KKK: Membership ‘booming’

Grand Wizard says Colorado among places that has growing presence, activity

Archived materials from the Ku Klux Klan at the Center of Southwest Studies at Fort Lewis College. The collection includes Klan newspapers from the early part of the 20th century, correspondence among members of local klan groups and other items including membership books. Enlarge photo

DAVID BERGELAND/Durango Herald

Archived materials from the Ku Klux Klan at the Center of Southwest Studies at Fort Lewis College. The collection includes Klan newspapers from the early part of the 20th century, correspondence among members of local klan groups and other items including membership books.

Speaking of President Obama, Lt. Jason Hiecke, spokesman for the National Socialist Movement – America’s largest Nazi Party – was forthright. “No one should be governed by somebody who’s not of their own people,” he said.

“But basically all politicians are crooks and liars. Obama, Romney – in my opinion, I don’t care for either one of them. It’s the same old story – Democrats and Republicans spend millions every year to win elections, then turn around to waste millions of dollars to undo what the party before them did,” said Hiecke, proving that life sure is complicated for white supremacist organizations in 2012.

The once and future Klan

Librarian Elayne Silversmith was expertly rifling through the Fort Lewis College Center of Southwest Studies’ archive of local Ku Klux Klan documents from the 1930s.

“We got an email from two young people asking to join our klavern,” said Silversmith, as she perused several editions of TheDurango Klansman. “I had to explain that we were a library, and the KKK documents were just research materials,” she laughed.

The youths’ request may not have been a prank. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, 12 white supremacist groups are currently active in Colorado.

“Membership is booming in Colorado,” said Cole Thornton, Imperial Grand Wizard of the United Northern and Southern Knights of the KKK, which claims to be the largest KKK offshoot in the United States and is active in Colorado.

Mark Potok, SPLC’s spokesman, said, “the truth is that the radical right in the U.S. has grown enormously in the last 10 years, particularly since Obama’s election in 2008.”

Lost cause

While white supremacy appears to be enjoying a minor renaissance nationally, it has a long history in Durango. Historian Duane Smith said that La Plata County was entirely “Klan dominated, about the 1920s and 30s.” In those years, the KKK – America’s most notorious white supremacist organization – boasted 5 million members, including the governors of Colorado, Indiana, Oregon, Texas and Arkansas.

Today, many view the Klan – which killed more than 3,440 black people between 1882 and 1968 – as a terrorist organization. Yale history professor David Blight said, “other than the American Nazi Party, the KKK is probably the most denounced, discredited and scorned organization in the country. Whoever has a toehold in the mainstream – even someone within the radical, evangelical right wing – wouldn’t claim membership.”

“It’s an uphill battle,” agreed Thornton. “There’s some of us that have taken on the challenge to rehabilitate our image. We’re working on publishing a book on the Klan’s good deeds.”

That book – along with adopt-a-highway initiatives, pamphleteering and aggressive use of the Internet – is just one part of the modern KKK’s awkward, increasingly sophisticated, advertising.

An encumbered PR campaign

Thornton, who supports Gingrich in the GOP primary, was adamant that the modern Klan was neither criminal nor racist.

“There’s a bunch of Klan groups. And those are a bunch of fanatics. We’re not here just to be against blacks. We’re against a lot of white people – like child molesters,” he said.

Thornton, who said he is aware that the FBI monitors his phones calls and email, batted away any suggestion that the Klan was a historically violent organization.

“In the ’60s, it was a whole different era – bad was done on both sides,” said Thornton, before denouncing the KKK’s murderous 1963 bombing of a black church.

Hiecke, who defined the NSM as a “white separatist organization,” was also offended by charges of racism.

“It’s probably because we use a swastika and we’re a white civil-rights organization. But it’s not about hating the other race – it’s about respect. And it seems like the white race is the most abused of all, because the blacks blame the whites for slavery – all these races seem to have a problem with the white race, which I find kind of interesting because eight of 10 slave organizations were run by Jews,” said Hiecke.

Blight said that accusing Jews of running the slave trade was preposterous, using robust language to compare Hiecke’s assertion to the dung of a male cow.

Yes they can?

Though few people would say that white supremacist organizations are poised for power, or even relevance, in modern American politics, both Thornton and Hiecke are optimistic about the future.

“I’m really pleased with the kind of people we’re getting in – college-educated, professionals, teachers – even a couple congressmen. People would be amazed to know who I’ve talked with at midnight in isolated areas – it’s almost comical,” said Thornton.

White supremacist organizations see 2012 as their moment.

“People are seeing things finally. With whites’ low birthrate, we’re losing them to white homosexual relationships – they don’t reproduce – and interracial marriage – and to abortions on demand. Plus, immigration’s astronomical with Hispanics,” said Thornton.

Hiecke, who does not believe that Obama is an American citizen, also disputed the notion that white Americans are increasingly nonplussed by racial difference.

“I see what is happening now – what we call the calm before the storm,” he said.

Thornton echoed him, insisting that, “the current racial climate is the worst I’ve seen since the civil-rights era.”

The FBI reports that in 2010, 3,949 people were victims of hate crimes nationally. Seventy percent were victims of anti-black bias.

In Durango, between 2006 and 2009, police reported that only three racially motivated hate crimes took place each year. In 2010, there were four. In 2011, there were 19.

Tough sell

SPLC’s Potok took issue with the KKK’s current attempt to present itself as respectable.

“These groups absolutely do hate brown people, black people, Jewish people, gay people. They understand it’s impossible to recruit people with the pitch ‘let’s kill the Jews.’ The distinction between blacks’ mass expulsion and genocide is merely mincing words,” he said.

Though underwhelmed by its sincerity, Blight said he found the latter-day Klan’s current public relations campaign “fascinating.”

“All through history, in the far right-wing, there’s been a culture of white resentment. They’ve always adapted to the times!” he said. After a short pause, Blight added, “Six thousands people isn’t very many people, but it would be scary if they ever really got organized.”

cmcallister@durangoherald.com

An earlier version of this story mispelled Mark Potok’s name.

Librarian Elayne Silversmith displays archived materials from the Ku Klux Klan at the Delaney Southwest Research Library in the Center of Southwest Studies at Fort Lewis College. Enlarge photo

DAVID BERGELAND/Durango Herald

Librarian Elayne Silversmith displays archived materials from the Ku Klux Klan at the Delaney Southwest Research Library in the Center of Southwest Studies at Fort Lewis College.