Thorne Dreyer :
The KKK in the news today… and back in Sixties Houston.

The Klan recruiting in the Panhandle; Klan cop in Florida; a Klansman says ‘I’m sorry.’ (Oh… and how they shot us up in the Sixties!)

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Fruitland Park, Fla., police officer James Elkins (right) in his KKK regalia. Photo from Orlando Sentinel.

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U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga, left, is seen with Elwin Wilson of Rock Hill, S.C., in Lewis’ Washington, D.C., office Tuesday, Feb. 3, 2009, while taping an interview for Good Morning America. Photo by AP.

By Thorne Dreyer | The Rag Blog | February 9, 2009

As if things weren’t bad enough, The Ku Klux Klan is back in the news. Jobsanger reports that they’re recruiting in the Texas Panhandle and Jay Jurie passes along a report from the Orlando Sentinel about a Klan cop being unearthed and axed from the force in Orlando.

All this brings back memories of our, shall we say, exciting adventures with the Ku Klux Klan back in the Sixties in Houston. The Klan bombed our cars and shot up our offices — and my mother’s art gallery! But first the news.

The Amarillo branch of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan is recruiting in Tampa, Texas. According to Jobsanger, “they are stuffing their leaflets into a plastic bag with a few stones and throwing it out on lawns in the dead of night.”

He adds:

These days the Klan is trying to pass itself off as a kinder gentler version. The leader of the national group says they are the “traditional” Klan. He says they don’t accept skinheads or fascists. He would like people to believe they are just another “charitable fraternal” group.

And, in the Orlando area:

James Elkins, 28, resigned on January 20 after the [Fruitland Park, Florida] police department launched an internal investigation after receiving information that Elkins was distributing fliers promoting the KKK in Sumter County…

The Lake County Sheriff Office also received photos earlier this week that allegedly show Elkins dressed in KKK gowns and hoods…

In a different vein, there’s this terrific story: a former Klansman who participated in the beating of then civil rights leader John Lewis has sought forgiveness for his actions of 48 years ago. Elwin Wilson traveled to Washington, D.C., to meet with Lewis, now a U.S. Congressman from Georgia, and the two men embraced and sent bygones scurrying for cover.

According to the Boston Herald,

Elwin Wilson was an unabashed racist, the sort who once hung a black doll from a noose outside his home. … [He and Lewis] faced each other at a South Carolina bus station during a protest in 1961. Wilson joined a white gang that jeered Lewis, attacked him and left him bloodied on the ground.

Wilson said he tried to block the memory but couldn’t. “I just told him I was sorry,”

Lewis said Wilson is the first person involved in the dozens of attacks against him during the civil rights era to step forward and apologize. When they met Tuesday, Lewis offered forgiveness without hesitation.

“I was very moved,” said Lewis. “He was very, very sincere, and I think it takes a lot of raw courage to be willing to come forward the way he did. … I think it will lead to a great deal of healing.”

In Houston in the 60s, the Klan decided we were safer to mess with than our brothers and sisters of color

Back in the late 60s-early 70s I was in Houston where I was active in SDS and was an editor and publisher of Space City! – an underground newspaper that did some muck raking and rabble-rousing in the region and was a significant nuisance to the powers-that-were. The Klan was experiencing something of a revival at the time and the role of that organization in the Houston police force then is a thing of legend.

It wasn’t until Fred Hofheinz became mayor that the Klan infestation within the Houston constabulary was seriously addressed.

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A Houston policeman, a member of the Ku Klux Klan in Texas, poses in 1972 with hood and mask, with his badge number covered with masking tape and hand. Photo by Ron Laytner / Edit International.

In a remarkable article published by Edit International about secret interviews he had with members of the Houston area Klan in 1972, Ron Laytner wrote about being blindfolded and taken away by an unseen man.

Then,

“a powerful flashlight was turned on me and I began to see a City of Houston police officer removing my blindfold. …across his face and over his head he wore the mask and hood of the Ku Klux Klan, the secret terror organization dating back to the American Civil War. …

His face was hidden, the number of his police badge was covered with masking tape and so were the identifying numbers on his Houston police car.

Laytner described one Klansman he met with:

In one hand he held a big black Bible. In the other he held a hair trigger semi-automatic rifle. On his head he wore a Western hat with a Confederate flag.

He spoke of God and love, but on the wall behind him was a yellow Klan bumper sticker of hate. It listed as “signs of the Anti-Christ” peace movements, the United Nations, Jews and communism.

A giant American flag was pinned on the wall in a nearby room next to the rest rooms and beside an assortment of Confederate flags was a badge sticker on a wall saying “Friend of Police.”

A collection of loaded rifles and shotguns stood in various corners around the room.

But, despite the scary posturing shown Ron Laytner, the Klan of the Sixties and seventies was, at least in my experience, a shadow of the terror-inspiring Klan of regularly scheduled lynchings and church burnings. There were still incidents of serious and brutal violence in the deep south, but there was also a lot of bravado. In Houston, they did their really dirty work – like throwing Hispanics and blacks into Buffalo Bayou with virtual impunity – while wearing the blue uniforms of the Houston police.

Laytner points out that

A few years later an FBI task force gave lie detector tests to every policeman in Texas resulting in the firing and resignations of more than 200 Klan member cops and high police officials.

The Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, part of the United Klans of America, were led by a rather hefty Grand Dragon name of Frank Converse. They were aiming much of their trademark venom at white radicals, apparently figuring we were less likely to fight back then our freshly militant and notably better armed brothers and sisters of color.

(Converse told Space City!’s Gary Thiher it was actually the Jews they were worried about.)

Laytner wrote:

The battle between right and left in Houston has been marked by bombings, shootings, beatings and burnings, many of them attributed to the Klan.

The hearty denizens of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan threw a concussion grenade into the Space City! office, sent the occasional bullet through our windows and firebombed a couple of our cars– and they shot up my mother’s art gallery. (Not only did Dreyer Galleries exhibit the work of black artists, but Margaret Webb Dreyer – an acclaimed painter and teacher now listed in “The Great Women of Texas” – was also a pacifist to the core who spoke out against the War in Vietnam.)

My father — a reporter for the Houston Chronicle – joined by my peacenik mom, and heavily hirsute me, responded by storming downtown to rail at – and be ignored by – the Houston City Council.

The Houston Klan twice bombed the transmitter of Pacifica radio station KPFT-FM, the first time before the station had even hit the airwaves. So KPFT, glued to the concept of freedom of speech, responded by offering Grand Dragon Converse a weekly show! He eagerly accepted but, as news director Mitch Green remembered, in effect, “They did it for a couple of weeks but realized that nobody was listening to them, so they got pissed and went out and bombed us again.”

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Houston Klansman Louis Beam in full battle array. Photo by Ron Laytner, Edit International.

Space City!, in its Nov. 14, 1970 issue, reported that two well-known Klansmen — Louis Beam and Jim Hutto — were picked up driving with their lights off near a local radio station after a bomb threat had been called in. They were equipped in paramilitary garb, “with several rifles, a bottle of gasoline and a walkie-talkie.” They had been spotted near the Space City! office earlier in the evening. They were released without charges.

Louis Beam — who was implicated in the KPFT bombing and the bombing of a Socialist Workers Party headquarters in Houston — would himself become a Grand Dragon, spend some time on the FBI’s most wanted list, be acquitted of sedition and become a leader of the Aryan Nation and the Christian Identity movement.

Frank Converse admitted that the Klan had members working undercover in the police and city government. And, “for over two years we kept Klansmen working in the SDS,” he said, but added that they had pulled them out for fear their cover would be blown. Jim Hutto had in fact successfully infiltrated Houston SDS for a bit, selling himself as a working class hero.

The Klan attempted to infiltrate the Space City! staff but scrawny and clueless “Mike Love” didn’t fool anyone for long. In what — through the coolness of retrospection — seems genuinely knuckleheaded, a couple of staffers actually went to a cross-burning and photographed Love in full Klan regalia. Space City! ran the photos in the next issue. The next time he came to the office to volunteer, Dennis Fitzgerald and Cam Duncan chased him down, tackled him cleanly, and held him in a headlock. A picture of this textbook takedown would also grace the pages of Space City!

One night Sherwood Bishop, who lived at the time in the Space City! office — a big old house on Wichita Street in a transitional Houston neighborhood — awoke to the sound of suspicious stirrings. He saw a car creeping by out front, while Houston cop cars hovered at each corner. Suddenly a head and a crossbow poked out from the car’s window and an arrow came screaming to a halt, lodged firmly in our front door.

On it was a sticker that proclaimed, “The Knights of the Ku Klux Klan is [sic, to be sure] watching you.”

No one from the Houston Klan has come forward to confess their remorse.

[Long-time alternative journalist Thorne Dreyer edits The Rag Blog, hosts Rag Radio, and is a director of the New Journalism Project. Dreyer was a founding editor of The Rag in Austin in 1966. He can be contacted at editor@theragblog.com]

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9 Responses to Thorne Dreyer :
The KKK in the news today… and back in Sixties Houston.

  1. Anonymous says:

    Them sheets make damn good toilet paper.

  2. Mariann says:

    Thorne, I think what the Klan would have not liked most about your wonderful and gifted Mom, had they known it, was not her openness to black artists, not even her pacifism, but the tacit encouragement she gave to a whole group of lucky Houston kids, your friends, showing them by her very existence that another kind of life was possible. I only had the pleasure of meeting her once, and she blew my mind! She was some kind of classy lady, who treated young people like thinking beings, no doubt contributing to the development of several besides yourself.

  3. Judy Weiser says:

    I will never forget volunteering for Space City 1970-1973, helping out, and the night we decided to move the big work table away from direct view of the street, because we were afraid of a shotgun blast coming through the door.

    I try to tell stories about this (and similar memories — such as of drunken white men spray-painting swastikas on the cars in front of our Bellaire home (and breaking out the lamp-post at the curb) one night during Passover. Our poor African-American “maid” (which is what they were called in those days) also had her car painted and had to drive it back into the “Black” part of Houston…

    I try to tell these stories to people who did not live through those years — and who often do not believe me about living in a time when Jews were not considered “White” and the Klan made sure WE knew the difference.

    My younger friends/relatives are amazed (and sometimes I am certain they think I’m exaggerating…) Well… I’m not!!

    Judy (Getz) Weiser

  4. Anonymous says:

    Thanks for this tale. I expect the history of the civil rights movement in the ’60’s & 70’s has already become as foggy to young Americans as the was the history of the Great Depression or even WWII to most activists 45 years ago. It may be too much to hope that Texas state-approved history texts will ever do more than gloss over the struggle for human rights. And teachers with any personal experience of that period are at or rushing toward Medicare. That makes it even more important that we pass on our own stories to our children & grandchilren. Oral tradition may be moribund, but it isn’t dead. So if you have a story like this, tell it & tell it again.

  5. Tom Cleaver says:

    Louis Beam is also the guy who came up with the theory of “the lone wolf” – the completely “disorganized organization” white supremacists use nowadays. Most recently (like about 4 years ago), he’s advocated an alliance with jihadists against their “common enemy” – the Jews who have taken over America. A friend of mine who worked undercover in the white supremacist movement for the FBI (and is today the ACLU’s go-to guy in Washington on the topic of anti-terrorism) says that an alliance of white supremacists and Al Qaeda would be “the worst nightmare,” since you’d have people the authorities aren’t even looking for (and too often agree with) planting the nuke for AQ.

    Happy nightmares to that!

    TC

  6. Sherwood says:

    Thorne,
    It was actually a concussion grenade that came through the door that night. When it fell by my feet I assumed, naively, that it must be a stink bomb. I heard someone running away and I ran after him. That’s when the grenade blew up, with poor Gavin Duffy inside the office (upstairs fortunately). This was an early incident, so I couldn’t believe anyone would throw a real hand grenade at us. Some of the grenade fragments had printing on them, including, in large letters: “Grenade, M16.” I gave the fragments to a cop (in hindsight, incredibly naively) and pointed out the printing because I thought that it was a military grenade. The Houston Chronicle article the next day quoted the police as saying that it was a pipe-bomb.
    The crossbow incident was a year or two later, and we gave the arrow to Abby Hoffman (or was it Arlo Guthrie?).
    The idea of Klan members working with Al Queda seems pretty far-fetched to me. Klan people like Louis Beam are self-indulgent, acting from irrational hatreds and jealousies and from my limited personal experience, invariably cowardly. They’re opportunists, like anthrax spores, and being a “Grand Dragon” is little more of an accomplishment than buying an online document to become an “ordained minister.” The “disorganized organization” isn’t a Klan theory or a tactic, it’s just another symptom of their pathology.

  7. Larry Ray says:

    Thorne,

    Fascinating to learn about your Houston days and the Klan-Cop times there. Has anyone done articles/photos lately pointing out the clear comparisons of the Klan and their pointy dunce caps with the terrorists in the Middle East who wear masks to hide their identities? With America’s so called war on terror the Klan would seem a natural target as terrorists.

    We again face potential ‘us-against them’ survivalist times ahead with unemployment and levels of crime and break-ins increasing as the recession deepens. Folks at the fringes do desperate things and Klan recruiters again can cloak their purpose in Christian and family- values, basically creating a strident militia of redneck white underclass to vent their hate and frustration against even poorer minorities. And there are lots of Mexicans out there to fill in for the street peddler Jews who have all become successful and beyond the reach of the Klan.

    On a flip-side of things Klan . . . this radical credo from the
    1920’s was almost half a century ahead of NOW. Phyllis Schlafly would have probably joined these Women’s Lib trail blazers.

    Larry

  8. The Enemy of My Enemy

    University Press of Kansas The Enemy of My Enemy. The Alarming Convergence of Militant Islam and the Extreme Right
    http://www.kansaspress.ku.edu/micene.html

  9. Anonymous says:

    The “progressive front”?? The “progressives” have been in power for about half a century in the United States. They have destroyed the organized labor movement, which isn’t surprising since they were financied by transnational corporations and international bankers all the while. The black steel worker who made $25/hr. in the 60s, now works in the “service industry” and makes about $7/hr…. but he feels better about himself now! Now that’s PROGRESS!!

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