Thursday, 29 September 2011

Meeting the Ku Klux Klan

Occasionally on British GENES I will post an article or two to break up the news. The following is a repost from my Walking in Eternity blog from November 2010. In 1999, I met and filmed the Ku Klux Klan for a Scottish Television documentary series I was working on - here's the encounter, and my feelings about it after.

Saturday 17th July 1999 was no ordinary day for this humble shuggie researcher. At that time I was working for Scottish Television Enterprises on a series called "Celtic America", which took me to the United States for fourteen weeks, where I had the great pleasure to travel across thirty different states and to venture into Canada on three occasions. Our series was discussing the impact of the Welsh, the Scots and the Irish in American history - it had a silly title really considering that much of England was equally 'Celtic' in the ethnic sense, though the word 'Celtic' in fact really refers to a linguistic grouping (as in Germanic, Italic, etc).

Anyway, RTE, S4C and STV were all paying for my trip, along with our small production team, and this was one day where I was to say the least a little bit apprehensive. We were in Pulaski, Tennessee, to discuss one of the more shameful Scottish and Scotch-Irish legacies in the United States - the formation of the Ku Klux Klan in 1865. Created by Tennessee veterans of the Confederate Army, the Klan was a white supremacist group and anti-Republican in sentiment, with its members having been on the losing side of the American Civil War. Much of the symbolism of the Klan was derived from Scotland - the fiery white cross was a way in times past of summoning clans to fight in the Highlands, whilst the Confederate flag which it adopted was derived from a mixture of two British flags - St Andrews Satire and St. Patrick's Saltire (the red diagonal cross symbolising Ireland in the Union Flag today).

We had been aware that in Pulaski there had been trouble in recent years and were unsure of what to expect when we turned up to film. I had made contact with representatives of the organisation a month before the date we had agreed to come and interview them, and had then lost contact with them altogether - not the easiest people to trace! We took the decision to go anyway, though fully prepared for an immediate departure if we were uncomfortable about what we found. In truth we weren't sure what we would find - would there be loads of guys dressed in white cloaks and white hoods, ready for a lynchin' (our lynchin?!). In fact, when we arrived we were surprised to discover that they were all attending a garden fete as part of their National Homecoming event in front of the courthouse, ready for a good lunchin' rather than a lynchin'.

It was a very surreal situation. There were stands where people were selling cakes, children were throwing bean bags at a target to win a prize. The man in charge (not sure of the correct terminology - grand pixie, grand wizard?) was a Pastor Thomas Robb. At one point he invited everyone to pray, and in the prayer kept coming out with the phrase "We have a dream", a less than subtle spin on Martin Luther King's historic speech, towards people in white uniformed shirts and others in t-shirts bearing the slogan "Boys in the Hood". When finished he came over to us to talk about the origins of the Klan, but before we started the interview he handed me a copy of a pamphlet published by the organisation which reproduced the text of the Declaration of Arbroath, claiming that all the moral justification for the body's existence lay in there. So they were err... anti-English? Crikey, it was enough to confuse a poor wee paddy like myself!

Things got even more surreal. The highlight of their day was a "White Pride march" as part of their "White Christian Heritage Festival". The members formed a column of two lines with many carrying flags, including the Scottish and British flags, led by the great pixie himself. It is worth explaining that Pulaski absolutely hates its assocation with the organisation, but tolerated the march, as there had been serious rioting in earlier years when the Klan had been opposed. The building where the Klan was first organised was still in existence, but now listed, and had just been bought by a new owner prior to our arrival. He had wanted to remove a commemorative plaque on the wall outside the place, but had been prevented from doing so, having been told it had to remain there as an item of historical interest. In a moment of pure brilliance he had come up with a classic solution - he basically unscrewed the plaque, turned it around so that it faced inwards and then screwed it back onto the wall again! The Klan marched up to the spot, stopped, took a left turn, gave a Nazi salute to the building then turned right and marched off again. At one point, our director suggested we go to the front of the parade and film it whilst walking backwards so that we could get shots of Gandalf and his merry men as they marched towards us, in order to gain what were known as GVs (general views), which commentary could then be laid over. We duly did so - meaning that to this date I am probably the only genealogist in Scotland who can say that he once led a march by the Ku Klux Klan...

I found the whole affair deeply disturbing. Not so much at the white shirted nutters with their badges of hate, but more specifically at what I saw at the garden fete. I took many photos that day, yet one I have in particular fills me with sadness every time I see it - a picture of a young lad, perhaps just six or seven years old, on a step, holding a Confederate flag in his hand, and smiling to camera. Coming from Northern Ireland I could see instantly what the image revealed - ethnic ascription. This child had been programmed by his parents to be a supporter of the Klan, and in time would take on a white shirt and walk in "White Pride" marches himself, and spout all the hate rhetoric and the rest.

What saddened me was that I had seen it all before - in Northern Ireland and in Scotland. The Orange Order was a similarly constituted organisation, led by men of the cloth, insisting on marches, not at Pulaski, but at Drumcree, wearing not white shirts but sashes that their father wore, etc, and today as part of a newly branded "Orange Fest" rather than a "White Christian Heritage Festival". The Orange Order was founded in Ireland by the descendants of Scottish settlers, and had been taken back to Scotland, not by Ulstermen, but by Scots themselves, in the form of returning soldiers of the Scottish fencible regiments which had been active in Ireland during the United Irishmen uprisings in 1798. Historically Scottish presbyterianism has had many wonderful theological attributes, but has also had a serious dark side. If in doubt, look at the Glasgow Herald of the 1920s and 1930s, and the rhetoric being directed towards Scottish Catholics - most notably at the Morningside riots in Edinburgh in 1935, when ten thousand Protestants terrorised a Catholic priory where a small congregation was worshipping.

It is a heritage that many of us will have within our own ancestry. Today things may be different - I am Presbyterian by background for example, but my wife is Catholic. I shout "No Surrender!" at her and she throws holy water over me and watches me burn! But in my tree, despite never believing I had any connection to the order, I have since discovered that two of my great grandfathers were grand masters of Orange lodges in Ulster and that one of them was also apparently a grand master of a Royal Black Institution lodge in Glasgow. Today in Scotland we may look at disgust at what we see in Tennessee with the Ku Klux Klan. And so we should. Next time you are in Glasgow or Belfast at an Orange march, ask yourself what it is that you are really watching before you. It just might be an echo of something equally hideous and it may also be lurking within your tree. But that's life...


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