Making Sense of Klansville

Making Sense of Klansville


During the civil rights era, North Carolina was home to more dues-paying Klan members than the rest of the South combined. When conducting research on this chapter of history for his acclaimed book Klansville, USAsociologist David Cunningham encountered the work of a journalist named Pete Young, who in the 1960s attempted to understand what was happening in North Carolina. Cunningham shares some of this history and describes how Young's insights could hold lessons for today. 



David Cunningham

Claire Navarro (host): When sociologist David Cunningham thinks back on years of research on the Ku Klux Klan in the civil rights era, he says that one name in particular stands out. This person wasn’t a government official or famous civil rights activist. He wasn’t a notorious member of the Klan, or anybody else that you would find in a history book. In fact, Cunningham himself only came across the name by chance.

David Cunningham (guest): I first discovered him when I was at the LBJ archives in Austin, Texas, and I was looking at a federal commission that focused on violence causes and prevention of violence.

CN: Most of the documents Cunningham found from the commission were written by experts, people like historians and social scientists.

DC: But among that were a set of recordings and manuscripts.

CN: As Cunningham and his team began listening to these recordings, it quickly became clear that whoever recorded these tapes was not just another academic. There were more than 12 hours of audio – in-depth interviews with Klan officers, a full-length recording of a Klan rally, and more – all submitted by some guy named Pete Young.

DC: What was interesting about these, is this is someone who is clearly in the field. So he was in these places where the Klan were rallying and where the Klan was organizing. But he also clearly knew these people that he was talking to.

CN: Pete Young clearly knew these people, but what about the man behind the microphone? Who was Pete Young?

DC: No one knew who he was. He certainly never had a formal position with the government. He didn't have a formal academic position.  

CN: So, their curiosity sparked, Cunningham and some students tried to track him down. At first, they couldn’t find him. But then finally…

DC: Maybe the second to last day I was there, the intern came out and said 'I found Pete young! He lives in Marlboro, Massachusetts.’ At the time that was literally the town next to where I was living in Massachusetts. I was teaching at Brandeis University, and so of the whole country where he could be he basically was about 15 minutes from my house.

CN: So, Cunningham got to learn about Pete Young – straight from the source. It turns out that when Young recorded those tapes later stored in the LBJ library, he had been a journalist based in North Carolina. In 1964, a local television station assigned him to cover a Klan rally.  For Young, the rally ended up being much more than just another day at work. It affected him deeply. He wrote that he had, quote, “blundered into the scene of an awful disaster.”

DC: He was fascinated - I think horrified, in a lot of ways but fascinated - with not necessarily the Klan people in general, but the crowd and how they were attached to this kind of phenomenon.

CN: Young felt like he was witnessing normal people, again quote, “on the edge of a collective nervous breakdown composed in roughly equal parts of ignorance, rage, and paranoia.” He was horrified, but also wanted to understand what was happening. Young kept returning to Klan rallies and activities. Then, eventually, something unexpected happened – he got to know these people. He made friends. And in response, they opened up to him in these recordings.

DC: I really found inspiring his degree of empathy here. So this is somebody who very much identifies as a liberal, someone on the left that doesn't at all share the politics of these people. But he did find this common ground because he wanted to figure out, well, what is it that's getting these people to channel all of this negative energy into these hateful acts against a whole race of people? This whole idea of white supremacy – where does it come from?

CN: In his searching, Young got to know these white supremacists in North Carolina. He learned about their communities and their lives. And he found that in many cases, life wasn’t easy.

DC: So what he really sees here are people who feel incredibly disaffected. These are people who are disempowered. They feel like they're in a downwardly mobile situation, especially economically. And what he was really interested in is how that gets channeled.

CN: Channeled into hatred against people of other races, and also, channeled against the government. For the Klan members that Pete Young got to know, these ideas were connected. 

DC: These are people who say, 'We're in terrible straits here. We're in a terrible situation. And all that I hear from the government is how we need to eradicate poverty and deal with welfare programs in the Great Society and the war on poverty - and all of this, implicitly or explicitly, in their perspective, was directed towards people of color. They felt like, 'Well, we're just going to be ignored like we always have been.'

CN: Just a quick reminder that we’re talking about the 1960s here, not today.  And in that context, the Klan was not some fringe group in North Carolina. The movement was massive.

DC: So there are more dues paying Klan members in North Carolina than the rest of the South put together by the mid- 1960s.

CN: This wasn’t some massive underground movement. Not only were there a ton of members – these people were open about their membership.

DC: You know, this is a place where the Klan had group life insurance plans, that said we can take care of you in all these ways. They had turkey shoots and fish fries on weekends, and all these kinds of things. And they were a public presence. They would have these massive street walks down the main streets of cities. They'd have rallies where two or three or four thousand people would show up at night. And so it became a public movement.

CN: Cunningham dove deep into this history, and also the legacy of the KKK in North Carolina, for his acclaimed book Klansville USA  - you might have caught the documentary version on PBS a couple years ago. When researching and writing the book, he found that people are often surprised to hear that the Klan was so active and visible in North Carolina. After all, compared to the rest of the south at the time, it was a pretty moderate state.

DC: This is a state that said, you know we don't necessarily abide by the Civil Rights Act and civil rights legislation, but we are going to follow this, if this is the law of the land. So you had a lot of moderate politicians in a southern context. This is not a state that positioned itself like Alabama or Mississippi or Louisiana, which is around militant and massive resistance to desegregation.

CN: In places like Alabama and Mississippi, Cunningham says, the Klan appealed to a pretty narrow audience. Basically only people who were committed to violence and terror would join up with the Klan. In North Carolina, it was a different story. The Klan could claim to represent a much wider group. And so they did.

DC: What you really see during this period is a position where mainstream politicians' failure to defend segregation and defend Jim Crow allow the Klan to make a claim that they couldn't make in a place like Mississippi. Where they could say, 'We're the only organized group that is going to defend the traditional way of life in the South and North Carolina. You can't depend on your governor; you can't depend on your congressional representatives; you can't depend on the police, all of these things, to maintain Jim Crow. But we're here, and we're going to kind of step in and fill that for people.'

CN: Whether talking about hate groups in the 1960s or today, if you stop to think about it this is a really troubling chain of events – in lots of ways really. For one, it means that fewer hate groups doesn’t necessarily mean less hate. Like in Alabama and Mississippi in the civil rights era, Klan-like beliefs can be expressed through other, more accepted outlets, including the government. With or without a large and visible KKK like there was in North Carolina, the fear and anger is still there. And here’s where we get back to Pete Young. Remember, Young wanted to get at the roots of white supremacy.

DC: What was interesting about his perspective, that very few people shared at the time, was that he saw this as a symptom of a larger problem. What he really wanted to do is address, how do you go about understanding the communities within which the Klan resonated? And beyond policing those communities, how can we really address the root causes of racism and racial hate?

CN: Here, Young went beyond his role as a journalist and observer. He had concrete ideas about how to address the situation on the ground.

DC: What he wanted to do was replicate what was going on at the time in a lot of larger cities, which is the idea of the war on poverty - bringing in a bunch of resources to redevelop areas, bring in resources to train people for different kinds of jobs, to move people closer to jobs - these kinds of things. And so he said, 'Well what we need in these isolated rural communities, especially in the south, is our institutions. How can we bring people in that serve as social workers, that serve as job-training resources, that minister to these people in a lot of ways.'

CN: In some ways, the word “minister” here should be taken literally. To make a plan, Young teamed up with a famous preacher named Will Campbell.

DC: So they establish dually what they refer to as a 'Ministry to the White Ghetto.' So they wanted to kind of create this analog to what people had seen as the quote unquote "black ghetto" in places like Watts in Los Angeles, where there had been a lot of strife and unrest and say, 'Well, we have similar things going on in these predominantly white rural communities. How can we minister to them in this way?' So, they tried to start storefront institutions where people could go, you could create teen centers for people to hang out, but you could also provide resources - connect people to medical professionals and legal professionals and economic resources.

CN: On paper, Pete Young and Will Campbell’s vision was to take the approaches that were used in urban areas, and bring them to isolated rural areas. In reality, a different vision won out. Instead of social programs, the government sent in police. Which of course makes sense – the Klan represented a hate-filled and in many cases violent movement. Efforts to enforce it out of existence, Cunningham says, did have positive results.

DC: In some ways that was a very effective strategy. You know when I studied the rise and fall of the civil rights era KKK one of the things that I found is when the policing orientation to the Klan change from being quite passive and providing space for the Klan to organize, to being very active to very much limit that space, you really see that as one of the key driving factors to the Klan's decline in the late 1960s. So in that broad sense it was quite effective. But what Pete Young would say, and I would agree with in a lot of ways, is that you could eliminate the organized part of the movement but you didn't at all address the underlying causes of those kinds of sentiments. And so you see those get channeled into other sorts of political expressions and other sorts of economic and political disaffection, and I think we're still dealing with the impact of that in institutional politics, but also in terms of how communities operate today.

CN: These long-lasting effects are real, and measurable. Part of Cunningham’s work is trying to understand the legacy of racial conflict, and he’s found that in many ways, the past is still with us in very direct ways.

DC: One of the things that we see if you look at southern communities where the Klan was present, versus other communities that look very much like them but where the Klan was absent, is former Klan hotbeds even 40 and 50 years later continue to have significantly higher rates of violent crime overall within those communities and significantly higher degrees of partisan political polarization than other similar communities where the Klan weren't active.

CN: This trend doesn’t have to do with specific people or even generations of families, Cunningham says. It’s about the kind of culture that allowed the Klan to thrive.

DC: So part of this is about the way in which organized vigilantism really affects the social fabric of communities. Where the Klan was present, we see an overarching culture that tends to de-legitimize authority, Right? These are people who say, 'We will take law and order in effect into our own hands. We're not going to listen to the police and what officials say. We're going to handle it ourselves.' And that matters for the people who are involved in saying those kinds of things. But to the extent that communities allowed the Klan to be in their midst for a significant period of time also meant there is this broader culture that de-legitimized authority in that way. So some of the lingering effects of crime are about these broader cultural and social effects.

CN: In addition to increased violence, these former areas of KKK activity also – to this day – have really high levels of political polarization. These divides can also be traced to the past. Imagine an average person living in one of these towns where the Klan was very visible and active. Maybe this person didn’t have a strong stance on segregation. Or maybe she did, but would rather have avoided talking about it and causing conflict with her neighbors. With the Klan on her doorstep, this person would have had to choose sides.

DC: The presence of the Klan, that was creating this charged atmosphere and this violent atmosphere, it really forced those issues to the surface. And what that does is it really reorients how people align themselves with people they socialize with, who they see as holding common ground with. And it creates a basis for polarization.

CN: Polarization that continues, as we all know, to this day. The idea of breaking these patterns seems overwhelming. But, fifty years ago, a little-known journalist from North Carolina offered one possible path forward. Over the yeares, Cunningham had the chance to meet Pete Young multiple times. They were practically neighbors after all, so they’d get dinner, and Young would relay stories from his days working with the Klan. Whether expressed in casual conversation or a government document, Cunningham believes that Pete Young’s approach to understanding hatred and confronting inequality holds lessons for today.

DC: The thing that I thought was most important, both about his stories and about the materials he gathered, is the way that he sought to humanize the people behind them - which wasn't the same as defending their political positions or their political action. He was horrified by certain people who would be quite open about their willingness to engage in racial terror during that period. So it wasn't a defense of what they were doing, but it was the sense that these are people who are seeking to both work with what they have and also deal with an environment that they feel is hostile to everything that they stand for. And what that really meant was that these people felt like they didn't have any mainstream outlets who would listen to them. So it got channeled in these very negative and hateful ways. And he struck this balance that I thought was really important which is in demonizing their actions, but really seeking to understand what was motivating those actions so people could come in and try to constructively deal with that and channel it in more productive and constructive directions.

CN: Many thanks to David Cunningham for joining Hold that Thought. For many ideas to explore, you can find us at