In August 2017, torch-bearing white nationalists gathered for a “Unite the Right” march in Charlottesville, Virginia. Joined by neo-Nazis and other ultra right-wing groups, the rally was reminiscent of Ku Klux Klan demonstrations in the American south. Counter-protesters organized quickly and the demonstration resulted in violent clashes between the two sides, resulting in 19 injured and one dead. As right-wing extremism and white nationalism rises in the US, Klansville U.S.A. takes a look back at the origins and history of the Ku Klux Klan.

The Ku Klux Klan got its start in Tennessee in 1865 as a fraternal social club for decommissioned Confederate soldiers following the Civil War. The group quickly became violent, and less than a decade later, under pressure from the federal government, it had begun to dissolve. In 1915, the silent film The Birth of a Nation romanticized the Klan, and its enormous popularity sparked a Klan revival. By 1925, four million Americans claimed membership. But bad press and power struggles tore the group apart in the 1930s.

As the civil rights movement grew in the 1960’s, the Ku Klux Klan came back to life after the U.S. Supreme Court declared separate public schools for black and white students unconstitutional. That the Klan would rise once again wasn’t surprising, but where the reincarnation took place was. North Carolina was considered the most progressive southern state. But under the leadership of Bob Jones, the most successful Grand Dragon in the country, Klan membership soared. In just three years, he grew the North Carolina Klan from a handful of friends to some 10,000 members––more than the Klans of all other southern states combined. In the process, Jones helped give the state a new nickname: “Klansville, U.S.A.”

Tapping into the fears and resentments of low-income whites who believed that a changing America would leave them behind, Jones took his message across the state. Hoping to turn the Klan into a political force, Jones tried to organize the group into a powerful voting bloc. To show that his Klan had nothing to hide, he planned marches in broad daylight, and processions of unmasked (robed) Klansmen, plainclothes supporters, wives, and children took to the streets. While his empire was built on hate-filled rhetoric and white supremacy, Jones publicly advocated nonviolence as a strategy to avoid the wrath of the FBI and federal authorities.

Ultimately, events from inside and outside the North Carolina Klan combined to bring down Jones’ empire: the blatant murder of a white civil rights worker by Klan members, and the ability of the FBI to turn members of Jones’ inner circle into informants against him. Callie T. Wiser, producer/director of Klansville U.S.A. says, “If we think that racism only shows itself as violent acts or cross burning, then we can miss the fact that, as in North Carolina, a more subtle and perhaps more insidious form of racism can still lurk within American social and political structures.”

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