Election seen as factor behind revival of Klan
BOGALUSA, La.—Barely three weeks after Americans elected their first black president amid a wave of interracial good feeling, a spasm of noose hangings, racist graffiti, vandalism and death threats is convulsing dozens of towns across the country as white extremists lash out at the new political order.
More than 200 hate-related incidents, including cross-burnings, assassination betting pools and effigies of President-elect Barack Obama, have been reported so far, according to law-enforcement authorities and the Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors hate groups. Racist Web sites are boasting that their servers are crashing under the weight of exponential increases in page views.
Inside USA – Rise of hate, Apr. 19,. 2008 – Part 1/2 – 2/2
Even more ominously, America’s most potent symbol of racial hatred – the Ku Klux Klan – has begun to reassert itself, emerging from decades of disorganization and obscurity in a spate of recent violence.
Two weeks ago, the leader of a Klan cell based in this backwoods town once known as the Klan capital of the nation was charged with second-degree murder for allegedly shooting to death an aspiring member who tried to back out of an initiation ceremony
Late last month, two suspected skinheads with ties to a notoriously violent Klan chapter in Kentucky were charged in a bizarre plot to kill 88 black students and then assassinate Obama by shooting him from a speeding car while wearing white tuxedos and top hats.
“We’ve seen everything from cross burnings on lawns of interracial couples to effigies of Obama hanging from nooses to unpleasant exchanges in schoolyards,” said Mark Potok, director of the Intelligence Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center, based in Montgomery, Ala. “I think we’re in a worrying situation right now, a perfect storm of conditions coming together that could easily favor the continued growth of these groups.”
Among the factors experts say are contributing to white supremacist anxieties: The rapidly worsening economic crisis; demographic trends indicating that whites will cease to compose a majority of Americans within a generation; and the impending arrival of a black family in the White House.
The FBI is investigating the recent Klan-related incidents to determine the extent of any possible conspiracies. And the Secret Service is monitoring the apparent sudden surge in hate incidents “to try to stay ahead of any emerging threats,” according to spokesman Darrin Blackford in Washington.
Even some white supremacist leaders who describe themselves as moderates say they are alarmed.
“There is a tremendous backlash” to Obama’s election, said Richard Barrett, the leader of the Nationalist Movement, a white supremacist group based in Learned, Miss. “My focus is to try to keep it peaceful. But many people look at the flag of the Republic of New Africa that will be hoisted over the White House as an act of war.”
The FBI, which tracks hate crimes across the country, has no figures yet for 2008. But already, based on local media reports across the country, some experts are calling the rise in hate incidents surprising and unprecedented.
“The rhetoric right now is just about out of control,” said Brian Levin, director of Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University in San Bernardino. “When you get this depth of hatred, it usually is the smoke before the fire.”
Experts acknowledge that modern Klan chapters remain isolated and small, with perhaps 6,000 members nationwide—a shadow of the group’s membership of 4 million in the early 20th Century.
But the recent events in Bogalusa, a lumber and paper-mill town of about 13,000 just down the road from Robinson’s home in Angie, are giving them pause.
Historians say that the Ku Klux Klan so dominated Bogalusa’s commerce, politics and law enforcement in the 1960s that the group once held a public meeting to debate which black church to burn down next.
Several Bogalusa Klan members were long suspected of shooting two black sheriff’s deputies in a 1965 ambush, killing one and wounding the other. But no one was ever brought to trial for the crimes.
“To this day, most white people in Bogalusa know who the killers were, and they were never brought to justice,” said Lance Hill, a Tulane University law professor and Klan expert.
Now that grim history is lurching back to life.
On Nov. 10, local law-enforcement authorities arrested Raymond Foster, 44, the leader of a Bogalusa Klan chapter called the Sons of Dixie, and seven other Klan members in connection with the shooting death of a Tulsa, Okla., woman who had journeyed to the group’s remote campsite in nearby St. Tammany Parish to participate in an initiation ceremony.
Authorities allege that Foster shot the woman when she tried to change her mind about joining the group. He has been charged with second-degree murder; the alleged accomplices, including Foster’s 20-year-old son, have been charged with obstruction of justice.
Bogalusa officials insist they had no idea any Klan cells were still active in their community.
“I’ve been here 13 years, and this was a complete surprise to me that there was Klan here,” said Jerry Agnew, the town’s police chief.
Yet the house on Louisiana Avenue that Foster was renting is owned by a Bogalusa deputy sheriff. And leaders of Bogalusa’s black community, which makes up 41 percent of the town’s population, said they’ve been reporting Klan sightings to the local police for more than a year.
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