the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist
“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx
Sep 30, 1980
Over the past few years, there has been some indication of a new rise in the activity by the Ku Klux Klan and other similar groups, with the attack on a leftist demonstration in Greensboro, and with a number of attacks on black people in the South. Perhaps the KKK is entering a new period of growth; if so it will be important for the leftist movement, as well as for the working class to pay attention to this threat. In the past, organizations like the Klan were important tools used by the ruling classes to fight against not only the mobilization of black people but also against the different movements of the oppressed layers of the population, black and white. Certainly, the Klan could be used for the same purposes once more in the future.
The KKK was formed in 1865, representing the interests of the defeated Southern slaveowners, who were confronting the growing Reconstruction Movement. Reconstruction was a mass movement of the ex-slaves and some sections of the poor white farmers which had sought to impose a new system of small landownership in the countryside.
In order to overthrow the Reconstruction governments supported by this movement, the landowners began to launch a war of terrorism against those who supported Reconstruction, both ex-slaves and poor white farmers who maintained any ties with black people.
In the early years of Reconstruction, with the growth of the movement and the stationing of federal troops in the South, the Klan had been unable to carry out more than isolated attacks. However, by the early 1870s, with the old slaveowners’ political power destroyed nationally, the Northern bourgeoisie had no more use for Reconstruction. And it gave the go ahead to growing terrorism by the Klan. The Union Army stayed on the side lines as the fight developed.
Reconstruction finally ended in a bloody fashion. The leaders of the movement had put their trust in the Republican party and the Federal government; and they had counseled the ex-slaves not to take up arms in their own defense. By the time the mass movement began to arm itself, and to organize a defense, it had waited too long. Additionally, the defense was never coordinated, and therefore each local area was isolated and attacked in turn.
By the late 1870s the state governments were once more headed by the white Southern Democrats. They created their own state militias and police. With the defeat of the mass movement and the creation of its own state apparatus, the landowners no longer had need of an extra-legal police. At the same time, a sizeable share of the Klan had been co-opted into the legal state apparatus. As an organization, the Klan nearly disappeared. Only small local racist gangs still existed. But their terrorism continued to be enlisted occasionally by the ruling class to maintain order.
In the new Redeemed South, where the landowners were being transformed into part of the national bourgeois class, complete segregation had not yet taken hold. Black people were still not completely purged from the voter rolls. And, in fact the so-called redeemers of the Democratic Party tried to manipulate black people’s vote and control it.
However, all was not calm. In the 25 years after the end of Reconstruction, a series of agrarian movements culminating in Populism rocked the South.
During the latter part of the 19th century, the South became increasingly a kind of colony for Northern capital, and it was bled dry. The ex-slaves had already been made sharecroppers with the end of Reconstruction. But, now, the small white farmers were also driven into debt and finally driven to become sharecroppers. With the hope of stopping the unrelenting forces that were driving them under, the small white farmers began to organize. Very quickly they sought the support of the black sharecroppers.
This movement culminated in the Populist attempt to take over the state governments in the rural states, both North and South. In North Carolina, a Populist-Republican alliance succeeded in capturing control of the state, and many black people held public office for a short time. But in most places the Populists weren’t so successful. The Democrats stole elections and began a campaign of terrorism against the populists. The Democrats resurrected big racist gangs, often garbed in red shirts, that resembled the Klan. Often it was the party structure of the local Democratic Party and the local sheriffs which served as the framework of these gangs. Through terrorism they began to split the Populist movement. They attacked the black sharecroppers and those poor whites who defended them.
At first the farmers were ready to defend themselves and stop the attacks. In one incident in Georgia in 1892, word got around that the red shirt were going to kill one of the black populist leaders. Two thousand armed white farmers responded to the call to aid the black leader. They stood guard at his house for two nights to stop the threatened violence.
This example shows that while determination to fight against the terrorism is necessary, it isn’t sufficient. It is the also necessary to find the means to overcome the divisions in the movement. And it was precisely on this point that the Populist movement was fragile. First, there was the obvious division between black and white. It was evident in the fact that for most of the period, in most of the states, there were separate organizations for black and white populists, separate because of the racist attitudes of the whites. Second, there was the division between the farmers with land and the sharecroppers who did not have any. This could be seen most clearly in the waning years of the movement, when many of the landed farmers supported new Jim Crow constitutions. These constitutions set up property qualifications in place that in coming years would effectively disenfranchise the sharecroppers both black and white.
The Populist movement was not able to find goals for itself; nor was it able to mobilize the whole movement in the same direction, and thus unify it. As a result, as the movement began to fragment, many of its leaders began to guarantee their own future at the expense of the movement. Many of the leaders of the white populists were bought off by the Democrats. The Democrats began to elevate some of them to high state office as Democrats, and some of them began to speak now for the Democrats and warn whites against the black sharecroppers.
In this way, the populist movement was unable to prevent its own destruction; it left itself vulnerable to the wave of lynchings and the systematic use of terror carried out by the Democratic gangs and the Red Shirt organizations to smash Populism.
World War I, and the social upheavals that accompanied the war, presented new problems for the bourgeoisie. The war brought big demands on industry for new workers, at the same time that many of the Northern workers were drafted into the army. Black people began to emigrate from the farms, where they sharecropped, into industrial cities, both North and South, where they became workers. In the South, the system of agriculture was changing over from sharecropping to big mechanized farms which used hired labor. This shift in social relations began to cause a new wave of unrest in the rural areas.
The war, itself, had another effect: black men were drafted into the army and sent overseas. This exacerbated the resentment felt by black people toward the southern system of Jim Crow, and towards the bitter welcome they received in the North when they migrated there. The returning black veterans brought with them a defiance of the old ways.
At the same time, in the big cities, there were shortages of housing and sanitary facilities. After the war, these shortages were augmented by shortages of jobs, as the demand for goods began to fall. The growing discontent led to big strikes, culminating in the massive strike wave of 1919.
During the war, the bourgeoisie began to encourage and fund the rebirth of the Klan, this time not just in the South, but all over the country. The 1920s saw the KKK at the peak of its political power and size. It numbered over 2 million people. By 1924, ruling class support for the Klan was so open that the question of support for the Klan was the main issue in the Democratic Party presidential nomination: should the platform support the Klan? Was it OK to have a candidate who had the open backing of the Klan?
The rural South was pacified with a brutal increase in lynchings of black people. For the most part, they were openly carried out by the Klan under the protection of the law. Often the Klan and the law were the same thing.
The Klan also organized against all foreigners and appealed to a general chauvinism. It stood for what it called 100% Americanism. It protected what it called American values. It was in the name of those values that it was used to fight the strike wave of 1919 and the wave of radicalism that lasted into the beginning of the 1920s. There were also some lynchings of the IWW organizers in the West, carried out in part by the Klan.
If the Klan could be used in this way, it was in great part because of the racism deeply ingrained in the workers’ movement. The AFL unions may have been militant in their own corporatist way, but they also actively encouraged racism by openly prohibiting black workers in the union.
No wonder the working class had turned inward on itself during the war years. There had been race riots in such industrial cities as Chicago, Omaha, Knoxville, St. Louis and the capital. The racism within the working class was exploited by the bourgeoisie to crush the workers’ movement.
For example, during the great steel strike of 1919, steel workers had succeeded in organizing their strike among more than 50 nationalities of workers who labored in the steel mills. Despite efforts by the employers to divide the workers, the steel workers remained solid. However, the union organizers not only had ignored the black workers, they refused to fight for the black workers’ rights in 1919. The bosses were able to convince the black workers to go into the mills as scabs. And they were able to import black scabs from the South. The employers used racism as the wedge to break the strike.
Certainly, in all countries, the bourgeoisie can use extra-legal terrorist gangs against the workers’ movement, without depending on racism. In the U.S., however, with the racial and ethnic divisions which have long historic roots, such gangs could easily make use of the deep-seated racism among the oppressed layers of the white population in order to build a base of support for themselves.
By the mid 1920s, the Klan was no longer useful to the bourgeoisie, since the workers’ movement had been brought under control and the rural South was once more pacified. The bourgeoisie withdrew its financial and open political support. The Klan shrunk. By 1932, there were less than 100,000 in the Klan.
However, quickly with the new upsurge in the workers’ movement during the economic crises of the 1930s, there was also a renewal of the Klan. Once more the capitalists poured money and support into the coffers of the Klan, as well as of other extreme right organizations.
The Klan tried to play on the racism of white workers when it called for defense of segregation; and it also played on the chauvinism of the working class over the issue of so-called “illegal” aliens stealing American jobs.
In the South, the Klan was used to put a halt to the organizing of textile workers and the unemployed. For example, when the National Textile Workers union came to Greenville, South Carolina, the unionists set up an unemployment council. They tried to organize both black and white jobless in a series of protests. The Klan joined with the police in fighting against this, raiding meetings of the unemployment council, and organizing the violent counter-demonstrations against the unionists. Such attacks helped keep the South non-union.
The capitalists also tried to use the Klan and similar organizations to fight against union drives in the North. A good example of this was the Black Legion.
The Black Legion began as a small, self-help social club among marginal workers in Detroit in the early 1930s. The members were primarily poor whites from the hill country of Kentucky and from Mississippi, many of whom came from the Klan.
The Black Legion demagogically pretended to defend the workers against their employers. It went so far as the kidnapping and threatening with flogging or execution of a small employer who had fired two workers.
But, in fact, the Black Legion represented the big bosses like Ford who used it as a means to threaten, beat and kill union organizers and radicals. In its propaganda, the Black Legion blamed the depression on communists, black people, Catholics and Jews.
In order for the UAW organizing drive at Ford to succeed, it had to overcome the attacks of groups like the Black Legion. In fighting the union, Henry Ford tried everything to divide the workers. He tried to appeal to the black workers by saying that this was the only auto company to give them any jobs, which was in fact true at this period. On the other hand, he funded several racist groups including the Black Legion; the Knights of Dearborn which was headed by the police chief of Dearborn; and the Silvershirts. And he imported poor whites and poor blacks from the South, and set them to compete against each other for the same jobs once they got here. All of this was presided over by Harry Bennet and his security force, a private army that made up a big share of Ford’s employees.
Despite the violent anti-union campaign of Henry Ford, the workers were able to succeed because the unionists confronted the racism head-on; and at the same time were able to give the workers, both black and white, a common goal that helped unite their struggle. The UAW organizers set up a black organizing committee to attract a layer of the work force that understandably distrusted an organization with whites in it. From the beginning, the UAW had fought the racism of white workers in its propaganda and in its actions. The strike ended with the workers forcing Ford to accept their union.
Either the workers can unite against the condition of their exploitation, as they did in 1940, or else, as in 1943 when their fights against inflation or speed-up or over-crowding were held back by the UAW, the white workers could be led by racists against the black workers. The leaders of the UAW, including especially the Communist Party, capitulated to the whole war effort, and the UAW leadership opposed workers who wanted to go on strike during the war. One result of this backward step was undoubtedly the bloody race riot of Detroit in 1943.
During World War II, and especially in the years afterward, there was the growth of a Civil Rights Movement. Politically, the South had changed little from the early 20th century. The ruling bourgeoisie may have tried to appear more moderate, as it used its lackeys in the Democratic Party to carry out the most reactionary policies. But in the South, segregation was maintained by force and open violence. In many areas the police and Klan were tied together. What the police did not carry out in their blue uniforms, the Klan came back and carried out in their white uniforms.
However, a change had taken place, which was that in many cities and towns of the South, black people had begun to defy this repression. Many new organizations of black people began to spring up throughout the country.
The Southern bourgeoisie, with the tacit approval of its Northern cousins, fought the Civil Rights Movement in two ways: Black people who were at all active in the movement found themselves without a job, or were suddenly faced with eviction. At the same time the Southern bourgeoisie let the Klan organize terrorism against the movement.
The make-up of the Klan depended on the area where it was operating, but generally its ranks consisted of the poorer white people. It used the appeal of being a militant organization fighting for the rights of poor white people. In fact there was a certain amount of resentment by Klan members toward the wealthy whites.
However, their resentment was turned against the Civil Rights Movement. The Klan unleashed very heavy violence. Dynamite became a favorite weapon. Between 1956 and 1963, there were at least 138 bombings directed again the Civil Rights Movement, most of them by the Klan.
This Klan violence was the right arm of the police used by the Southern bourgeoisie to stop the movement and the political and social changes it was forcing.
The Civil Rights Movement, in part because it was rooted among the masses of the black population and in part because of the determination of black people no longer to be intimidated by violence, was not halted by either the Southern policy or by the Klan. And, in fact, in some places, black people began to arm themselves against the Klan and the police, as was the case in Monroe, North Carolina. There, the local chapter of the NAACP, led by Robert F. Williams, had organized to force the city to integrate the public swimming pool, which was for whites only. The black community refused to back down to the threats of the police and the Klan. When the police threatened them with guns, they showed that they had guns, too. When the Klan tried to invade the black community, they were stopped because the whole community was armed, and showed it was ready to use the arms.
The fact that black people continued to fight against the Klan and the police brought the federal government to change its stance. Kennedy began to call on the ghost of Lincoln.
Certainly, the federal government was not suddenly, after 100 years of inaction, committing itself to equality for black people. But the continued determination of the movement promised too much disruption of the economic and political life in the country. Neither the Klan nor the police had been able to stop this.
So, along with the continued use of violence, the federal government also began to make promises, and even a few changes. Certainly, the FBI maintained its agents and informants in the Klan to help direct it against specific targets. And, of course, the government never gave up its campaign against the Civil Rights Movement. The clearest example of this was the FBI’s prosecution of Martin Luther King up to the day of his death.
But it did grant black people concessions, most notably the Civil Rights Act, and the encouragement for more jobs. And it began to prosecute some people in the Klan for violating the civil rights of black people they had killed. Judges who for years had been out and out racists began to take the appearance of being intolerant of the Klan and its violence. For example, Judge Harold Cox, the U.S. District Judge in Mississippi, who earlier had called black people “a bunch of chimpanzees,” now began to rule against the Klan.
By the end of the 1960s, the Klan was no longer openly tied with the Southern Democrats, and its financial backing from the bourgeoisie was undoubtedly greatly reduced. Even George Wallace began to take his distance from it. The result was that the Klan was torn by dissension. Many of its members quit in disgust. The Klan became very small and, for a period, inconsequential.
This does not mean it won’t be used again. And, in fact, in recent years we have seen a small growth in racist violence organized by the Klan.
Certainly, in the future the Klan or other such organizations could represent a tremendous threat to black people and to the working class, just as it has in the past. The strength of the Klan rested first in the fact that the bourgeoisie, when it felt threatened and not wishing to rely solely on its own state apparatus, chose to use the Klan or other similar organizations. It funded them and sometimes gave them a cloak of political respectability when it wanted to use them. These racist organizations have often been tied directly to the bourgeoisie state, or even often were legal parts of it.
Second, the strength of the Klan relied on its capacity to mobilize and attract sizeable sections of the poor whites because of the long tradition of racist and ethnic divisions in this country.
In the past, we have seen that the Klan and organizations like it grew and were used under many different circumstances: to attack mobilizations of black people; to attack them when they allied themselves as poor farmers and workers with poor white farmers and workers; and sometimes to attack white workers alone.
History also shows what black people, farmers and workers had to do to throw back these attacks when they were able to do it. First, the Reconstruction, Populist and CIO movements all show that it was possible to unite the struggles of oppressed black and white people around common goals, even if in this case it was only for a short period of time. And because there was the possibility of a united struggle for these goals, these mobilizations were able to undercut the demagogic basis on which the Klan stands: racism.
Secondly, even a small group of militants has been able to stand up to the violence of the Klan, and sometimes to stop it, when they have the support of the broad layers of the populations. We can see this clearly in the Civil Rights Movement in the South, where the organizers often had the protection of the whole community.
We can’t really talk about defeating the Klan in the absence of a mass movement. First, the Klan is a threat mainly when there is a mass movement. It is then that it grows because the bourgeoisie supports it more fully; it is then that the bourgeoisie needs to use its terrorism against the mass movement. But, if the terrorism is used against the movement, it is also the mass movement itself which hold the possibility for throwing back, or even defeating, the Klan or other such organizations.
Second, it is only a mass movement that can take on the state, to which the Klan is tied. Because of the connection between the bourgeoisie, its state apparatus and the Klan, no real fight against the Klan can be carried out which will not soon confront the police, the army and the FBI. In other words, this means a fight against the state power.
Today, a section of the leftist movement talks about the necessity of fighting the Klan. Certainly, when an organization is attacked by the Klan, it is necessary for that organization to fight to defend themselves: to defend their demonstrations, their offices and their militants. It’s not possible to wait for the mass movement to grow. But if there will be a real and growing threat of the Klan against a section of the population, we must understand that there can be no real defense against the Klan in the absence of the organization of this populations. It is this idea the revolutionaries must understand today and raise to the working class.