paul supporter, for what it's worth), and young white guys in search of something to belong to.
The Klan of today is not scary. It is pitiful.
"Yo mama don't want you/Yo daddy don't care/You sit around the house in your mama's underwear! Ba-bomp, ba-bomp, ba-bomp," intoned John Eslinger, a fat preacher sporting a bad hair dye job and a bolo tie. "That's not rap. That's crap. To-tal mor-al de-prav-ity." He sounded like the human embodiment of an early 90s Ice Cube album interlude skit. By lunchtime of day two, the visceral shock of hearing the racist speeches had given way to a sort of stupor of disbelief. For example, do you know the worst part of the 5,000 (?) deaths due to driving while texting last year? "The worst part is that most of the people that caused those accidents were white!" said Eslinger as the crowd murmured in shame. "We can't help it. We're a gregarious people."
But just when you think that you can arrange your mind in such a way that you can comfortably dismiss these people, with their "72 marks of Israel" and "Trust in the lord but keep your guns" sloganeering, as a bunch of sorely misguided and ignorant unfortunates who've been too sheltered with their own kind to know any better, they bring up a no-necked motherfucker like Randy Gray, who ends his remarkably ignorant disquisition on Jews in the media not only with an exclamation of "White power!" (which the crowd repeats en masse) but, as an added flourish, by passing around a cooler full of Arizona iced tea and a big bag full of Skittles, as an homage to Trayvon Martin. "The choice of thugs everywhere," jokes the slitty-eyed racist shit, about the murdered child.
It is about now that you can feel your own hatred coalesce into a hard little nugget, and you reflect that Martin Luther King Jr. really was a great man, because if he were here in this racist church he would probably give an eloquent sermon about how both sides could agree on the principle of love or something, rather than just being disgusted with the whole scene. Not that MLK would have been allowed past the front gate. The last speaker before dinner is Rachel Pendergraft herself, voluminous blond hair shaking every time she pounds the podium. "We talk a lot about the Jews. I don't know if we have Jews here, but we do have members of the media," she notes, the synonymity of the two things being implied.
Though I thought I had by now become inured to the ambient level of racism, Pendergraft wakes me up. She casually refers to a "great increase in the nigger population" during the Revolutionary War era, becoming (by my tally) the first speaker to drop that word without obfuscation. And then: "Let me quote from a great German statesman. I won't say his name, but I admire him very much..."
Using "nigger" in casual speech, praising Hitler, and closing with her own "White power!" yell: we had witnessed the trifecta of white supremacy. Everything else seemed redundant after that. Bucky and I discreetly made for the exit before dinner was served. On the porch, a white-shirted Klansman, as hospitable as he could be, thanked us for coming. "I hope you see that we're not all ignorant," he said. "My father was in the Klan. Back then, it was all hateful rednecks."
He gazed out across the rolling lawn, where a group of kids were playing on the jungle gym.
"This is the kinder, gentler Klan."
Photography by Animal's Bucky Turco.