“Klansville USA”: An Interview With David Cunningham

About Theo Anderson

Theo Anderson is the former editor of The Public Eye magazine, and a journalist and historian with a special interest in the origins of the conservative movement and the activism of the Christian Right in the U.S. He has graduate degrees in U.S. History from Indiana University and Yale, where his dissertation focused on the roots of the growing religious, intellectual, and cultural divide between conservatives and progressives in the early twentieth century.
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David Cunnigham

David Cunningham, professor of sociology at Brandeis University

David Cunningham became interested in the Ku Klux Klan while conducting research for his dissertation at the University of North Carolina. He originally focused on how the FBI dealt with the Civil Rights Movement, but his research led to a surprising discovery: North Carolina, which has a reputation as the most progressive Southern state, also had the highest percentage of Klan members in the 1960s. “What came out in the FBI’s memos was all of this granular history of Klan activity during the period,” he notes. “What surprised me most was that they were focusing mostly on North Carolina, because its membership just dwarfed the rest of the region.”

Cunningham is professor and chair of sociology at Brandeis University. He also chairs the social justice and social policy program at Brandeis, and he has worked with the Mississippi Truth Project and Greensboro (NC) Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Cunningham’s dissertation research on the Klan led to his first book: There’s Something Happening Here: The New Left, the Klan, and FBI Counterintelligence (University of California, 2004). In 2012, he published Klansville, U.S.A.: The Rise and Fall of the Civil Rights-Era Ku Klux Klan, which analyzes the reasons for the rapid rise—and demise—of the Klan in North Carolina.

You argue that in North Carolina, the Klan provided an outlet that was unavailable through the more mainstream institutions.

North Carolina’s leaders, from the governor on down, were really clear. They said two things. One, they did not support the Civil Rights Act. But the second thing was that they would abide by it anyway, because they would follow the law. And when you combine that with an environment where there is a significant amount of competition in the labor force, there was racial anxiety around what the Civil Rights Act would do. So you have a fairly large White constituency that is concerned about this. And unlike that same constituency in a place like Mississippi or Alabama, they can’t count on their mainstream political leadership to take the lead in resisting Civil Rights. So the Klan has a bigger niche that they can fill. They really become the primary outlet for White folks who feel aggrieved by changes brought about by the Civil Rights Movement.

There is ambivalence among the mainstream institutions and the political elite. They sometimes condemn the Civil Rights Movement, and at other times sort of tacitly embrace it. How do they navigate that?

The electoral event that almost everyone pointed me to was a 1950 U.S. Senate [Democratic primary] election between Frank Porter Graham—who had been the longtime President of University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill—and a guy named Willis Smith, a lawyer in Raleigh. Graham was this universally beloved figure, but he was also very progressive. And he had the backing of many of the prominent political elites in North Carolina. And Graham had won the initial election by—I won’t say by a landslide, because it was not enough to prevent a runoff. But he had won handily. Willis got barely enough support to force a runoff and almost concedes, because he thinks he has no chance. But Jesse Helms, who at this time—prior to his political career—managed a radio and then a TV station in Raleigh, began a media campaign to encourage him to run.

In the runoff election, Smith baits Graham and centers his campaign on the idea that if you elect Graham, that mean Blacks will be working next to your wife at the factory, and so forth. There was this very propagandistic campaign. And he beats Graham. And then you see candidates for the next generation or two, up to the Civil Rights Act, reacting to that election in various ways. So Terry Sanford, who became governor of North Carolina in the early 1960s and saw himself as a great southern progressive, said that when he watched the Graham loss, he immediately started taking notes. He kept a notebook that was purely about strategizing on how to oppose segregation without being tagged as an integrationist.

You see that balancing act with almost all of the less conservative politicians. So, even as far to the Left as you could possibly get in North Carolina on the political spectrum, none of those people would overtly say that they supported the Civil Rights Act. They would use law and order to sway the more conservative elements—who they needed as a voting base—and not be accused of moving things in a way that would radically change White society.

And you see that there are candidates who are more outright segregationists. The most prominent was a man named I. Beverly Lake, who was a lawyer and law professor at Wake Forest University. Lake had this whole plan in the 1950s after [the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education] to establish a set of shadow private school systems, which would be funded by the state, and that only White students could attend. He had these relatively radical policies, at least for the Upper South. But he became not viable as a candidate. North Carolina, in large part because of its strong efforts to attract Northern business interests to the state, really felt like that was unpalatable. But also, outright support for civil rights wasn’t palatable. So there is this pretty narrow middle road that people tried to hold.

The desire to attract business interests—how was it different in North Carolina than in the Deep South? Do you have a sense of why it was different than, say, Alabama or Mississippi?

Part of this is a demographic, topographic story. The agricultural economy was prevalent in North Carolina, but it was prevalent in different ways, so there were attempts at diversification much earlier than in places like Mississippi, Alabama, or Georgia. Those early waves led a lot of the textile industry to move from New England down to the Carolinas. That really brought to prominence a whole set of people who became political and economic elites around those industries at an early time. It created a whole new set of incentives to extend that. It created sort of a different model of segregation, where textile mills would have African American workers and White workers segregated internally by job and by department. The factories were in theory integrated, even if there was separation within. That kind of early move was supported by various political officials and got woven into the fabric of North Carolina politics from a much earlier period—from the 1920s and ‘30s onward—than you would see elsewhere.

The poem that concludes the prologue, “Incident,” describes a cross burning, and it ends with these lines: “Nothing really happened/By morning all the flames have dimmed/We tell the story every year.” You conclude the prologue with that poem, and come back to it in the epilogue. What did that mean to you?

One thing I heard frequently in researching the book was people wanting to explain away the prevalence of the Klan in North Carolina. They would say, “Well, yeah, they were large, but they really didn’t do the sorts of things that they did in Mississippi or Alabama, in terms of violence. So really it wasn’t a big deal. There wasn’t really much going on.” Police officials would tell me this. But a lot of local people would tell me this, too.

Alongside that, I would be looking through records of people who filed police reports after their house got shot into, or a brick got thrown through their window. It would have a note on it saying they better stop doing whatever it was that the Klan thought was inappropriate, in terms of the racial status quo. So I was trying to wrestle with this idea of people continuing to tell me, “Well, it wasn’t really any big deal; not much was happening”—because nobody was murdered. But there was a huge infrastructure for the Klan going out several nights a week, in hundreds of small chapters, and intimidating people. And I would hear from people periodically who were the victims of this, and people would move away from the state because of this, or refuse to go back to particular places in their community.

There are all sorts of things that, 40 or 50 years later, people still felt powerfully affected them. And then, through a related project I was doing, I was in Mississippi dealing with a project called the Mississippi Truth Project, which was designed to have people tell their stories in a way that could ultimately lead to a truth and reconciliation process statewide. Natasha Trethewey was an invited guest at that statewide convening program, and there was an official declaration of this project. She is currently our poet laureate. And she read that poem as part of the meeting. And for me, it just connected everything. The cross that was lit in their lawn went out; the people were gone; no one had been physically struck. But it has this resonance in people’s memories, in family memories.  It crosses generations.

When you write about the demise of the Civil Rights era Klan, you say that it was in large part due to more rigorous enforcement of existing laws by the police.

The story that tends to be told is that the Klan becomes an anachronism and dissolves—that it’s an anachronistic joke by the end of the 1960s. What I found was a very pronounced shift in late 1965. When the Klan was growing, North Carolina would monitor rallies—they would have state police officials monitor rallies, but they would never do anything to hinder their ability organize. But what happens by early 1966 is that there’s a set of federal hearings investigating the Klan. Beyond all the Communist groups they’re harassing, they investigate the KKK. And the big news story that comes out, by the start of 1966, is that North Carolina is “Klansville U.S.A.” It has the highest Klan membership. That was something North Carolina officials knew but had never been overly concerned about. And once that was on the front page of national newspapers, the governor immediately forms an anti-Klan campaign. And so policing entirely changes. And it works—you see a very rapid decline in Klan membership. It may well be that the Civil Rights Act would have eroded the Klan’s support base over time, but the actual trajectory really maps onto what the police were doing at the time.

You argue that the North Carolina Klan of this era sort of pioneered the Republican Party’s “Southern strategy” of appealing to “family values.” It navigated—these are my words—between explicit racism and middle-class values, and tried to broaden its appeal by playing to both. Is that accurate?  

One thing we know is that communities where the Klan was active in the ’60s were more likely to have a more pronounced shift from Democratic to Republican voting. That’s true today. If you want to predict rates of Republican voting, accounting for all the things that political scientists would focus on, the presence of the Klan in the ‘60s still matters. The way that happened was that the Klan was one of the first groups to say, in a very forceful way, that party allegiance should be subordinated to candidates’ willingness to take principled stands for issues. And that became really important, because the South for decades had been solidly Democratic. And culturally, it was difficult for people to break away from the Democrats. The Klan’s move to saying, “You need to look at these candidates and find the people who will take principle stands for what you believe in”—that loosened people’s affiliation with the Democratic Party. It made it easier for people to shift their allegiance. The Klan really helped to loosen those allegiances and make it possible for Republican messages to really resonate. They would always talk about the importance of getting “real” White men into office, regardless of party politics. They were the first group that I ever found that would say that, regardless of party, this is the kind of person you want to have in office.

Another legacy you talk about is the high levels of violence that continue into the present day in communities that were Klan strongholds—that once you tear the social fabric the way the Klan did, that damage isn’t easily repaired.

When you have organized vigilantism, organized lawlessness, where people are organizing around the idea that their elected leadership is not legitimate, it creates a political and social culture that delegitimizes authority, that breaks the bonds that criminologists see as providing social controls against crime. That’s really difficult to repair, and in a lot of communities it goes hand in hand with a resistance to seriously dealing with a lot of the struggles during the Civil Rights era. And the ways that affected communities hasn’t been repaired. So, at least up through 2000, if you look at homicide rates, the presence of the Klan 30 or 40 years prior is a significant and serious predictor of how prevalent deadly crime is in that particular community.

This interview is the extended, online-exclusive version of an interview appearing in the Fall 2013 issue of The Public Eye magazine