What should we make of the fact that the North Carolina of the fictional Mayberry and The Andy Griffith Show was once also home to 10,000 very real and dues-paying members of the Ku Klux Klan—more than all other Southern states combined?
At first, the black-and-white images of the Klan parading in Salisbury or meeting at Memorial Auditorium in Raleigh seem out of an antiquarian past, irrelevant to our time. But as William Faulkner, chronicler of the South, memorably said, "The past is never dead. It's not even past."
As if channeling Faulkner, the story told by Klansville U.S.A., a new television documentary produced for the "American Experience" series on PBS, isn't from the 19th century, when the KKK was created by defeated Confederate soldiers. Nor is it from the early 20th century, when the KKK arose again to enforce segregation. Rather, this is the KKK of the 1960s that came from the grave and took shape, especially in North Carolina, in opposition to the civil rights movement.
And while Klansville stops with the '60s, it isn't hard to hear the Klan's echoes today in the tea party politics that greeted the nation's first African-American president. Here's a sampling of what historians and participants recalled about the KKK in North Carolina then:
• Its founder wanted the Klan to be an organization that was militant but he also craved political legitimacy.
• Klan members perceived that state leaders didn't care whether civil rights for non-whites threatened the jobs of poor white workers.
• The Klan filled a void, speaking for those who felt that their very way of life was under attack by liberal forces.
• "We had the NAACP," one African-American woman says. "They had the Klan."
Substitute tea party for Klan in those statements and see how they read for North Carolina just 50 years later.
Callie T. Wiser, the producer-director of Klansville U.S.A., grew up in Tennessee and graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill, where she was a Morehead Scholar. Now living in Massachusetts, she emphasizes that North Carolina was fertile ground for the Klan precisely because our leadership was so conspicuously moderate in the '60s.
In Alabama, for example, a fiery Gov. George Wallace stood for "segregation forever" and police attacked civil rights demonstrators with dogs. Here, Gov. Terry Sanford looked forward to a New South that was progressive and—gradually—integrated. Violence was sublimated but white racism wasn't, and it found expression in the KKK's growing ranks of Tar Heels.
"When we talk about the Klan now we tend to think about the horrific violence that occurred in Alabama or Mississippi," Wiser says. "But if we think that racism only shows itself as violent acts or cross burning, then we can miss the fact that, as in North Carolina, a more subtle and perhaps more insidious form of racism can still lurk within American social and political structures."
Wiser tells the story of a high school dropout named Bob Jones whose career as a salesman was going nowhere until, angered by integration, he gets the idea to sell the KKK. Going town to town with tent shows, he becomes North Carolina's Grand Dragon, mixing music and religion with his message that change must be resisted and, however poor you white folks may be, you'll always be better than a n-----.
By film's end, Jones is going to prison for pocketing Klan funds and the KKK is about to be supplanted by a new political organization in the South, the Republican Party. Jones is a fascinating figure, but what's most memorable about this excellent work are the photos and film clips of the most ordinary-looking white people who came under Jones' sway and, as one historian says, descended into the darkness with him.
These folks were experiencing the beginnings of the shift from an agricultural and factory-based economy of textile mills and furniture to an economy in which jobs are elusive and move at the stroke of a banker's pen—or keyboard. They didn't understand it. And it frightened them.
What's startling is, these good white folks maybe were—are?—your grandparents or your parents. Or, perhaps, they are you.
If so, the Republican Party used to speak for you and offer protection against affirmative action and other threats—from gays, from immigrants, from college graduates—that threatened your way of life. But it doesn't any longer. In 2015, the GOP is unmistakably for the rich and for the multinational corporations and bankers who'll throw you on the scrap heap, and black folks too, if it helps their bottom line.
But wait, what about our tea party Republicans? Oh, that's right, they were paid for by the Koch Brothers, Raleigh's own Art Pope and their Americans for Prosperity groups. All of which have abandoned you because rich Republicans don't really care for the working class.
Meanwhile, the Democratic Party continues to wrestle with the challenge of lifting up blacks and immigrants and gays and women and, well, everyone including the white working class in a state and a nation where a lot of people still think that for some to succeed, others must fail.
And if the Democrats are moderate enough about it, another Bob Jones will surely come to clear things up.
For more on Klansville U.S.A., see the book by that name written by historian David Cunningham, who is featured in the TV program.
This article appeared in print with the headline "The KKK, not so far away."