May 2, 2005
The first step against hate
Walter B. Reeves, a writer and researcher based in Atlanta, was co-chair of education and outreach for Neighbors Network from 1989–95.
It was after dark when I left my first Klan rally. As I drove away, the flames of three gigantic crosses flickering behind me and shouts of White Power!, Hail Victory! and White Revolution! echoing in my mind, I realized the traditional bigotry of the Ku Klux Klan was morphing into something having less to do with the history of the post-reconstruction South and more
to do with the history of post-World War I Germany.
It was a sunny day in 1986 when I arrived at the rally site. The National Klonvocation, as it was known in Klan parlance, was an annual Labor Day weekend event, held on a piece of property in the shadow of Stone Mountain since the 1920s. With a family background that was Southern, white and rural, I’d thought myself fully prepared for what I would encounter. I soon knew better.
At the rally entrance I was screened at a military-style checkpoint. Camouflage-clad Klan guards questioned me while glaring at the GBI (Georgia Bureau of Investigation) agents posted outside the rally property. It was the first sign that this was not my granddaddy’s Klan. The Jim Crow-era Klan pictured itself as a noble defender of the white, Christian status quo, often abetted in its criminal and terrorist activities by local police and politicians. Here, the hostility toward law enforcement was palpable. Here was the atmosphere of an armed camp, at war with the outside world.
It was an impression that only intensified as the day ground on. While plenty of traditional robed and hooded Klansmen were present, an equal number were garbed in military fashion, and it was these who were in charge of security. The distinction between the two groups was more than just sartorial; it was generational, as well.
The traditionalists were middle-aged or older, a crowd that fit the accepted stereotype of Klansmen. The militaries were the younger generation, twenty- and thirtysomethings with a combative, self-consciously “revolutionary” attitude. When the event’s speakers launched into exterminationist rants about blacks, Jews, communists and homosexuals, these young Turks responded with shouts of Eight! Eight! (This was a code phrase referring to H, the eighth letter of the alphabet, and meant “Heil Hitler”). They considered themselves the wave of the future; more than a few of the traditionalists suspected they might be right. By the end of the night, I wondered the same thing.
In January of the following year, many of these same people were in Cumming, Ga., where a Klan-led mob of hundreds attacked a Martin Luther King Jr. Day commemorative march that included the late Rev. Hosea Williams.
The Stone Mountain rally marked the beginning of a nine-year odyssey for me through the back alleys and byways populated by American hate groups and hatemongers. Along the way, I crossed paths with such notorious characters as convicted church bomber J.B. Stoner, Holocaust denier David Irving and White Aryan Resistance leader Tom Metzger.
Over time I learned that the popular conception of white supremacists and right-wing extremists as aging relics of a bygone era was itself a dangerously erroneous notion. Instead, I discovered a political movement in ferment, with the ability to reinvent itself as prevailing conditions required—a movement flexible enough to pursue a variety of strategies, and cloak itself variously in traditional, radical, mature, youthful, conservative, revolutionary, Christian and pagan guises. It was an ideology equally comfortable in the hood, the jackboot or the suit and tie, not averse to flying under false colors and quite accomplished at ignoring its own inconsistencies.
The first step on my journey was when I volunteered in 1986 for the Atlanta-based Center for Democratic Renewal, signing up to infiltrate Klan rallies and demonstrations. Later I continued as an activist, researcher and writer with a dedicated group of volunteers comprising a local community organization known as Neighbors Network.
Founded in late 1987, Neighbors Network defined its mission as “countering hate-crime and hate-group activity through research, education, victims assistance and community action.” This was a broad mission for a handful of people gathered around a kitchen table to take on, but each of us was convinced of the need for it. My own experiences as an infiltrator left me with no doubts.
During my years of activity I witnessed first hand the sense of alienation and disenfranchisement that fuels extremist movements. Some might find it surprising, but many of the individuals drawn to these movements were not initially motivated by ingrained racial or ethnic hatreds. Rather, they felt a pervasive impotence in the face of a threatening world. They turned to such movements for a network of support and a sense of empowerment lacking in their day-to-day lives.
Nowhere was this more evident than with teenagers drawn into the neo-Nazi, skinhead subculture. On more than one occasion, the Neighbors Network was called upon to aid young people seeking to leave the Nazi/skin scene. Sometimes we were contacted by frantic parents, sometimes by the young people themselves. Recovering young people from this movement became a major aspect of our victims-assistance work, along with documenting instances of harassment and, when necessary, housesitting so that victimized families might sleep in their own homes without fear. The Nazi skinhead phenomenon was more proof, if any were needed, of the absolute ruthlessness with which the movement targeted the susceptible for recruitment.
There are many examples of how the movement tailored its marketing strategies to specific groups. Space will not allow for a full discussion of them here, so a partial list will have to do: There are the intellectual pretensions of the Holocaust denial industry as typified by the likes of David Irving; or the creation of pseudo-conservative outfits such as the Council of Conservative Citizens and their success in enlisting the support of mainstream politicians; or the attempts at cloaking extremism in appeals to “Southern heritage” and the religious bigotry implicit in the calls for a “Christian” nation. Neighbors Network conscientiously documented these developments and sought to expose them to greater public scrutiny.
Sadly, while the extremists have not succeeded in legitimizing their unvarnished agenda in public debate, neither have they gone away. They continue to pursue their long-term goals at every opportunity. However these days they must reckon with a far greater degree of public awareness, as well as a much higher level of grassroots opposition. I’d like to think that the efforts made by the Neighbors Network helped lay the foundation for this.
It is a source of great satisfaction to me and all those who participated in this work to know that the Neighbors Network archive, spanning the years 1988–95, has been accepted by Special Collections of Woodruff Library (see story, Donations). A special thanks is due to Berl Boykin of “Touching Up Our Roots,” a gay-history project, for suggesting the donation.
In time, this archive will provide researchers with a valuable resource for documenting and analyzing not only the white supremacist movement but other extremist groups, as well. In addition, the archive will provide data for examining effective methods of countering the activities of such groups.
The volunteers whose efforts produced the archive were animated by the belief that knowledge was the indispensable first step in this defense. The establishment of the Neighbors Network collection ensures the work of these volunteers will provide an ongoing legacy consistent with that belief.