- From White Supremacy to White Power: The FBI, COINTELPRO-WHITE HATE, and the Nazification of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1970s
In the 1960s, the leader of the largest Ku Klux Klan organization in the United States presumed that the Federal Bureau of Investigation was a meritorious ally engaged in a common battle against Communist subversion.1 By 1971 however, United Klans of America (UKA) Imperial Wizard Robert Shelton had concluded that the FBI was “no longer the respected and honorable arm of justice that it once appeared to be.”2 A year later the UKA’s Fiery Cross published an editorial written by former American Nazi Party official William Pierce, who declared that the federal government had “been transformed [into] a corrupt, unnatural and degenerate monstrosity,” and exhorted Klansmen to launch a bloody revolution against it.3 Twenty years before overtly repressive FBI tactics at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, and Waco, Texas, convinced thousands of Americans to join the militia movement, Klansmen had already begun to condemn the FBI and espouse revolution.
This article argues that during the 1970s, Klan organizers transformed a reactionary counter-movement that had failed to preserve white supremacy by terrorizing civil rights organizers and black citizens, into a revolutionary white power movement that inculpated Jews and the federal government.4 It describes how these organizers combined latent revolutionary impulses within Klan ideology with more esoteric anti-semitic and anti-republican discourses, infusing Christian Americanism—the Klan’s particular admixture of white supremacy, [End Page 49] anticommunism, nativism, and segregationist theology—with National Socialist dreams of a corporate state, Christian Identity theology, and racial anti-semitism.5
This change occurred as American race relations went through a profound transformation.6 The rise of neoconservatism, which attacked liberalism and the welfare state while eschewing overtly racial rhetoric, was particularly important in this context.7 Before 1964–1966, massive resistance had papered over class divisions in the Deep South, masking a division over the use of violence that would ultimately divide the segregationist constituency.8 In the mid-1960s however, Southern leaders began to relinquish Jim Crow and suppress racist violence, even as they helped to slow civil rights implementation and undo efforts to extend civil rights legislation, reconfiguring structures of white privilege by exploiting racial anxieties in the rest of the nation.9 In the course of subsequent conflicts over urban riots, court ordered busing, and affirmative action, the nation learned to understand race in “nonsystematic, nonstructural terms.”10
Klansmen also attempted to re-articulate discourses of whiteness during this period. Like neoconservatives, they shifted focus from racial minorities to the federal government. Yet they clung to biological notions of race, warning that busing, affirmative action, and other egalitarian measures promoted miscegenation. As their former segregationist allies discarded the formal institutions of white supremacy, Klansmen came to realize that it was no longer possible to revive white supremacy or to attract a mass base.11 This article argues that they turned to esoteric conspiratorial discourses to cope with this predicament.
The larger political, social, and cultural context within which the Ku Klux Klan became “thoroughly alienated from routine political processes,” then, is quite clear.12 Yet explanations for particular trajectories remain opaque: Why did Klan organizers of the 1970s incorporate these particular countersubversive discourses? Why did they focus their most vehement hatred of the federal government on federal law enforcement agencies? More specifically, why did the FBI become such a central target of their wrath? This article, based upon research in FBI counterintelligence files, as well as white supremacist and white power publications, provides one explanation.13
A rich, readily accessible literature exploring the devolution of black power and new left organizations has described how covert FBI operations and “agents provocateurs” debilitated them by discrediting leaders and aggravating factionalism, influencing a process by which alienated revolutionaries came to embrace terrorism.14 Some Klansmen also turned to anti-federal government terrorism during this same period, but their publications and communications are buried in archives. These materials attest that Klansmen also came to believe that informers from within and spies from without were disrupting constitutionally protected organizing activities and violating individual civil rights.15