The Klan & the Government: Foes or Allies? [Sam Marcy]

The Klan yesterday and today

January 27, 1983

In the middle of November 1982, the Ku Klux Klan undertook what appeared to be a bold adventure in their long and bloody history.

They attempted to schedule a demonstration in the heart of Washington, D.C., fully aware that the District has been for quite a number of years virtually a Black city. Washington was thus a particularly attractive target for the Klan.

It was not boldness or bravery which impelled them to target Washington but rather their calculation that the police in the District, mostly Black, would be forced by both the federal authorities and the chief of the metropolitan police to protect and defend their presence in the city.

Earlier the Klan had partially succeeded in invading several large cities, including Boston and Baltimore, as well as some of the smaller cities. After weeks of maneuvering behind the scenes with the federal and District police authorities, the Klan obtained a permit to demonstrate in the District on November 27.

This certainly came as a profound shock to the oppressed people in the District and to many in the progressive movement. The move by the Klan unfortunately caught the working class and oppressed communities in and around the District, and throughout the country as a whole, by surprise.

The capitalist press and media knew about the projected Klan demonstration long in advance. As a matter of fact, the All-Peoples Congress, a national community, labor, and civil rights organization, which learned of the Klan demonstration early, sent out releases to the national and local electronic media and press and announced that it was calling for a counter-demonstration.

As will be seen by the articles in this book, the Klan was soundly trounced in its effort and was driven off by a very militant counter-demonstration. The counter-demonstration was largely a spontaneous response by thousands of militant, mostly Black, young people. It did not come about without a struggle with the police, which took a considerable toll in injuries and arrests of the young militants.

Since then the Klan has reared its ugly head in several other cities. It has attempted to stage a demonstration in Austin, the capital of Texas, and has sought a foothold in the western part of New York near Rochester.

The Klan would not be a problem worthy of serious discussion if one were to judge it merely by its numbers, which are conceded by all sides to be rather insignificant.

The Klan-state connection

The far more important problem is the reciprocal relations between the capitalist government and the Klan. More often than not, the former is made to appear rather hostile to the Klan. The public impression conveyed is that the government is forced under the law (the First or "Free Speech" Amendment to the Constitution) to defend and secure the Klan's rights.

In reality, however, the capitalist government has covertly encouraged and promoted the Klan over many decades. It is often completely overlooked in current discussions and in the press and media reports that the durability of the Klan rests on solid long-term bonds to the state, and that the two share a common political ideology, for the most part.

When the ruling class had the opportunity to wipe out the Klan more than a century ago, it failed to do so. The Northern industrialists and bankers were more interested in reaching a compromise with the ex-slaveowners than with the newly freed slaves.

The U.S. government capitulated to the Southern planters and ex-slaveowners after the period of Reconstruction when it withdrew federal troops from the South without establishing an independent citizens' militia composed of the Black people and poor whites.

It also left them politically defenseless and deprived the Black population of economic power by failing to grant the newly emancipated people the land which they had tilled for centuries.

The violence against the Black people which had begun on a minimal scale during Reconstruction began to take a tremendous toll after the U.S. government finally withdrew its troops. It was in this period that lynchings, the most barbarous form of counter-revolutionary terror, became the hallmark of the reactionary attempt to keep the Black people in semi-bondage. As many as 5,000 lynchings, took place between the 1880s and 1951 (J.E. Cutler, Lynch Law, 1969 edition).

Nothing so much emphasizes the need for an independent citizens' militia as what happened immediately after the withdrawal of the federal troops. It is to be noted that only in the nineteen fifties and sixties, when the question of self-defense was raised in a serious way, did Black communities become freer from the unrestrained terror of the earlier period.

Self-defense actually began during the so-called Tulsa riots of 1921. This attack on the Black community in Oklahoma for the first time in many years found an unexpected response in the form of what we would now call self-defense.

The withdrawal of the federal troops from the South was a signal to the Southern planters and ex-slaveowners to move swiftly in setting up the Ku Klux Klan in one place after another. Over many decades, not only have Southern state governments encouraged and promoted the Klan, but many governors, legislators, and even some national figures were either secretly or openly associated with the Klan.

When Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed Hugo Black to the Supreme Court in the 1930s, it was brought out in the Senate hearings to confirm his appointment that he had been a member of the Klan. While Black stoutly denied that he was in any way sympathetic with the objectives of the Klan or that he was a member of it at the time of his confirmation, he didn't deny that he had been a member "a long time ago."

Ironically, when Justice Black took his seat in the Supreme Court, Justice Harlan Fiske Stone was also a member. President Calvin Coolidge had first appointed Stone as Attorney General before making him a Justice of the Supreme Court. It was Stone who, under cover of instituting procedures to fight subversion of all kinds, had the FBI "infiltrate" the Klan, supposedly to uncover its terrorist activities.

In reality his work amounted to using government agents to establish something like 41 chapters of the Klan. The subsequent history of the Klan makes it clear that rather than undermining the Klan, the secret operations of the government helped to maintain and strengthen it.

Of course the government has always maintained a formal posture of hostility to the Klan.

But even where that has occasionally been true, the government shares with the Klan allegiance to the ruling class, which really is their fundamental concern.

The FBI has been notoriously racist and ultra-reactionary and shares much of the same ideology as the Klan. It would be very difficult to separate the reactionary, racist actions of the FBI from those of the Klan, if one were to look at its historical role rather than the pro forma position it takes in public.

Reaganism and the Klan

The coming to power of the Reagan administration has not only stimulated and encouraged the Klan, it has raised the general level of violence in the country against all oppressed people – Black, Latin, Native, Asian, women, gays and lesbians. It is part and parcel of the general anti-working class offensive of the Reagan administration.

It is not for nothing that some of the right-wing ideologists have heralded the Reagan administration as the beginning of a counterrevolution in social, political, racial, and labor policies. More than any other in recent years, the Reagan administration has gone out of its way to emphasize its racist character and to level its blows precisely at the poorest, most under-privileged oppressed people.

It is in the area, however, of the use of legal violence that the Reagan administration has made its deepest impact. One has only to examine the massacres in the cities of Memphis and New Orleans to confirm that it was precisely the election of the Reagan administration which generated and stimulated the increase in violence.

In fact, what the Klan has not been able to do is precisely what the capitalist state, through its city and state police, does with a very thin veneer of dubious legal sanction.

The wholesale repression by the police in New Orleans and Memphis almost seems like a reenactment of history, of the period immediately after the Civil War when Andrew Johnson ascended to the presidency. The assassination of Lincoln and the assumption of the presidency by Johnson, who was in league with the South in the first place, was the signal for the ex-slaveowners and planters to reopen the struggle they had lost on the battlefield.

There was bloody rioting in Memphis and New Orleans at that time, and it seemed like the beginning of a classical counter-revolution to reverse the results of the Civil War.

In the Memphis attack, which took place in May 1866 (a little more than a year after Lee surrendered at Appomattox) 46 Black people were murdered, quite a number of them Union veterans. As many as 70 were wounded. Twelve churches and four schools were burned to the ground; Black women were raped.

This was Memphis in May 1866. Things were not much different in New Orleans, which also took its cue from Andrew Johnson's accession and started an anti-Black riot which took the lives of 48 and wounded 68. There were also burnings and ransacking.

The death toll in both cities was probably much higher but these are the conservative estimates. It was enough to alarm the radical wing of the Republican Party into embarking upon the road of Reconstruction. For a brief period very significant progress was made with the aid of the U.S. Army, which controlled the Southern states. Too soon, however, the troops were withdrawn leaving the people once more defenseless.

How much different are today's massacres in New Orleans and Memphis from those of more than a century ago?

Memphis and New Orleans today

The progress of capitalist development forced the abolition of chattel slavery and instituted wage slavery, share cropping, and land tenancy, a form of robbery of the tillers of the soil. The form of oppression and exploitation has changed fundamentally, but exploitation and oppression remain.

The fundamental reforms necessary for full freedom have never been fulfilled. And the nature of the capitalist state holds down the oppressed peoples, utilizing both legal and illegal means to perpetuate, if not intensify, their oppression.

What happened in Memphis on January 13, 1983? How different was it from what happened in May 1866?

The police organized what can only be described as a massacre of a religious group in the heart of a working class district in the Black community. Just as the accession of Andrew Johnson was a signal for anti-Black repression in 1866, so under different historical circumstances but continuing the line of repression by the state apparatus, the coming of the Reagan administration encouraged the repressive capitalist state apparatus of Tennessee to wantonly visit its repression on Black people.

According to the original police version, this religious group in Memphis enticed three white policemen to their house and then held one hostage. It's not clear what the religious group supposedly wanted or what they asked the police to do. Even if we take the police story as they themselves gave it, clearly it was a most flagrant violation of the rights of the Black community.

Memphis is the town where Martin Luther King was assassinated. It is well known that the town has been under great tension and that the capitalist administration has consistently been polarizing the city on a racial basis, encouraged by the coming to power of the Reagan administration.

The police and the city administration understood this only too well. They knew that the religious group was situated right in the heart of a working-class district of the Black community. The police should have also known that the Black community, like any other neighborhood or community, has the right to local self-autonomy.

If it is true that this religious group was bent on enticing white police and holding them hostage, it would have been no more than an exercise in elementary local autonomy to have let Black police deal with the situation.

The U.S. has loudly proclaimed the right of self-determination everywhere in the world except for oppressed people here at home, even on the most elementary community level.

What was involved in Memphis from the viewpoint of self-determination was the right of the people to choose their own police as an expression of local self-autonomy – an elementary exercise of the right to self-determination. Local or community control over schools has been an issue for which Black people have fought for a considerable period. It has been won to some degree in the larger cities such as New York.

But the Memphis authorities and city government made the hostage situation inevitable by violating the Black community's right to their own police. Had Black police taken charge of the situation, it is entirely conceivable that no violence whatever would have occurred.

As it happened, however, the Memphis city administration mobilized more than 300 police with weapons of mass destruction. They besieged the community for two days. Then after a barrage of concussion bombs and tear gas, they stormed the house. Seven occupants were killed by the police: Lindberg Sanders, 49; Larnell Sanders, 26; Michael Coleman, 18; Cassell Harris, 21; Andrew Houston, 19; David Jordan, 29; and Earl Thomas, 20. All seven were shot in the head.

This is an unmistakable sign of the most wanton brutality and demonstrates that there were both premeditation and planning by the police.

What distinguishes this outburst of massive violence from what the Klan would do lies precisely in the fact that the police and the city and state governments of Tennessee cover themselves with a thin veneer of dubious legal sanction, which would not be accepted as legally valid anywhere in the world, except by the most racist institutions.

What happened in New Orleans in November 1980, just after the Reagan election, was equally ghastly, even if one or two less were murdered. As was clearly demonstrated by a CBS 60 Minutes telecast, a series of police attacks resulting in the deaths of five Black people was organized and carried out in a manner which differed little from what the Klan would do except that the murderers are the legally constituted authorities of the capitalist state.

Bourgeois liberals most concerned with Klan's 'rights'

The police massacres in Memphis and New Orleans aroused less concern among the liberal bourgeoisie than did the Klan demonstration in Washington, D.C. Strange as it may seem, some of the liberals, pressured by the way the media handled the counter-demonstration against the Klan, turned their fire on the counter-demonstration rather than on the Klan itself.

For instance, a long letter in the Guardian of January 19, 1983, spent hundreds and hundreds of words attacking the counter-demonstration. It was written by a "socialist," no less, David McReynolds, a leader of the Socialist Party, USA.

His conclusion, like that of many others in the camp of the liberal bourgeoisie, was: The counter-rally would only result in "the level of violence within society increasing. ... Are we going to undermine our own right to speak fully and freely by calling for the selective enforcement of the Bill of Rights? Is there anything the Klan can say that is one-half as dangerous as our saying it should not be allowed to speak?"

This is the standard bourgeois liberal position and has been the prevailing current of bourgeois political thought on this question ever since the Klan came into existence.

As long as the argument is confined to the plane of bourgeois liberal ideology, our position necessarily becomes defensive and faulty and represents nothing more than a defense of the status quo – of things as they are. Arguing on the plane of First Amendment rights disregards completely the nature of society as it exists today – hopelessly divided as it is into antagonistic classes.

Matters are altogether different when we begin, not with some abstract legal norm, but with an examination of the living struggle in the contemporary United States.

All social relations are shaped by the struggle of the social classes, a struggle of the working class and oppressed people against merciless, ruthless neo-barbarism in the form of unrestrained racist monopoly capitalism. To this must be added the super-exploitation of oppressed peoples by the ruling class.

The bourgeois liberal approach is that the class struggle does not really exist, nor the super-exploitation of oppressed peoples. Furthermore, they assume that the Ku Klux Klan is merely an extremist grouping in capitalist society, just as there are extremist groupings on the left.

The duty of the main current (the bourgeois liberals imagine that's them, of course) is to keep these two extremes at bay. Granting them both the right to organize and demonstrate safeguards bourgeois society.

As long as the democratic procedures are observed, goes this argument, society will remain peaceful. The extremists will be kept in their place if only the First Amendment is abided by faithfully.

But to accept this you really have to close your eyes to what is going on in the capitalist USA. The First Amendment preachers almost always assume that the Klan and other fascist groupings are completely separate and independent organizations, that they have no intimate connections with the capitalist government and are not aided and abetted by it.

As we have shown this is an utterly false position. It is invalidated by 100 years of struggle. Memphis and New Orleans are merely some of the more gruesome developments, while smaller ones continue to multiply.

For instance shortly after the Klan demonstration in Washington, the Miami police killed a youth in a Black neighborhood. An angry rebellion followed, another Black man was killed and many Blacks were arrested. The police took over the Black community and turned it into a strategic hamlet of the type the U.S. created in South Viet Nam.

Where are the First Amendment preachers when it comes to dealing with such a phenomenon? Even when they say a word or two here and there, it is by way of exonerating the police or lightly chastising them in the usual way for applying "excessive force."

After the Black community in Miami was subdued, the Klan made its appearance in that city with one of its symbolic demonstrations. But it was sufficient to capture the attention of the capitalist press and many made sure to mention that the Klan were there in support of the police who had brutally murdered the two Black youths.

While interest in the resurgence of the Klan in liberal circles seems to be on the wane, the controversy which the counter-demonstration aroused continues to have more than topical interest. This is because in the eyes of the liberal bourgeoisie a militant struggle against the Klan, that is, to drive it out wherever possible, violates the sacred norms of imperialist democracy.

The axis of the controversy takes the usual form: "The Klan and other fascist organizations should be permitted to exist and exercise the rights of free speech and organization the same as other political organizations."

Unless one sees the Klan other fascist organizations in the general context of the developing struggle of the workers and oppressed, one runs the danger of completely abdicating, if not surrendering, the struggle and using the free speech amendment as a cover for it all.

Our First Amendment proponents should first ask themselves: Is it conceivable that the Klan will in any way abandon its terrorist role, will slowly recede and disintegrate or will it continue to thrive and expand as the needs of the ruling class become more imperious?

For the First Amendment proponents to consider this question critically, it would first be necessary for them to examine the real situation: the objective evolution and direction of capitalist development in the U.S. It is on this question that the role of the Klan really depends Approaching this from the liberal position, from the viewpoint of First Amendment rights, is dealing with it in the stratosphere of abstract ideas and not on the granite realities of the grim situation which is unfolding.

A Marxist would pose the question as follows: Are class antagonisms between the working class and the bourgeoisie softening in the U.S., or becoming more aggravated? Is the super-exploitation of the oppressed peoples lessening or becoming more intensified?

If class antagonisms and pressures on the oppressed people were softening, this would moderate the collisions between the classes and would have the effect of reducing extra-legal political struggles. These would become dissolved in everyday, peaceful political controversy and debate.

In order for the class struggle to soften, in order for class conflicts to moderate, there must first be an upward, vigorous, and sustained revival of the capitalist economy which moreover has to be on a worldwide scale. But this is the epoch of capitalist decline, and while there may be an ephemeral upward spurt here and there, the basic disease of capitalist decay is irreversible.

This narrows the possibilities for easy, peaceful solutions. On the contrary, precisely because of the general world economic crisis, particularly in the U.S., class antagonisms are bound to sharpen, class conflicts are bound to widen and deepen. These in turn cannot but bring in their wake an enormous growth in the use of repression and violence which is endemic to the capitalist government in the first place.

Violence and the state

It has to be remembered that the use of violence and mass repression is a congenital tendency of the capitalist state. Even in the so-called best of times the capitalist government not only tolerates terrorist organizations like the Klan, but once the class struggle of the workers and oppressed people takes on the character of a genuine mass upsurge, the capitalist government is more likely than ever to encourage and promote the likes of the Klan and other mediums of repression.

If the U.S. is resorting more and more to naked armed force on a world scale to the point of threatening nuclear first strikes, if it is hastily building super aircraft carriers for the Navy to prowl the seven seas, threatening mass destruction of Third World people, is it likely under these circumstances that so-called "domestic tranquility" will prevail, that is, class peace, the peace of the oppressor imposed on the oppressed?

Indeed, one should put the shoe on the other foot. It is the ever-expanding growth of the police and military forces at home which makes repression and violent outbursts an inevitable outgrowth of the deepening class antagonisms. The preachments of the liberal bourgeoisie to rely on First Amendment rights are a mere cover-up for a grim reality which is expanding and not in any way receding.

Besides, First Amendment moralists frequently abandon their own position in moments of great crisis. They either surrender or fall to pieces altogether under the stress of right-wing political pressures.

In 1939 when there was a brief but very hysterical witchhunt which rose out of the short-lived Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact, the liberal bourgeoisie completely defected on the question of civil rights and joined the camp of the right-wing witchhunters.

That splendid defender of civil liberties, the ACLU, capitulated to the witchhunters during that 1939-1940 nightmare. Its national board expelled from board membership Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, who was then an outstanding leader of the Communist Party.

None other than Norman Thomas, leader of the Socialist Party and the ideological godfather of David McReynolds who so sanctimoniously cites the First Amendment against the anti-Klan counter-demonstration, called for a purge of communists in the ACLU. He did so in an article in the Socialist Call of December 16, 1939.

So what did freedom of speech amount to in a time when the bourgeoisie was putting on the pressure?

The vote for expulsion was a shameless exhibition of liberals voting unison and goose-stepping to the tune set by the FBI and capitalist government. J. Edgar Hoover had his own personal attorney, Morris Ernst, sitting on the ACLU board and acting as its co-counsel. How in the world can one be a counsel for the ACLU board and at the same time be the attorney for J. Edgar Hoover. This is how consistent liberalism can be in a crisis – they go over to the other side. (See Corliss Lamont's excellent account in his The Trial of Elizabeth Gurley Flynn.) During the 1950s, they crumbled altogether and then became victims themselves of the witchhunt.

As the capitalist crisis deepens, as unemployment grows as the U.S settles its international disputes not merely on the basis of gunboat diplomacy as of old but of nuclear might, what is the only realistic expectation? Some utopian era, when class antagonisms will soften and diminish and collisions between the classes slowly disappear, leaving extremist right-wing organizations like the KKK with no material basis for existence and therefore tending to disintegrate and disappear?

On the contrary, this is the most unlikely and the least possible variant in the next stage of capitalist development.

That being the case, it is most important to discard the liberal straitjacket that only leads to defeat and frustration and arm the mass movement of the working class and oppressed with a revolutionary perspective. It is necessary to politically prepare for the impending struggle not less, but better than, the bourgeoisie pre- pared to win their struggle when they were a subject and oppressed class centuries ago in Europe under feudalism.

It is better to learn the progressive lessons that the bourgeoisie assimilated in their struggle than to become an object of mass confusion through the medium of petty bourgeois preachers and moralists who righteously wave the flag of freedom but abandon it as soon as the class struggle sharpens.

Last updated: 18 August 2017