Driving back to Tucson from San Diego last week, I was listening to Rush Limbaugh. Before you ask, I am not a regular listener. I am a never-listener, but I was a captive passenger in a vehicle driven by somebody else and Limbaugh, who actually makes my skin crawl, was the only thing available on the airwaves through those long stretches of desolate No-Man’s-Land. At any rate, Limbaugh was telling his listeners how the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) is a Democrat organization. His “proof” was the fact that Democrats opposed the abolition of slavery and formed the KKK after the Civil War ended in 1865. While truthful on the surface of things, this does not tell the whole story of who comprises the KKK today. It might have been more honest to use the past tense and say that the KKK was a Democrat organization.
After the Civil War ended, former Confederate veterans dressed in white robes, cloaked their horses in white sheets and muffled their hooves with padding, and rode through communities breaking up African American prayer meetings, raiding their homes, and running out of town anyone–black or white–who dared to teach former slaves to read and write. One can imagine that to the uneducated, these silent riders appeared ghost-like, as if apparitions retaliating for the loss of the war. Their intention was to intimidate through violence those who might wish to exercise their newly granted independence and anybody else who supported it. Those first Klansmen likely were Democrats opposed to so-called Radical Republicans, headed by Abraham Lincoln.
But in 1948, Democrats alienated the South by including a strong civil rights plank in its party platform–something Limbaugh failed to mention. To add insult to Southern injury, Harry Truman, a Democrat, integrated the military. The party that had always protected the South’s way of life now began to lose its grip on this region of the country. Many of those Southern Democrats abandoned the party to become Dixiecrats, with Strom Thurmond as its leader.
By the time the 1960s rolled around, however, most Democrats had evolved in their thinking. John F. Kennedy, a Democrat, realized that a civil rights bill was imperative to guarantee every citizen equal opportunity and rights. Lyndon B. Johnson, a Democrat, used his power of persuasion to get the Civil Rights Act of 1964 through Congress. The next year, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 also became law. Some say that when Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act he commented that with his signature, “Democrats have lost the South.” He didn’t say that at all. At least, scholars cannot find any evidence that he did. But in reality, Democrats had lost the South. Southern Democrats, many of whom were KKK members and who were the primary opponents of both the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, began a slow drift into the Republican party. With blacks now voting and generally casting their ballots for Democrats, white Southern Democrats began to realign with the Republican party because it was no longer seen as the black party. Several factors contributed of course–Conservatism, Evangelical Christians, the Democrats’ support of liberal social positions, and others. But to point the finger of racism at one party or the other without telling the rest of the story is disingenuous. What is a fact is that many of those formerly Southern white Democrats today comprise a substantial block of the Ku Klux Klan in the South and Midwest. It is also a fact that they abandoned the Democratic party in favor of the Republican party. The KKK’s recruitment campaigns play to people’s fears and sound oddly familiar to Republican rhetoric: anti-unionism (i.e., “right to work”), anti-immigrant, and anti-same-sex marriage. They harbor a deep distrust of Catholics, Jews, Muslims, and anyone who isn’t like them–white, straight, and protestant.
This country has a problem with issues of race, to be sure, and there is plenty of blame to go around, Democrat and Republican alike. It has a problem with issues of anything that might smack of “the other.” But to quote an old adage, “When you point one finger, remember three fingers are pointing back at you.” If you are going to tell the story of the KKK, attempt to tell it whole. To do otherwise is to lie by omission.