At an initiation ceremony for 700 members, the Ku Klux Klan burns a huge cross on Stone Mountain on July 23, 1948. Said one historian: “Atlanta was the headquarters of the revived KKK; we sold it around the nation like it was Coca-Cola.” (Associated Press file)

The dwindling Klan has fallen on hard times

This story was originally published in The Atlanta Constitution and The Atlanta Journal on November 3, 1984.

At 79 years old, the Imperial Wizard of the National Knights of the Ku Klux Klan admits that the hooded order has seen better days. 

'The Klan was a little over 8 million strong, ' says James Venable, a Decatur attorney and a Klansman since 1924. 'We used to have parades all over the country.'  

He recalled the glorious '20s, when one of America's most despicable hate groups dominated the state politically, when 126,000 robed Klansmen marched down Pennsylvania Avenue in the nation's capital, when $30,000 a day flowed into the organization's headquarters at the intersection of West Wesley and Peachtree roads.  

'The land belongs to Catholics now, ' he spits.  

By many accounts, it is not easy being a Klansman in the 1980s. Even as a tale of racist violence is unfolding in a federal courtroom here, at the trial of four west Georgia Klansmen for a series of racially motivated beatings, the KKK is exhibiting the symptoms of a dying organization.  

According to a report released Friday by the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith, 'The Klan's decline is evidenced by a fall off of both hard-core members and sympathizers, a crisis of leadership, and growing fragmentation.'  

Klan rallies that attracted thousands in the late '70s now draw only afew hundred. National membership has dropped to a new low of around 6,500. Talk-show regular and former national leader Bill Wilkinson has resigned, his credibility among Klansmen compromised by the revelation that he worked as an informant for the FBI. Funding dropped so sharply that longtime Klan activist Robert Shelton, Imperial Wizard of the United Klans of America, took a job as a used-car salesman in Tuscaloosa, Ala., according to the ADL report.  

Down, but not exactly out. And that, says the ADL, is what makes the modern incarnation of the Klan so dangerous.  

According to the report, '. . . as a consequence of the hooded empire's decline, some in the Klan have concluded that their only resource is to undertake desperate measures.' Charles Wittenstein, Southern Counsel for the ADL, puts it bluntly: 'What we're talking about is urban terrorism.'  

The report describes the formation of small underground cells to carry out assassinations of government figures and civil rights leaders. At one KKK meeting, according to the report, 'There was talk of creating chaos in certain selected cities, through the disruption of water supplies, electricity and telephone lines . . .'  

Venable, who hosts an annual cross-burning and rally for a confederation of Klan groups on his Stone Mountain property, insists that the Klan is only interested in peaceful social change.  

'The goal of the Klan is to try to keep the U.S. as it was founded, with the white people in control, ' he says. 'You can't use violence. The Klan is a Christian organization, and the only weapons it can use are the ballot box and the boycott.'  

By Venable's reckoning, among the biggest threats to America's social fabric are the United Nations and the metric system. 'I was raised on pints and gallons, ' he says.  

But Lyn Wells, coordinator of the Atlanta-based National Anti-Klan Network, is also troubled by what she sees as the development of terror-oriented Klan factions whose goal is nothing less than revolution. 'You've got guys that say all this media stuff is wrong, that the Klan should just go underground and start the war, ' she says.  

Indeed, some Klansmen have traded their white sheets for camouflage fatigues, and cross-burning rallies for para-military training camps. Camps have been operated near Houston and in Cullman County, Ala., and another has been reported in North Carolina. Earlier this year, an Alabama Klansman announced that Klan units would go to Central America to help anti-communist rebels in Nicaragua.  

The Klansmen being tried in federal court have been accused of violence of a more traditional sort. The indictment deals with a Nov. 23, 1982 attack on a white Carroll County woman whipped with a strap in front of her adolescent children and a Feb. 9, 1983 attack against a black Tallapoosa man who is married to a white woman.  

Peggy Jo French, the woman from Carroll County, testified that 'they said . . . if I associated with any more black people, they would come back and tar and feather me.' The black man, Warren Cokley, had his skull fractured by masked intruders who beat him with a rifle butt.  

'That's just a bunch of fools, ' snipes Venable. 'The Klan doesn't support that.'  

There is evidence to the contrary.  

Among the other recent incidents of Klan-related violence in the South cited by the ADL:  

A hooded Klansman assaulted an 18-year-old black man at a Klan roadblock in Cedartown on April 8, 1984.  

On May 30, 1983, two members of a North Carolina Klan faction burned across in front of the home of a prison guard who had filed a discrimination complaint against prison officials.  

Two Klansmen were arrested on Feb. 22, 1983, for assaulting a 71-year-old black man, a retired janitor, in Knox County, Tenn. The victim said the two held a pistol to his head and threatened to kill him because 'they just didn't like my color.'  

While Klansmen like to think of themselves as soldiers in a national movement, the South has always been their stronghold. It was in Pulaski, Tenn., in 1867 that six Confederate veterans formed the Ku Klux Klan as a social club. They got the name from the Greek word 'Kyklos' 'circle' and apparently added 'Klan' because it had a catchy alliterative ring.  

After a period of decline, the Klan was 'reborn' with a cross-burning ceremony atop the bald granite hump of Stone Mountain on the night of Thanksgiving 1915.  

All three national Klan factions are based in the South. 'There are only two exceptions to the downward slide in the Klan's fortunes in the South, ' notes the report. 'One is in Georgia, where an Invisible Empire unit . . . has grown from just over 100 to 300 during the past three years. The organization has 25 klaverns clustered mostly in the northern part of the state, and it has conducted a number of relatively successful rallies during the past year.'  

At the headquarters of the National Anti-Klan Network, colored pins on a map identify klaverns in Georgia. The densest cluster is around the mill towns of northwest Georgia.

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.

X