This past weekend, I saw the sensational Spike Lee film BlacKkKlansman, a movie that tells the true story of African-American detective Ron Stallworth, who in 1979 infiltrated a local chapter of the Ku Klux Kan in Colorado Springs, Colorado. As with Lee’s best films, this one explores the explosive, minefield laden issue of race, drawing parallels from America’s racist past to the current toxic political environment, including the violent events of last year in Charlottesville, Virginia.
The movie features a colorful cast of memorable characters, including Adam Driver as Stallworth’s Jewish tag team partner, and Laura Harrier as a strong radical feminist with an awe-inspiring towering afro. But the character that fascinated me the most was that of loyal Klan wife Connie Kendrickson. Like many real women who married into the KKK, Connie is totally supportive of her virulently racist husband. She’s eager to do her part for the Klan, even when it means killing innocent people. Connie’s character, portrayed by actress Ashlie Atkinson, raised my curiosity as to how women get involved with hate groups. Is it because of bad childhoods? Abuse at home? Bullying at school? When did it all begin? As you would expect, the answers as to how they get involved are all over the map, but the central role of what they do once involved, is pretty shocking.
What I was most surprised to learn is that although the Ku Klux Klan had been around since 1866, women didn’t get actively involved in the organization until the 1920s. On the heels of the suffrage movement and gaining the right to vote, women sympathetic to the Klan were feeling more confident about their place in society. No longer content to just supply emotional support to their husbands, these women wanted to do their part to counter the perceived threat from minorities and Jews and preserve the purity of the white race. In 1923, the Women of the Ku Klux Klan was formed as an auxiliary group of the Ku Klux Klan with its capitol in Little Rock, Arkansas. Approximately 500,000 women joined the WKKK during this period. Like their male counterparts, they were anti-Jewish, anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant, anti-black and, at times, just as savagely violent. “Women were major actors in the Klan, responsible for some of its most vicious, destructive results,” says Kathleen Blee, author of Women of the Klan.
Although less well-known than the Ku Klux Klan, the WKKK was in many ways more effective. The women of the WKKK were better at public relations, disguising their radical agenda as a social welfare platform. While the men of the KKK burned crosses and lynched African Americans, the WKKK organized parades and food drives while simultaneously lobbying for national quotas for immigration, racial segregation, and anti-miscegenation laws.
So effective were women at public relations that the most powerful person in the 1920s era KKK at the time was arguably a woman named Elizabeth Tyler. Tyler headed up the Klan’s publicity team, though members of a congressional committee investigating the Klan suspected that she was the true leader of the organization. In their report the authors stated, “In this woman beats the real heart of the Ku Klux Klan today.”
Tyler’s genius was in spreading the Klan’s hatred beyond the south. She recognized that while it was easy to gin up hatred of Blacks in states like Mississippi and Georgia, it would take more to attract members in the North, East, and West. Tyler realized that every community has its own brand of xenophobia, so she added communists, Jews, immigrants, and Catholics to the Klan’s list of enemies, making her organization a perfect destination for virtually any man or woman who identified as “white.”
But even Tyler’s evil genius was no not match for the Great Depression, and by the end of the decade the Ku Klux Klan was a shell of its former self, while the WKKK totally collapsed.
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While the Ku Klux Klan reemerged and mutated over the next 50 years, splintering off into offshoots such as neo Nazi and skinhead groups, women largely returned to their roles of supportive girlfriends and spouses.
Then in the 1980s, hate group leaders, looking to build their ranks, began to actively recruit women. The leaders saw women as less likely to attract police attention and less likely to be police informers. Plus, there was one additional bonus: if they got women to join, they were likely to get their husbands and children, too.
Perhaps the biggest misconception today about women who join hate groups is that they’re mostly poor, trailer park trash who were abused as children and grew up in hateful environments. But that’s not the case. According to Blee, many women who join hate groups today come from normal middle-class families; they weren’t abused as children, nor are they particularly racist, at least, not at the onset. In many instances, the racism comes afterward in what is described as a conversion experience. ”The scary thing was that there was not any particular type who were drawn to the groups,” Blee says. ”That would be comforting.” The one common denominator was that they had known someone who was a member.”
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the number of hate groups in America surged from 917 in 2016, to 954 in 2017.
Spike Lee’s movie brilliantly reminds us that these type of groups have always been with us, but more importantly, it reveals that bigotry and hate are not gender specific.
No doubt Ron Stallworth is the star of BlacKkKlansman, but Connie Kendrickson and the women she represents are a painful reminder that we are going to need more than an annual women’s march to address this nation’s ugliest sin.