Amid Surge In Racial Tension, KKK Fails To Seize On Comeback Moment

In an online generation where other nefarious groups like ISIS are using social media to recruit Jihadis, the recruiting efforts of less tech-savvy hate groups like the Klan are failing miserably

James King
Jul 23, 2015 at 3:19 PM ET

It’s 93-degrees and miserably humid in front of the copper-domed statehouse in Columbia, South Carolina, and a 20-year-old member of the Ku Klux Klan named Josh is leaning against a police barricade near the statehouse steps and smoking cigarettes with his three older cousins. He’s wearing a Confederate battle flag as a cape.

Josh and his cousins made the hour-long trip to Columbia from their home in Sumter — a small city in an otherwise rural county in the central part of the state – to spend their afternoon sweating it out under the brutal sun as they and other white supremacists rally in support of returning the Confederate flag to its perch above the state capitol, a cause that has divided South Carolina and other southern states for the last month. The flag itself has been a point of contention for the past 150 years.

After he and his cousins finished their cigarettes, they took the flag off of Josh’s back and draped it over the barricade. Then they each lit up another cigarette and waited as a crowd of about 20 people began to form around them.

Before Josh and his cousins finished their cigarettes, a black man who was walking by stopped directly in front of them and started questioning – in what escalated into a very heated exchange — their motives for displaying the very flag the state legislature voted just weeks earlier to have removed from its statehouse due to its racial implications. It was a historic decision made after Dylann Roof, a 21-year-old white supremacist, allegedly murdered nine people at a historically black church in Charleston a month earlier, and cited his desire to start a race war as his motivation.

The fury caused by the flag’s removal could have been a moment for struggling hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan to seize upon – historically, Klan membership has been at its highest when the country is experiencing racial unrest. At its peak, in the 1920s, the Klan had an estimated 4 million members under a centralized, united organization. That organization crumbled in the following decades but saw a resurgence in the 1960s during the civil rights movement, when there were an estimated 40,000 members nationwide. Today, with about 4,000 members, the Klan is a disorganized shell of what it once was with no centralized leadership and no modernized way to recruit new members or spread their message. In many places, Klan organizations resort to distributing pamphlets at strip malls, and leaving information packets with pieces of candy attached to them in places where kids will find them to recruit new members. In an online generation where other nefarious groups like ISIS are using social media to recruit Jihadis from the other side of the world to carry out suicide missions, the recruiting efforts of less tech-savvy hate groups like the Klan are failing miserably.

Josh and his cousins were in Columbia to join what was expected to be more than 200 members of the KKK – as well as dozens of members of the National Socialist Movement, a neo-Nazi group — from across the South who planned to descend on Columbia and demand that the Confederate flag be raised again. In reality, fewer than 60 Klansmen showed up to use a 160-year-old flag that the average southerner couldn’t care less about as an excuse to feign relevance and intimidate people.

Sgt. D.A. Hall of the National Socialist Movement posed this question during an interview with Vocativ: “If this flag deal was so big with the people of the South where was the Sons of the Confederates?” Hall was referring to the Sons of Confederate Veterans, a highly-vocal southern “history” group that hangs its hat on the Confederate flag battle. Its leader, Kirk Lyons, is on the Southern Poverty Law Center’s hate list.

“The Klan today is weak, poorly led and without any sort of centralized organization. It’s even looked down upon by other hate groups – they look at them as these country bumpkins, and they’re generally right.” – Mark Potok, senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center

If you ask Josh what he hopes to gain from marching around in the sun worshiping a dated battle flag, he doesn’t seem to know.

“It seems like every time they cry about something they get everything that they want,” he said, clarifying that by “they” he means black people. “When we say something we don’t get nothin’ that we want.”

Josh said his family’s affiliation with the Klan dates back to his “great grand daddy.” Asked where he heard about the rally, he said, “I think the news put it on Facebook.”

In the weeks leading up to the July 18 rally in Columbia, James Moore, the “Imperial Kludd” for the Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, told Vocativ that the rally was going to be one of the biggest in recent Klan history. He said the organization expected hundreds of members to march on the statehouse and that they were mobilizing people via-the Internet. Moore gave the impression that the Klan was utilizing a sophisticated social media strategy to get the word out and hopefully recruit new members. When the Loyal White Knights arrived, it was clear that whatever strategy the Klan was using was a bust.

At about 3:20 p.m., the 60-or-so Loyal White Knights and National Socialists – a far cry from the “hundreds” Moore had promised — arrived at the statehouse with a police escort, as well as several young children. The protestors – most wearing all black outfits with different racially charged patches on them — marched in a line up a tree-lined walkway on the south side of the building up to the capitol steps, where police had fenced off an area for the white supremacists to protest.

Waiting for the Klan and the neo-Nazis near the statehouse steps were about 2,000 counter-protestors, many of whom threw water bottles at the group and taunted them with “KKK Go A-Way” as they walked by. Unlike the Klan, the counter-protestors actually had a robust social media strategy and had been planning for this moment for weeks.

“That’s probably why there were thousands of us and, like, six of them,” said Stephen Parker, who launched “Operation Klan Smash” on his motorcycle club’s Facebook page in the weeks leading up to the rally. Parker’s was just one of several campaigns in Columbia launched online aimed at “run[ing] the Klan out of town.”

For the Klan, that type of social media organizing prowess doesn’t exist.

The majority of Klan organizations have websites that generally have an image of something burning, but are otherwise prehistoric versions of anything you’d find on the modern-day Internet. Their social media presence is almost non-existent. One of the most highly trafficked Klan website is that of the Traditionalist American Knights, a Missouri-based group that gained its relative fame during the protests over the shooting of Michael Brown – an unarmed black man shot by a white cop – in Ferguson. The website generally gets fewer than 10,000 visits a month, according to web traffic analytics site SimilarWeb. The Loyal White Knights’ website sees about 25,000 visitors a month.

Mark Potok is a senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center, a non-profit organization that tracks and studies hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan. He is one of the most well-respected experts on hate groups in the country. He says the poor turnout for the rally in Columbia is indicative of the current state of the KKK: it is a dying, disorganized group that makes itself out to be bigger and more sophisticated than it actually is.

“The Klan today is weak, poorly led and without any sort of centralized organization,” he said. “It’s even looked down upon by other hate groups – they look at them as these country bumpkins, and they’re generally right.”

The BBC recently aired a documentary about the Ku Klux Klan that certain media outlets claimed showed that Klan recruitment is on the up and up.

“The Ku Klux Klan is very much alive and thriving in the U.S. — at a pivotal time for race-relations in the country,” the British tabloid website MailOnline wrote of the organization based on the BBC documentary (British tabloids, “can’t get enough stories about Americans and the Klan,” said Potok).

“Far from being resurgent, the history of the Ku Klux Klan in recent decades has been one of periods of stagnation alternating with periods of decline,” said Mark Pitcavage, director of investigative research for the Anti-Defamation League, in an article published on the SPLC’s website. “It’s common for extremist groups in general, and Klan groups in particular, to make extravagant claims about their membership, but the reality is that they can never back up those claims with real-world evidence.”

There currently are 72 chapters of 23 different Klan organizations across the U.S. The state with the most is Tennessee, where there are 12 chapters of different Klan groups, according to the SPLC. These chapters are generally independent of each other and share no national affiliation to any centralized group.

“[There was] no sound system — no speakers. The KKK forgot to bring one.” – Sgt. D.A. Hall of the National Socialist Movement

Not only have Klan groups isolated themselves from each other, there are also known feuds between members of different factions, the most notable of which is the public spat Frank Ancona, the “Imperial Wizard” of the Missouri-based Traditionalist American Knights of the Ku Klux Klan and Robert Jones, the “Grand Dragon” of the Loyal White Knights, which organized the rally in Columbia.

“[Ancona’s] group, Traditionalist American Knights, ain’t even been around three years,” Jones told the New Lenox Patch in Virginia last year. “Frank Ancona is also Jewish and his wife is Jewish and he’s being exposed all through the Klan world as a fake and he ain’t even white…His wife actually practices the Wiccan religion, which is basically devil worshipping to me…I just thought I’d let y’all know that.”

Ancona fired back, telling the publication that Jones and his Loyal White Knights are nothing but “drunks and druggies.”

“We don’t want their white trash Hoosier types,” he said. “Apparently they’re messing around with alcohol has destroyed their few remaining brain cells.”

Ancona did not respond to multiple interview requests.

Klan groups across the country are recruiting, or at least trying, despite any realistic means to do so on a meaningful level. On their antiquated websites, groups from Mississippi to North Dakota say they welcome new members and invite people to apply for membership.

Becoming a member of a Klan is not as difficult as one might think, but there is a process and an exhaustive background check.

Tracy Garrett is a Klanswoman from Gainesville, Georgia, who made the three-hour drive to Columbia to attend the rally with the Loyal White Knights, the Klan faction of which she is a member, and describes as “a Christian group.” She says the membership process as follows: an interested party will call a hotline posted on the group’s website and request an information packet and an application. When the application is submitted, Klan members will go over the information – as well as conduct a background check by the Klan faction’s Klan Bureau of Investigation (KBI).

“We want to make sure you’re not a person that’s gonna try and bring evil upon us,” she said.

Garrett wouldn’t say what types of questions are on the application, but applications to other Klan sects obtained by Vocativ are all relatively similar – they ask for a criminal history, political affiliation, whether the applicant uses drugs and if the applicant has worked in law enforcement, among other questions. The groups also ask applicants to affirm that they come from pure, Aryan blood, believe in Jesus and are not homosexual. To join the Mississippi White Knights, an applicant must declare that [sic] “I AM OF THE WHITE ARYAN RACE. I UNDERSTAND THAT THE MISSISSIPPI WHITE KNIGHTS ARE AND ORGANIZATION COMPROMISED OF ARYANS OF ANGLO-SAXON, GERMANIC, NORDIC, BASQUE, LOMBARD, CELTIC, AND SLAVIC BACKGROUND. I FURTHER UNDERSTAND AND AGREE WITH THE MISSISSIPPI WHITE KNIGHTS EXCLUSION OF JEWS, NEGROES, MEXICANS, ORIENTALS, AND MONGRELS.”

The march on Columbia is perhaps a perfect illustration of the disorder plaguing the Klan. The dismal turnout aside, the crowd couldn’t even hear what they were saying as they paraded around their police-barricaded perimeter on the statehouse steps.

“[There was] no sound system — no speakers,” Hall said. “The KKK forgot to bring one.”

For Josh and his cousins, they didn’t know where to assemble for the march to the Capitol with the rest of the white supremacists.

“They didn’t say where to meet, or nothin’,” he said. “Just to come up here.”

Groups assembling in opposition to the Klan – like Stephen Parker and his motorcycle club – were a bit more organized.

“If you feel as we feel, then we beckon you to meet us this Saturday at the Waffle House on Harden Street, Columbia SC to assemble and converge on this abomination of hate and ignorance and run the Klan out of our fucking city and state! PLEASE SHARE, LIKE AND SPREAD THE WORD, BUT MOST IMPORTANT, SHOW UP!!” Parker’s MC posted on its Facebook page nearly a week before the rally. All but three members of the club showed up – as well as several supporters who had seen the call to arms posted on social media (the three who couldn’t make it had to work, Parker said.)

Despite the Klan’s dwindling numbers and laughable recruitment tactics, they are still a dangerous organization, the SPLC’s Potok said, but any acts of violence attributed to the Klan these days is about as organized as their online presence.

“They’re dangerous,” Potok said. “Individual Klansmen are dangerous. It is very, very rare for attacks or terrorist scenarios being undertaken by groups rather than individuals. During the civil rights movement, murders and things like that were planned by rooms full of men. That doesn’t happen anymore.”

As for their protest, “The Klan was demonstrating in support of the Confederate battle flag,” Potok said. “The reality is they probably did more damage to the Confederate battle flag than anyone else – they cemented its association with their racism and hate.”