The category of “traditional” white supremacists refers to a collection of groups that essentially emerged from the struggle to deny African-Americans equal rights. It also refers to the many unaffiliated individuals with the same constellation of beliefs.
The majority of groups in this category are Ku Klux Klan groups—though often referred to as “the Ku Klux Klan,” there has not been a unitary Klan since 1944. Today, the Klan is simply a type of hate group. There are actually between 40-45 completely separate and independent Klan groups in the United States—the exact number may even vary month to month as small Klan groups form or fall apart—ranging from Klan groups that claim a presence in a number of states to tiny Klans focused on a single local area.
“Traditional” white supremacists also include a few non-Klan groups that emerge from the same tradition, with the two most significant examples from the past several decades being the Council of Conservative Citizens and the League of the South. These groups have a presence mainly in the South. Klan groups have a presence in the South as well, but they are also active in the Midwest and, to a lesser extent, in the Mid-Atlantic States. In New England and in the West, Klan groups tend to be weak, small, and short-lived.
There are a few Klan groups of long standing, such as the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, based in Arkansas, and the Mississippi White Knights, but most Klan groups are of recent vintage. In fact, about 75% of the currently active Klan groups have a start date of 2011 or later (including several recent attempts to resurrect defunct Klan groups).
The large proportion of new Klan groups does not indicate growth in the Klan—far from it. Klan groups have been in a long-term decline since the 1970s, as they lost their battle against civil rights for African-Americans. Occasionally, Klan groups may slow or even arrest that decline, such as during a surge of right-wing extremism, but then the decline will resume. The result is a collection of Klan groups that have great difficult even maintaining themselves, which is why most such groups do not last very long before fragmenting or falling apart. When new Klan groups do emerge, they tend to grow by swallowing or poaching the membership of a previous or weaker Klan group.
One of the clearest signs of Klan decline is the considerable decrease in public Klan rallies. Many Klan groups simply no longer have the membership necessary to hold public demonstrations or protests. In the 1980s, one could find without too much difficulty Klan rallies in which 200-300 members participated. By the 1990s, most Klan rallies had a couple of dozen attendees at most, though the number of rallies was still relatively high. In the 2000s, even the number of Klan rallies has greatly declined.
For perspective on just how negligible the public Klan presence has become in recent years, consider this: In 1994, Klan groups staged 10 different rallies in the state of Ohio alone. In 2014, 20 years later, there were only around 10 confirmed Klan rallies across the United States (Klan groups have claimed a few additional events, but no confirmation can be found that they actually took place).
In lieu of such rallies, Klan groups have changed their tactics, seeking ways to generate publicity and attention that can be accomplished with a minimum of members. The tactic chosen by two of the larger and more active Klan groups—the Traditionalist American Knights, headquartered in Missouri, and the Loyal White Knights, based in North Carolina—has been spreading Klan fliers in local neighborhoods.
Fliering is an effective tactic for these groups because it takes only a single Klan member or sympathizer to perform a distribution (which will typically target from 20 to 100 homes, or perhaps all the cars in a parking lot), but the fliers often generate considerable interest from local media, which is spread further via social media. While the fliers are often standard “recruitment” fliers (though the Klan groups do not really expect recipients to become recruits), occasionally they may target a specific issue or demographic group.
When Klan fliers are discovered, upset residents contact the media, whose subsequent news stories spread the news of the fliering far beyond the few neighborhood residents who received any hate literature. It is this publicity that is the ultimate goal for these Klan groups. To help insure they get it, some flier distributors have taken to weighing down their Klan fliers with pieces of candy or small toys. This tactic is intended to outrage parents and make them more likely to contact law enforcement or the media, the latter of which is typically the true target.
Media coverage often elicits the specter of a rising, increasingly powerful Klan. In fact, the opposite is true: Fliers are a cheap and easy way for Klan groups to get attention—an attractive prospect for groups trying to compensate for dwindling membership and decreased clout. Since the beginning of 2013, there have been more than 120 different fliering incidents across the country, the vast majority carried out by the Traditional American Knights and the Loyal White Knights.
Klan groups are not the only “traditional” white supremacist groups that have declined. The two major non-Klan groups, the Council of Conservative Citizens and the League of South, have also suffered a loss of membership. In the 1990s, the Council was prominent enough to attract attention from mainstream conservative politicians. Haley Barbour, while a candidate for governor of Mississippi, spoke at one of the group’s meetings, as did Mike Huckabee when he was lieutenant governor of Arkansas. In 1992, Mississippi Senator Trent Lott delivered a speech at the group’s annual conference, while in 1998, Georgia Representative Bob Barr spoke to the organization. The appearances of Barr and Lott before the group prompted a scandal in 1998 when revealed.
Because of the scandal, GOP chair Jim Nicholson, calling the group racist, instructed all Republican candidates and public officials to sever ties with the Council. Even then, not all politicians rushed to distance themselves from the group. At the time, then-Mississippi Governor Kirk Fordice told a Washington Post reporter that “There are some very good people in there with some very good ideas. All this stuff about them being racist, that’s hearsay, as far as I’m concerned.” However, during the 2000s, the Council’s decline ended many of its remaining relationships with local politicians: if an area had no Council chapter, then local politicians simply had no opportunity for interaction. Today, the Council does not even bother to list local chapters on its website—presumably because it has an embarrassingly small number to list.
Nevertheless, despite its small size, the Council of Conservative Citizens still has had the ability to spew hate and to influence would-be white supremacists, an effect demonstrated in June 2015 when the manifesto attributed to Dylann Storm Roof credited the Council as a major influence.
The League of the South, a racist neo-Confederate group that has called for secession, has also lost ground, though perhaps less so than the Council. The League has reacted in part by becoming more radical and more openly racist. By 2011, League president Michael Hill, once a college history professor, was urging followers to arm themselves and “join the resistance.” In May 2015, Hill declared his determination to participate in a race war if “negroes,” egged on by the “largely Jewish-Progressive owned media,” engaged in “black rage.” Hill warned that “if negroes think a ‘race war’ in modern America would be to their advantage, they had better prepare themselves for a very rude awakening.” On June 1, Hill openly declared that “our Southern forebears” who opposed civil rights for African-Americans “were right.” That same month, a League of the South protest in northern Kentucky was joined by members of the neo-Nazi National Socialist Movement.
As the League has become more openly racist, its membership has also changed somewhat, attracting a larger proportion of younger members, some of whom have organized or participated in League of the South demonstrations and events. For example, the League has organized around 25 demonstrations in the last three years, an increase from previous years. It has also tried to exploit the immigration issue as a way to build support, using terms such as “Southern Demographic Displacement.”
Like neo-Nazis, “traditional” white supremacists are much diminished, though for different reasons. Moreover, it seems unlikely that the “traditionals” will be able to arrest this mostly downward trend, although groups like the League of the South may have more relative success than Klan groups. Whereas in the 1960s, in many parts of the country Klan groups were almost the only option for would-be white supremacists, today they are just one of many options—and are sometimes considered outdated or obsolete. Meanwhile, the rise of white supremacist prison gangs in the South and Midwest has the potential to cut into the population base from which Klan groups derive their membership. The long-term prospects are not very bright for the Klan and its like-minded extremists.