A few days before Halloween, many residents of Prattville, Alabama, woke to find their front doors and yards festooned with racist fliers in plastic bags weighted down with rocks, courtesy of the Missouri-based Traditionalist American Knights of the Ku Klux Klan (TAK).
“The TAK of the KKK is a pro-White, Christian organization,” the fliers began. “We are dedicated to preserving our race, our heritage and our American way of life.” After introducing the TAK, the fliers urged people to join: “If you are aware that our Civil Liberties, our Christian religion, our Constitution and our American way of life are under constant attack from the onslaught of ‘multiculturalism’ and Socialist ideals, then you belong with us.”
A Flood of Fliers
What happened in Prattville was no isolated episode. Far from it: in 2014, Klan flierings have risen sharply. The Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism has tracked more than 70 such incidents from across the United States in 2014 alone – a marked increase from the previous year, which saw only 26 episodes of such literature distribution.
With so many communities hit by Ku Klux Klan propaganda, it comes as no surprise that people might draw the conclusion that Klan groups are growing. Following the Prattville fliering by the TAK, a local television station reported that the group was recruiting in Prattville and referred to its “growing operation.” In Park Hills, Missouri, where the TAK is based, leader Frank Ancona rushed to add to that impression. “The Klan has been here more than 150 years,” Ancona told the Montgomery Advertiser. To a local news channel, he claimed that “applications have been coming in from potential new members in other southern states as well as in Northern states like Pennsylvania and New York.”
The Shrinking Invisible Empire
The reality of the Ku Klux Klan, however, is starkly different from the picture of a resurgent Klan that leaders like Ancona attempt to depict. The dirty little secret of the rash of Klan flierings is that they are a sign of decline, not growth—of weakness, not strength.
There is no single “Ku Klux Klan” in the United States today. Rather, there are about 35 different Klan groups in the U.S in 2014. That sounds like a lot, but most Klan groups range in size from small to very small, often with only a single local presence. Even when a Klan group claims chapters (or “klaverns”) in other areas, those chapters are often merely nominal chapters maintained by a solitary member with an e-mail address or rented post office box—when they are not made up altogether.
The truth is that, for decades, the long-term trend for the Ku Klux Klan has been one of decay and decline. Large segments of American society abandoned the Klan long ago. Even among white supremacists, competing movements from racist skinheads to white supremacist prison gangs have been more effective in gaining recruits than the “old-fashioned” Ku Klux Klan.
This long-term decline has had a serious impact on the Klan—today’s Klan groups simply cannot do many things they easily could do in the past. In the 1980s, one could easily find Klan rallies with 200-300 members participating, but by the 1990s most Klan rallies had a couple dozen attendees at most. In the 2000s, even the number of Klan rallies staged has greatly declined.
For perspective on just how negligible 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 10 confirmed Klan rallies across the United States (Klan groups have claimed some additional events and, of these, some may have actually occurred, but for most such purported events there is no evidence of anything haven taken place).
Masking Weakness with Publicity
With Klan groups declining in size and Klan events shrinking in both attendance and frequency, it is only natural that some Klan groups would put greater emphasis on a different tactic, one that requires only a single person to accomplish: spreading Klan fliers.
Fliering is a very effective tactic for Klan groups for one simple reason: it takes only a single Klan member or sympathizer to distribute racist fliers in a community, but those fliers will typically generate intense scrutiny and publicity from local media, publicity subsequently spread further still through Internet social media. Klan groups have always distributed fliers but it is now a more important tactic than ever before.
The pattern is predictable, and it’s happening with increasing frequency across the country, even in areas not traditionally associated with Klan activity: when Klan fliers (“Save our Land, Join the Klan”) surfaced in the racially diverse Long Island community of Hampton Bays, New York, residents were outraged. The same response met the Klan’s message ("Neighborhood Watch. You can sleep well tonight knowing the UKA is awake") in Havre, Montana. Most fliers rely on standard “recruitment” language, as seen in Prattville, but some are more specific, targeting one or more demographic groups, or events such as the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday (a popular target of Klan outrage).
Upset residents contact the media, which then spreads news of the fliering far beyond the relatively few residents who may have actually received any literature. Klan groups don’t really expect the actual fliers to generate recruitment, but rather hope that the resultant publicity may draw interest, or at least get their message out to the general public. To help insure such publicity, some flier distributors have even taken to weighting down their fliers with candy or small toys—designed to outrage parents who think their children are being targeted.
Wherever they land, the fliers elicit the specter of a rising, ever more 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 their dwindling membership and decreased clout.
The Klans with the Plan
Two Klan groups in particular are responsible – by a sizable margin – for the majority of today’s fliering incidents: the North Carolina-based Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan (LWK) and the Missouri-based TAK. In 2013, the LWK carried out 12 of the 26 confirmed fliering incidents, while the TAK chalked up eight. The United Klans of America came in a distant third with three occurrences, and the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan and the Ku Klos Knights were responsible for one incident each. One distribution has not been linked to any group.
In 2014, as in 2013, most of the flyers have come from the TAK and LWK; together, these two groups accounted for about 80 percent of the 70 confirmed incidents. The Fraternal Order of the Cross Knights, the United Klans of America, the Noble Knights, the Traditional Rebel Knights, the Texas Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, and the Original Knight Riders each claimed responsibility for one or two flier distribution events.
The 2013 flierings focused on communities in the Midwest and South, the Klan’s two traditional strongholds. There were four incidents each in Missouri and Florida, Iowa and Virginia had three, Illinois had two, while 10 other states each saw a single fliering event.
In 2014, fliering occurrences were both more frequent and more geographically widespread, presumably as Klan leaders realized the effectiveness of the tactic. By the fall of 2014, 25 states had experienced at least one confirmed fliering incident, with Pennsylvania and Indiana at the forefront with six occurrences each. Following closely with five events each were Kentucky, Virginia and Texas. Ohio counted four, while Missouri, Illinois and North Carolina had three. The remaining states, including Florida, South Dakota, California, Delaware, Idaho, New York and Montana, each saw one or two fliering events.
The expansion of this tactic illustrates its usefulness to Klan groups. For example, the Klan does not do well in western states; groups established there are invariably small and short-lived. But a single Klan member can still generate substantial publicity for the Klan in such places. In July 2014, a member of the Loyal White Knights distributed Klan fliers in a neighborhood in Orange County, California, leaving anti-immigration literature on the driveways of fewer than 20 homes. Even this minimal effort resulted in local media coverage – which was further amplified on social networking sites.
Klan fliers are emerging as the ideal way for shrinking Ku Klux Klan groups to broadcast their racist and anti-Semitic messages: the fliers capitalize on the notoriety of the Klan name and exploit the willingness of news and social media to spread the word. A solitary Klan member can easily distribute fliers in a neighborhood, single-handedly generating publicity and stoking fear and public hand-wringing – in other words, exactly what the Klan was hoping for. But for all the anxiety it generates, fliering remains a tactic of Klan weakness, not strength.