At the Arlington National Cemetery on Memorial Day, a handful of picketers from controversial hate group the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) were siphoned off into a corner, as other military family members came to pay their respects.
Members of the hate group have become a ubiquitous presence at funerals in recent years; they can frequently be seen in packs, holding signs emblazoned with “God Hates Fags” or “Thank God For Dead Soldiers.”
But at Arlington last Monday, one group of demonstrators came out to counter-protest the WBC, catching national media attention as they handed out American flags to passersby and denounced the WBC's actions.
They were members of the KKK, the most well-known hate group in American history.
Dennis LaBonte, a self-identified “Imperial Wizard” of the KKK who was present at the counter-protests, told CNN that he is not a “hate-monger” and it’s an “absolute shame” that the WBC pickets at military funerals. A CNN video of the proceedings went viral, leaving many to wonder: what exactly is going on here? Since when does the KKK protest against other hate groups?
“Maybe [Lebonte] was on the way to a peace gardening party and got confused,” Alexandra Petri wrote in the Washington Post after seeing the video. “There must be some reason, because protesting against hatred seems wildly out of character. Maybe they’re going through some sort of midlife crisis.”
Or perhaps the Klan is just hoping to re-brand itself. In two interviews with The Huffington Post this week, National Membership Director for the Ku Klux Klan, LLC Pastor Travis Pierce spoke proudly of the KKK’s newly “positive” message, and said that its objection to the WBC's tactics is nothing new. In fact, he said, the group released a statement months ago deploring WBC’s actions, repudiating its tactics of protesting “the funerals of U.S. soldiers, men and women who die serving our Nation.”
The statement went on to say that the KKK agrees with “many of [WBC’s] teachings,” including that homosexuality is an “abomination.”
The Ku Klux Klan, Pierce said, has been a “legally incorporated fraternal organization” since 2003, and its current focus is on promoting its political agenda –- their primary issues include “defending and representing white people,” upholding the constitution, and denying gay teachers access to public schools –- through legal means. Pierce no longer believes that “speechifying” or protesting gets anything done.
“Even with the best speeches we can come up with, all we get are protestors and thugs who try to drown out our message,” he said. “So we want to take our agenda directly to those who can make something happen. We’ve hired attorneys, and we can take it directly to the government.”
Pierce framed the modern KKK as a victim of public perception, and said its current leadership is moving the organization in a new direction. “You have to concentrate on one specific goal and work at it, and that’s the type of leadership we have now,” he said. “We know how to approach those issues, we’re willing to work through the system in any way we can.”
Pierce also repeated, loudly and insistently, that the KKK no longer condones violence, and that the Klan’s history of violence has been “overplayed” throughout time. “We have people call up, ‘Why are you still killing black people?’ I say: we’re not. It would be on the front page of the newspaper.”
“No member of our official organization has ever been accused of a hate crime," Pierce added. "We don’t do that.”
Perhaps the group doesn’t “condone” hate crimes, but plenty of incidents involving KKK members have sprung up in recent years, including some well-publicized vandalism in Tennessee churches and a 2006 incident involving the beating of a 16-year-old boy at a county fair in Kentucky.
According to Pierce, these events are carried out by KKK splinter groups, both violent and benign, who refer to themselves as chapters of the organization, even though they’re not official.
“In 1968 the [Ku Klux Klan] name was put into public domain, so now any idiot can call themselves a member of the Klan and posit any agenda he wishes to," he said. "But we are the only official Klan organization.”
Travis McAdam, the Executive Director of the Montana Human Rights Network, is skeptical that anything has changed at all, explaining that this re-focusing of the KKK is nothing new. They’ve been trying to do this for years, McAdam says, tracing efforts all the way back to famed KKK-leader and politician, David Duke, and his campaigns for public office in the late 1980s.
“The fundamental ideology of these groups never changes, and they keep the Klan banner because they’re proud of it,” McAdam said. “They’re proud of the history of the organization and what it’s done in the past. People like [Duke] tried to give it a different spin, but it’s still the same Klan.”
Hate groups often play “rhetorical games” with their outreach, McAdam said -- publically deploring violence, but encouraging it behind closed doors. “It’s a public relations effort. They clean themselves up and present themselves as something much less offensive.”
Indeed, judging by its membership guidelines and poorly designed website, it doesn't appear that this "new" KKK has altered its approach, or questioned its own history in any capacity. To join its official ranks, you still have to be a “free, white, male” over 18, and you're still forbidden from dating people of other racial backgrounds. Homosexuals are not allowed to join, either.
So has anything actually shifted?
Pierce explained that he "fully tolerates” anyone in the world who believes in Jesus Christ, as long as they don’t "push their agenda" on anyone, especially in our public schools, where he believes homosexuals are “infiltrating our children’s minds.”
“I don’t care what he is or what he believes, he can have his own beliefs, and I’m just as happy for him as I can be,” Pierce said. “But when he has leverage to push those off on other people and demand their attention and acquiescence -- that’s the problem.”
The greater question is, if Pierce and his more "modern" Ku Klux Klan really want the American government to take it seriously as an effective lobbying group, why is it still operating under the title of the most well-known hate group in American history?
“If you were really interested in engaging public policy debates, it just makes absolutely no sense they continue to operate under that banner,” McAdam said, noting that other major organizations spend thousands of dollars re-titling their initiatives to better sell their products. “Why are they still using the Klan name?”
Pierce responded to that question bluntly: "If we weren't the KKK, would you be talking to me right now?"
Perhaps not. But most high-ranking government officials would never give the KKK platform the time of day because of that very reason.
John Abarr, a former KKK organizer, is currently running for a Congressional seat in Montana. He wants to legalize marijuana, increase mental health programs, keep abortion legal, and abolish the death penalty. He also wants to “draw attention to the fact that white people are becoming a minority and losing our political power and way of life,” he told the New York Daily News.
Bowen Greenwood, executive director of the Montana Republican Party, told the Huffington Post that he would not support Abarr, or anyone else remotely affiliated with the KKK, unless they “fully repented and wanted to change themselves and the world.”
“Judging by Mr. Abarr’s rhetoric, there’s no change happening in the KKK that would ever make me want to endorse any of their candidates,” Greenwood said.
Mark Potok, one of the directors of the Southern Poverty Law Center in Alabama, goes one step further, saying that the KKK is completely irrelevant in today’s society and the counter-protest event at Arlington further illustrates their currently decentralized leadership. According to Potok, nationwide membership is scattered, and Pierce’s “Ku Klux Klan, LLC” is just one of many groups who refer to themselves as the “one true Klan."
“Even the radical right just considers them a bunch of losers who have completely lost their effectiveness,” Potok said. “They’re nothing but a bunch of pack animals snapping at each other, trying to establish dominance.”