Whitewashing The Klan

A whole generation of Southern gentlemen were apparently duped into joining the Ku Klux Klan, as opposed to the Rotary Club or other such organizations, at least that’s the impression you might get from news reports of those recollecting about the nature of the Klan.

In the case of the 1964 murder of three civil rights workers in Mississippi, that’s what one witness is saying about the defendant’s membership in the Klan.

PHILADELPHIA, Miss. (AP) — The defense rested Monday in the trial of a former Ku Klux Klansman in the 1964 slayings of three civil rights workers after a former mayor testified that the white-supremacist group was a “peaceful organization.”

Harlan Majure, who was mayor of this rural Mississippi town in the 1990s, said Edgar Ray Killen was a good man and that the part-time preacher’s Klan membership would not change his opinion.

Majur said the Klan “did a lot of good up here” and said he was not personally aware of the organization’s bloody past.

“As far as I know it’s a peaceful organization,” Majure said. His comment was met with murmurs in the packed courtroom.Ironically that’s the same spin Sen. Robert Byrd (D-WV) puts on his KKK days, as detailed in The Washington Post’s story, A Senator’s Shame:

In the early 1940s, a politically ambitious butcher from West Virginia named Bob Byrd recruited 150 of his friends and associates to form a chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. After Byrd had collected the $10 joining fee and $3 charge for a robe and hood from every applicant, the “Grand Dragon” for the mid-Atlantic states came down to tiny Crab Orchard, W.Va., to officially organize the chapter.

As Byrd recalls now, the Klan official, Joel L. Baskin of Arlington, Va., was so impressed with the young Byrd’s organizational skills that he urged him to go into politics. “The country needs young men like you in the leadership of the nation,” Baskin said.

The young Klan leader went on to become one of the most powerful and enduring figures in modern Senate history. Throughout a half-century on Capitol Hill, Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) has twice held the premier leadership post in the Senate, helped win ratification of the Panama Canal treaty, squeezed billions from federal coffers to aid his home state, and won praise from liberals for his opposition to the war in Iraq and his defense of minority party rights in the Senate.

Despite his many achievements, however, the venerated Byrd has never been able to fully erase the stain of his association with one of the most reviled hate groups in the nation’s history.

“It has emerged throughout my life to haunt and embarrass me and has taught me in a very graphic way what one major mistake can do to one’s life, career, and reputation,” Byrd wrote in a new memoir — “Robert C. Byrd: Child of the Appalachian Coalfields” — that will be published tomorrow by West Virginia University Press.

The 770-page book is the latest in a long series of attempts by the 87-year-old Democratic patriarch to try to explain an event early in his life that threatens to define him nearly as much as his achievements in the Senate. In it, Byrd says he viewed the Klan as a useful platform from which to launch his political career. He described it essentially as a fraternal group of elites — doctors, lawyers, clergy, judges and other “upstanding people” who at no time engaged in or preached violence against blacks, Jews or Catholics, who historically were targets of the Klan.Byrd, and others, would have you believe KKK membership was a youthful indiscretion… pitiful…

Update: A reader notes:

Senator LeRoy Percy nipped the klan in the bud in Greenville, Mississippi with a speech saying that a gentleman never does anything for which he has to cover his face. Growing up, one heard this often. I think my uncles heard it so frequently they thought my grandfather had made the original statement. Many southern *men* belonged to the KKK; no *gentlemen* belonged.

So noted.

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52 Comments

  1. William D. Tomany June 21, 2005
  2. KushinLos June 22, 2005