I got into a discussion on a message board about how the Confederate flag is inextricably associated with racism in general, and the Ku Klux Klan specifically. In the discussion, I did some little research, and I felt it a shame to waste it on an ephemeral forum topic.
I’ve lived in the South my entire life (42 years). I lived in small towns for a sum total of about 23 years, a university town for about 6 years, and the state capital area for about 13 years. I’ve seen the Confederate flag flown here and there, and its image displayed in many places and worn by many people. But I’ve never met someone whom I knew was a member of any organized racist group, KKK or other.
Now, this is not to say I’ve never met a racist — I’ve known many through the years (and not just white folk). And I can’t say that someone I met or knew wasn’t a closet member of some organization. But I can say, self assured, that the KKK (or similar) was never a major factor in my personal culture.
I never saw anything “KKKish” in my world. I knew about the organization, just as I knew of the FBI and NASA, but the group had no place in my real life. We occasionally (once a decade or so) heard of a news report mentioning something the KKK did. Looking back at the historical record, now, I see there was a “massacre” (5 deaths) in my state back in 1979.
And I find it hard to believe that living through the 70s and 80s in my hometown with its Southern quota of rednecks, that I would completely miss the presence of a truly ubiquitous organization.
In the discussion I mentioned at the beginning of the post, a few people mentioned the KKK being active and “stronger than ever.” And since it is always assumed that the KKK is a Southern “tradition” I had to look into this — surely my lack of experience with the group through the years wasn’t because I wore blinders. Maybe my family especially worked to shield me from any such experience. But even if so, that shielding can only last so long. Eventually, a child grows up and learns the truth about the world.
In the 1920s, there were 4-5 million KKK members.
In the 2000s, there are 5-8 thousand.
Compare this to the US membership in Mensa: 50 thousand.
Hardly “stronger than ever.” Now, this suggests that the KKK has become more boogeymen legend than active real men. With the estimate that two-thirds of KKK members reside in the South, that’s 5,280 members (using 8,000 max-range total) out of a total Southern population of 109,083,752 — that’s 0.00004% (four hundred thousandths of one percent).
Since there are many other racist groups besides just the KKK, let’s multiply the numbers by ten. It’s still a very tiny relative number: at most 80,000 — less than the number of SAG members (139,000), school principals (~130,000), NAACP members (300,000), lawyers (~1.2 million), and NASCAR fans (~75 million).
Back to the original issue: that the Confederate flag got coopted as a racist symbol.
The Confederate flag should be an American historical icon, in the same category as the “Don’t Tread On Me” flag, the cavalry bugle call, and the girly nose art on WWII bombers. But when it was claimed by the KKK as a symbol for them, it became tainted. That’s a damn shame.
But since the KKK seems to have been dying out as a viable cultural force over the past few decades, I got to wondering if they still use the Confederate flag as a symbol. Just because everyone else still identifies that flag with that group doesn’t mean the group still uses it.
So I went to the KKK’s main web site to see what imagery they use there. (I’m not going to link to the site, but I’m sure you could easily find it if you wanted to look for yourself.) What I found surprised me. I was even surprised to be surprised. That site is pretty damn pathetic. It looks like something a teenager designed for a personal geocities web site in the 1990s. My local game store has a better, more professional looking web presence — and it’s just one store with maybe a couple hundred regular customers. You’d think a national bugaboo would have something more sinisterly impressive.
But I did find a Confederate flag at the top of their page. It was part of a collage of images including the American flag, the U.S. Capital building, and Mount Rushmore. So, damn, they do still show the Confederate flag.
But now that the racist organization seems to be dying a quiet and lonely death, how long will it take for the Confederate flag to air out the taint they’ve smeared on it? It would be nice to have it among the mostly-politically-neutral icons of American history. Something a Southern good ol’ boy could paint on top of his orange Dodge Charger as a fun and cool symbol of Southerness without getting branded a racist asshole.