David Chalmers. Backfire: How the Ku Klux Klan Helped the Civil Rights Movement.
David Chalmers is the author of Hooded Americanism: The History of the Ku Klux Klan, the third edition of which was published in 1987. The present book, Backfire, is unabashedly derived from that earlier study, its stated intent to focus more closely on how the Klan unwittingly helped to defeat itself in the second half of the twentieth century. In Hooded Americanism, Chalmers had focused on four major "eras" of Klan activity: its birth in the Reconstruction era; its resurgence shortly before World War One and through the 1920s; its violent response to the Civil Rights movement after the 1954 Supreme Court outlawed segregation in public schools; and finally the period at the end of the 1970s when Klan influence was in serious decline, its influence largely limited to acts of violence that in Backfire Chalmers calls "an expressive alternative to actual power for controlling larger events" (109). The last period was still playing itself out when Chalmers published the latest edition in 1987.
In Backfire, Chalmers reiterates this history in much briefer form (although he lifts whole sections with little editing from the earlier book). He focuses considerably more on the "fourth era," now 15 years along since Hooded Americanism, and affirms that the Klan is indeed in at least temporary decline, largely because of a changed climate in which court cases damaged the Klan's credibility and depleted its resources--thanks in great part to the activities of Morris Dees and the Southern Poverty Law Center. In the final chapter Chalmers moves on to "The 'Fifth Era': An Explosion on the Right." Named by Robert Miles, a Michigan Klan figure and now chaplain of the Aryan Nations, this "fifth era" is the present, a time in which Klan activity has given way to other white supremacist hate groups, such as the skinheads, neo-Nazis, and far right militant and "religious" groups that include Posse Comitatus, Aryan Nations, Christian Identity, and the Church of Jesus Christ Christian--a loose network including Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh and even the Unabomber.
Despite the specificity of its subtitle, Chalmers says Backfire is intended to tell four stories. The first and most important details how the Klan, because of its propensity for violence, compelled the state and national governments to respond with force. The second story is about the prolonged struggle to bring Klan murderers to justice, which in some cases did not occur until the 1990s. The third details the rise and fall of Robert Shelton, the imperial wizard of the United Klans of America. And the fourth traces the changes wrought by the defeat of the Klan and the proliferation of newer and different white supremacist and militant hate groups, along with those Chalmers calls "Loose Cannons."
It is the fourth "story" that most confuses Chalmers's purpose, as stated in his subtitle: He moves beyond the Ku Klux Klan to discuss-perhaps too briefly--the 50,000 or so "organized racial supremacists" in the United States, their influence extending a "significant way beyond their numbers" (146). What is new is confined largely to the book's final three chapters, some 50 pages. Obviously, the book is valuable for this update and new focus on the "fifth era," but no doubt a longer book by him focused wholly on this topic would be of great value. Nevertheless, Backfire is of much interest, especially in showing the links between the history of the Klan and the differently insidious newer groups, and it helps makes Chalmers's point that race remains "the basic subtext in American society and politics" (164).
The main purpose of the book is to show how the Klan defeated itself through its own zeal for violence. As Chalmers puts it, "In the changing world of the 1960s, doing what Klansmen liked to do best helped bring about federal intervention, new national civil rights laws, trials in less sympathetic federal courts, and, eventually, guilty verdicts from local juries" (40-41). He discusses the Klan's inability to organize, possibly because its raw grievances were so narrow and locally personal, and possibly because its rank-and-file members boasted little education or desire to comprehend or incorporate the convictions of "outsiders." This Klan parochialism may also account for why individual Klansmen were so easily intimidated by the FBI and so readily became informants. It must be said, however, that Chalmers had already made this case for backlash, even if less emphatically, in Hooded Americanism.
What is best about Backfire is its follow-through in updating the "fourth era" and linking it to the "fifth," largely by detailing the power and influence of the Southern Poverty Law Center and its controversial leader Morris Dees. Perhaps the SPLC's most important contribution was its ability to make the legal case that the Klan as an organization could be held responsible for the violence of its members, opening the door to a host of prosecutions. Through well-publicized cases, the SPLC managed, among other feats, to shut down the United Klans of America, and it forced the FBI to open some of its secret Civil Rights files. Also showing the cultural developments of the 1990s, the last of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombers, Bobby Frank Cherry, was finally convicted in 2002--nearly 40 years after the murders.
The other element of most value in Backfire is its discussion of the "fifth era." Chalmers identifies "a loose, violent white supremacist network of cults, compounds, tax resisters, constitutionalists, churches, racists, nativists, anti-Semites, Nazis, paramilitary training camps, posses, militias, survivalists, bombers, bank robbers, skinheads, and millenialists as well as the bedraggled and depleted legions of Klansmen and Klanswomen" (163-64). Many of the members of these groups are avid believers in the "Zionist Occupation Government" found in neo-Nazi William Pierces's The Turner Diaries, and are convinced that conspiracies against them are rampant. To the already existent xenophobia and racial hatred has now been added a new element, a broad hatred of a demonized federal government-even, as Chalmers notes, such a conservative government as that of Ronald Reagan.
Towards the end of the book, Chalmers opens the question of terrorism in the United States in the post-9/11 world: "How firm, "he asks, "are the institutions and values that hold together a tolerant, multicultural America ...?" and "Is there the possibility of a rising ethnic nationalism and a reaction to Middle East terrorism on whose ragged edge the white supremacists can find a place?" (183). Testing the degree of such anger in America, Chalmers glances finally at the political positions taken by Pat Buchanan in his runs for the presidency. Buchanan, reading the times and seeing an opportunity for a candidate on the far right, espoused many of the issues dear to supremacist groups, if not with those groups' violent fervor; as for race, even his friend William F. Buckley thought some of Buchanan's statements anti-Semitic. But, at least so far, the threat of a radical right American government is far from reality, as Buchanan's share of the 2000 vote was less than half a percent. Nevertheless, Chalmers says, as we entered the twenty-first century, "the ingredients of an economy of hate still fed a violent right wing"--which still included a "ragged and diminished" Klan (186).
Is this book necessary? Because Chalmers's picture of how the Klan relates to the emergent network of hate groups and white supremacists is well-argued and eye-opening, the repetitions from Hooded Americanism may be forgiven. One might quibble that the book would carry more authority if Chalmers had used footnotes or endnotes, but the "Essay on Sources" at the end of the book reveals his sources in depth, and further, provides a good working bibliography for involved readers. Given Chalmers's authority as a historian of the Klan, Backfire deserves a wide readership.
Joseph J. Wydeven
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Author:||Wydeven, Joseph J.|
|Publication:||African American Review|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2004|
|Previous Article:||Martha Gilman Bower. "Color Struck" under the Gaze: Ethnicity and the Pathology of Being in the Plays of Johnson, Hurston, Childress, Hansberry, and...|
|Next Article:||Jeff Abernathy. To Hell and Back: Race and Betrayal in the Southern Novel.|