After a static period, the Ku Klux Klan is growing rapidly, fueled by job losses, urban crime, gay marriage and illegal immigration from Mexico, a civil rights organization and a Klan leader say.
The trend is described as “surprising and troubling” by Deborah M. Lauter, the Anti-Defamation League‘s civil rights director.
“The KKK believes the U.S. is drowning in a tide of nonwhite immigration, controlled and orchestrated by Jews, and is vigorously trying to bring this message to Americans concerned or fearful about immigration,” Lauter said.
The debate over immigration in America is “credited with re-energizing the Klan” in Michigan and 18 other states in the South, Midwest, Great Plains and Mid-Atlantic, she said. Phil Lawson, the imperial wizard of the United Northern and Southern Knights, the largest KKK group in Michigan, said membership has grown at an “astounding pace.” He said Klan membership has doubled in the past few years.
“Michigan has been a hotbed for the United Northern and Southern Knights of the Ku Klux Klan,” he said in response to questions submitted by The Oakland Press. Lawson refused to say where he lived in Michigan, saying he was more comfortable with his hometown being kept private.
“Both Macomb and Oakland counties have seen tremendous growth and support from the communities.”
Federal and Oakland County officials disagreed.
“I’m not aware of any problems” with the Klan in Oakland County, said FBI special agent Dawn Clenney. “They’ve been pretty quiet.”
Undersheriff Michael McCabe said: “As far as I know, there’s been no increase with anything to do with the Ku Klux Klan in Oakland County.”
Lawson, who broke away from the Ohio-based Mystic Knights of the KKK in 2005, said “white people do not feel represented in government on the issue of illegal immigration, crime and other issues that affect them.”
But the Anti-Defamation League maintains the Klan has been changing since the 1990s by becoming “increasing Nazified.”
“They are immersing themselves in neo-Nazi and racist skinhead subcultures, adopting the music, dress, tattoos and imagery of neo-Nazis,” Lauter said.
“Today’s Klansmen may be as likely to gather at white power music concerts or socialize at so-called O^unity rallies’ with other white supremacists, as to participate in ritualistic cross burnings in the rural wilderness,” Lauter said.
“I know the KKK is not mainstream or politically correct, but it would seem that some things we say do make sense,” Lawson said.
“Something that is funny, people that I know on the outside of the Klan are always surprised to find out I am in the KKK and a national leader. They seem to always say, O^I never knew you were racist.’
“I am not racist. Some of the facts concerning minorities or Christian beliefs cannot be changed. And if they are pointed out we are racist or a homophobic.”
He said the Klan and particularly the United Northern and Southern Knights is about “uplifting and bettering our race.”
“It is not, nor was it ever intended to be, a hate group,” Lawson said.
Some Hispanic leaders said the Klan’s fear of immigration is baseless.
“They don’t have anything to fear,” said John Bueno, a former Pontiac city councilman and president of the National Association of Latin Elected Officials.
“The bottom line is everybody has a right to be here in the United States,” he said. “This country is a melting pot of the world … fear shouldn’t be targeted at a certain group of people. We need to work on real immigration reform.”
Carrie Waggoner, assistant director of the Anti-Defamation League in Bloomfield Hills, said the Klan is capitalizing on fears about job losses and greater racial diversity.
Waggoner said besides the United Northern and Southern Knights, Klan ties to Michigan include the Church of the National Knights, with headquarters in South Bend, Ind., with links to Dowling in Michigan’s Barry County and Kalamazoo; the Brotherhood of Klans, which has a KKK chapter in Ironwood in the Upper Peninsula; Imperial Klans, with headquarters in Dawson Springs, Ky.; and the Mystic Knights of Dayton, Ohio.
Lauter said such groups, “use this immigration issue to bring in others who feel like America is under siege. It’s easy for hate to spread.”
U.S. officials are creating an environment for the Klan to flourish, Lawson said.
“The government is out of touch with the average person,” he said, “and until they protect our borders and begin to listen to the people of this country, you will continue to see the KKK grow.”
Lawson, who estimated there are 5,000 Klan members in the country, is angry about job losses that have hit Michigan especially hard.
“I do know our president Mr. Bush stated (Hispanics) are doing jobs Americans don’t want,” he said. “This statement alone shows how out of touch our national leaders are with the American worker.
“I personally know many Americans that have either lost their job, or have been forced to work for less because of an illegal alien willing to work for much less than the American worker was being paid,” he said.
“It would be hard for the American worker not to have hostility towards the illegal aliens under this circumstance.”
But Bueno said Lawson’s beliefs are false.
The Klan’s fear of immigration and that it might create cheaper wages for workers is “just part of the hatred and fears that they try to put out there to keep the pot stirred,” he said. Hispanics “are probably one of hardest working people, who are trying to make a better life for their families,” Bueno said.
“It amazes me how many people forget their own origins,” he said. “Most of us, other than Native Americans, are immigrants.”
Waggoner said the Klan is benefiting from an uncertain economic future.
“During the last year, the KKK is capitalizing on people’s fears about jobs and greater racial diversity in America,” she said. “Violence is always a worry and the KKK historically uses violence.”
Several Pontiac school buses were bombed after the late U.S. District Court Judge Stephen J. Roth ordered cross-district busing in October 1970 to achieve integration in metropolitan Detroit schools.
The late Robert Miles, who headed the Michigan Klan at that time, was sentenced in 1973 to nine years in federal prison for planning an attack on the empty buses. He was released from prison after serving six years.
Bueno said Hispanics seem to be targets of discrimination more so than ever. “Discrimination against Hispanics has been on the increase because one of the themes we see locally and around the country is you have more Hispanics being stopped by police for no reason,” he said.
Bueno said Hispanics also have been hurt by the increase in the residency application fee for an immigrant from $69 in 1991 to $675 today.
“A lot of folks (Hispanics) don’t have bank accounts, keep cash on them and you can’t go to anyone for help if you’re here illegally,” he said.
“In the last five years, the number of Spanish-speaking residents has grown by 40 percent,” said Elizabeth Kelly, chief development officer of Easter Seals-Michigan.
The notion that anyone who speaks Spanish is an illegal immigrant is absurd, said Kelly. “There are more Spanish-speaking people moving into the area,” she added. “A Spanish-speaking person can be someone from the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico, and they are U.S. residents.
“People make a generalization when their hear someone speaking Spanish that they are illegal immigrants or just immigrants. But, in reality, they are citizens,” Kelly said. Asked if he considers the Klan, founded in 1866, a terrorist group, Lawson admitted the KKK has had a “dark time where mistakes have been made.”
“There has not been one incident involving a member of the United Northern and Southern Knights involved in any hate crime or intimidation of a minority, and we are a very large organization,” he said. “This track record should speak for itself about whether this Klan is a terrorist group.”
Lawson was especially critical of “illegal immigrant babies” who are born in the United States and become eligible for Medicaid, the national health insurance program for the poor. “This program was never designed to handle this sort of burden,” he said. “What are American workers going to do when they are told there is no more money left to pay Medicaid when they need it? Americans need to understand these people are coming here illegally. This is a country of immigrants and that is true, but our ancestors came here legally. There is a big difference.”
The ADL, founded in 1913, has 26 regional offices including the Bloomfield Hills location. Its core mission is to stop defamation of Jewish people and secure justice and fair treatment for all, Waggoner said.