William A. Gralnick
It was the late 60’s into the early 70s. The heat was withering, the crops were dying, the inflation was soaring, and banks were doing a land office business foreclosing on farms that had been in families for generations. The owners saw themselves as the providers of food served at America’s tables. Along with lost business came lost pride. Along with lost pride came anger. Along with anger came the receptivity to what then was considered very bizarre philosophies.
The Ku Klux Klan was making hay with soaring memberships and increased organization and activity. A white woman had been murdered. The suspect was black. The rush to judgment was jet-fighter swift. It was only until it was too late that authorities stumbled across a twin brother. He did it. During the miscarriage of justice the Klan organized the largest gathering since the 20’s replete with costumes and cross-burnings.
Somewhere there was a pile of kindle that set this whole thing ablaze. ABC News sent Geraldo Rivera, then a rising news figure, into the volcano to assess why it was about to explode. What Rivera discovered was something called, “The Christian Identity Church.” In its pews were the proponents of Christian Nationalism. In a nutshell, if America would get busy about recreating its heritage and become a truly Christian nation all would be well. Of course, America had never been a “Christian” nation. The seeds of “if you tell a lie often enough people will believe it, especially desperate people” were scattered around the farm belt.
But were these extremist geniuses smart enough to concoct this philosophy? Of course not. They had stepping stones. In the 1850’s there came into the political fray a party with a most apt moniker, The Know Nothing Party. Truth. The bedrock of this cesspool was Christianity (conservative Protestant) and nationalism.. They planned a whopper of an eye-opening caper at the Washington Monument. The monument had been stalled by a lack of money due to fraud. Around the stump that had risen about a third of the eventual height were blocks of marble, inscribed goodwill gifts from nations far and wide. These blocks, in their rightful places today, were to line the interior of the Monument to be seen by those who climbed to the top. They “KN’s” pulled up driving wagons. They put as many of these blocks as they could on the flatbeds. Mind you each block weighed hundreds and hundreds of pounds. They took them to the Potomac River, smashed them, and threw in the pieces. “Take that! You alien mongrels.”
Then came the miles long Klan parade , thousands replete in their regalia, marching from the Capitol to the White House. Thus no new ideas there. Mix in Gerald LK Smith, Elmer Gantry and a few other tent and microphone preachers spewing hate. Came the illustrious Sen. Joe McCarthy in the 50s at the Kefauver Hearings during which Kefauver shouted at McCarthy, “Have you no shame, sir?!?” He didn’t. Stir in Senator Vandenberg and the isolationists and we get the song from the 50s that said, “Putt’em together and what have you got? Bippity-boppity-boo.” Pretty rancid stuff.
Then came the Alabama rally. It was time for me to jump into action. I went to see the Publisher of the Nashville Tennessean, John Siegenthaler whose office was 40 miles from where the Klan was birthed by Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest, who thought he was putting together an organization for former confederate soldiers to bond and heal together. It didn’t work out that way.
The rest of the story is what the Tennessean did, what it uncovered when it assigned its top investigative reporter, Jerry Thompson to go undercover. It didn’t hurt that Thompson, a brilliant, award winning reporter looked and sounded the part. He was short, bald, sporting a figure like a pot belly stove and who sounded like he was a boy from the hills, which he actually was.
Like on television cop shows a whole identity was created for the man to be known as JT who would be an independent cabinet maker in a small Alabama town. As work drifted in, like in the small town barbershop, Thompson had plenty of time to talk, to listen, to complain about what was happening to America, and wish aloud he could connect with like-minded people. One day at closing that happened. Soon he was meeting people, attending meetings, and getting himself inducted as a freshly minted member of the Knights of the KKK. But there was one problem.
The Tennessean’s lawyer told us in a meeting that Thompson had no legal standing. If he broke the law and was caught, if worse yet, he hurt someone, he could be arrested and would be treated like any other criminal. There were only three of us who knew where he was, what he was doing, and giving him advice. His wife was not one of the three. To her he was just “on assignment.” It was a long 18 months.
Thompson’s Klan had plans. Thompson had bigger ones. He easily moved into the inner circles to find himself in a position that would have a dramatic impact on the viability of Klan activities in the south. He was introduced to someone you probably know by name, David Duke. Duke wanted to move the Klan out of white sheets and into ties and jackets. He wanted the Klan to have political muscle and exercise it at the local and state levels. He was preparing himself for office. There was someone who was dead-set against that. His name was Bill Wilkerson. He was what was know in the trade as an ax-handle Klansman.
I’ll cut to the chase or this will be a book instead of an article, albeit a two-parter (foreshadowing…). Thompson brokered a meeting between the two in a small cabin deep in the middle of no-where Alabama. Duke had a proposition. He needed money for his political aspirations. He would sell a list of his followers to WIlkerson. You should know Klan leaders were always screwing their members with phony life insurance policies and the like so this was not so off the charts except once the deal was done ‘ole ax-handle Bill announced it to the underworld and Duke became the devil defrocked. His life was now pretty easy. He could only go on with his plans, In his wake, there was a hemorrhaging of Klan members as anger and mistrust swept the back woods. Essentially Thompson had managed to leave a hand grenade in between those two hustlers. When it went off the shrapnel penetrated deep into the structure of the southern Klans.
Thompson came home to endless death threats by phone, by mail, seemingly by carrier pigeon–almost any way a threat could be delivered. An 18-foot-high electrified fence was put up around his woodsy property replete with a lighting system that was on all night. At times he didn’t know if it was his vanishing act, or its results, that were harder on his wife and young son. The paper had done a Sunday magazine insert on the Klan and now Jerry wrote a book, “My Life in the Klan,” in which I was honored to be mentioned two dozen times and earned my own death threat. We both developed the habit of checking under our cars before we got in and started them.
The story goes on. It morphs into yet another story of religion and hate but. that will be for another time For now you need only know that there is deeply embedded evil DNA in America’s right wing politics, very evil–at least from my perspective.
Bill has been laid low with a stomach virus while writing this. He thinks its the topic that might have brought it on… It is possible you can still find Thompson’s book, “My Life In the Klan” on Amazon and you can definitely find Bill’s books, “The War of the Itchy Balls and Other Tales From Brooklyn” and “George Washington Didn’t Sleep Here” if you want to change your mood after reading this.