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April 3, 1997

Pitt researcher dispels many myths about KKK's members

Listen to Pittsburgh talk radio when the subject of the Ku Klux Klan and its April 5 rally Downtown arises, and most of the remarks ridicule members of such groups as ignorant, crazy and paranoid backwoods types.

While it is easy to ascribe such labels to people who see a conspiracy behind everything and view African Americans, Jews, Catholics and immigrants as the reason a God-fearing, Christian white man no longer has a chance in America, beware of stereotypes.

One thing that 20 years of studying and writing about groups like the Klan and neo-Nazi skinheads has taught Kathleen Blee, a faculty member in sociology and director of Pitt's women's studies program, is that members of those groups are not all ignorant, crazy or paranoid. Neither are they simple backwoods crackers with marginal jobs looking for scapegoats to blame for their condition in life. Blee says she has met many very intelligent, well-read people on the far right fringe of the political spectrum with libraries that would be the envy of any scholar. Many once even held middle class jobs like accountants and occupational therapists, until they tried to recruit patients or clients and were fired.

"In some ways that's the most disturbing thing," Blee says. "If it was just some outgrowth of paranoid, crazy people, then you would never worry about it really growing too much. But, for the most part, the people I know in that world are mentally alert, intelligent and educated. I don't thing this is a movement of a psychological problem. This is a social problem, a political problem." Many members of groups like the Klan, Christian Identity, Freemen and Aryan Brotherhood became involved in those organizations the same way other people become involved with the Rotary or Lions Club. They knew somebody who belong to them and joined for social reasons.

And contrary to comments on talk radio about racism having been taught to hate-group members by their families, Blee says that more than half the people she knows who belong to such groups have parents who are not racist. Most members themselves were not particularly racist when they joined the Klan or became skinheads, she adds.

"If you met these people right when they were getting involved, they wouldn't really strike you as off the charts in their racism," Blee says. "It would be a little extreme, but it really wouldn't seem that odd. But once they are in it for a while, that world view really deepens. Racism is sort of learned within the groups and also anti-Semitism." Debunking the stereotypes that surround hate groups has long been a goal of Blee's work. Over the past 15 years, she especially has been interested in the role that women have played, and continue to play, in right- wing groups. She has written a highly touted book on the subject, "Women of the Klan." Despite the fact that women are not generally associated with hate groups in the public mind, Blee has found that in certain Klans women now make up one-quarter to one-third, possibly as much as one-half, of all new members.

Through extensive interviews, the Pitt sociologist has determined that many women join the Klan and other hate groups for the same reason as men. They are afraid of changes occurring in the world around them and have learned to blame others for their problems.

"But they also join, as do men, for cultural or social reasons that often get overlooked," Blee adds. "Some of these groups are pretty good at building a community, building a world." Blee's interest in women of the Klan and other hate groups began in the early 1980s when she was doing unrelated research in the New York Public Library. In the course of that work, she stumbled across a pamphlet praising women's suffrage from around World War I that was published by the Women's Ku Klux Klan.

Startled by the discovery and the seeming contradictory nature of the pamphlet, Blee began looking further into the subject. She soon learned that the women's Klan was huge in the 1920s. It had an estimated one million members and its own ideas about women's suffrage.

"These were people who wanted women's suffrage not because they were interested in equality," Blee says. "They wanted white women voters to counteract the vote that had earlier been given to African American men and immigrant men." In its own way, according to Blee, the women's Klan of the 1920s was something of a progressive organization for native-born, Protestant women. It encouraged its members to do such things as retain their names after marrying and keep their own finances. As with the men's Klan, though, the overall agenda of the women's Klan was racist and xenophobic, Blee said. Although the Klan originated in the South after the Civil War, the KKK of the 1920s was concentrated more in the North, Midwest and on both coasts, according to Blee. It was so large that the majority of white, native-born Protestants in many towns in states like Indiana and Oklahoma, and even some portions of Pennsylvania, were members.

"The Klan really was your average middle class, mainstream white, Protestant racist group," Blee explains. "The people who joined it were not all that distinguishable from anybody else. That is one of the horrifying things about the Klan back then. They really managed to pull this cross section of people into this frenzy of hate." Blee, who came to Pitt last year from the University of Kentucky, did most of her work on the Klan in Indiana. In some areas of that state during the 1920s as much as 90 percent of the people who were eligible were members of the Klan, including mayors and police chiefs.

The 1920s Klan collapsed with the beginning of the Great Depression, according to Blee. It died for several reasons, including internal disputes, the fact that it had accomplished some of its goals, such as restricting immigration, and a sex scandal involving the rape and death of a young woman by one of the Klan's most influential leaders. His arrest, trial and conviction drew wide publicity and turned a large portion of the public against the Klan.

The drive to win World War II brought an end to the Klan and kept it from regaining any power until the 1950s, according to Blee, when school desegregation became an issue in the South. The Klan responded to that "threat" with a series of school bus bombings and other acts of terrorism that receded as desegregation became accepted. Klan activities picked up again in the 1980s, Blee says, when David Duke stirred renewed interest in the group by changing some of the rules to expand its membership. Although women played a large role in the Klan of the 1920s, the Klan of the 1950s and 1960s was based on the old model Klan of the Reconstruction Era. Its members were all men, most of them from rural areas and the South.

Duke decided to allow women to again join the Klan in the 1980s because he wanted to run for governor of Louisiana. By allowing women into the Klan, he instantly doubled the group's pool of potential recruits and with them the people who would vote for him. Another reason the Klan opened to women in the 1980s, according to Blee, was because the wives of Klan members were angry that their men left the house night after night for mysterious meetings. Angry wives were making it difficult for the Klan to keep members.

"Some of the Klan leaders decided that the reason there was so much turnover in the Klan, and there is tremendous turnover, was because of this kind of henpecked-husband phenomenon," Blee says. "They decided it was a good move to recruit women, even whole families." Despite the publicity it has recently received, the Klan today is the weakest of all the racist hate groups, Blee says. Growth is more with neo-Nazis skinheads and militia groups. To gain attention and stop its slide, the Klan has been trying to capture the headlines with activities such as its planned Pittsburgh rally.

During her years of studying hate groups, Blee has had plenty of encounters that she calls "horrifying." Among the things that have struck her the most is the violence surrounding such groups. She has found too that women are "indistinguishable from men" when it comes to violence.

Blee herself has been threatened, but declines to discuss the incident because it would be clear to hate group members who was involved. But, she says, "in general, I haven't had as much trouble as you might think, although there have been some bad situations. But I am very up front about what I am doing." Blee knows only a few members of hate groups in Pennsylvania, all of whom are in other parts of the state. Pittsburgh, with its large Catholic population and people who knew their immigrant ancestors, is not a fertile area for the anti-Catholic and the anti-immigrant ideas espoused by hate groups.

Since the Oklahoma City bombing in April 1995, Blee says, many right-wing hate groups have gone deep underground and are more difficult to find. Fortunately, Blee has completed her work and does not have to search them out.

"One of the things about interviewing these people is it's emotionally gut-wrenching," Blee says. "It was very difficult to talk to people after the [Oklahoma City] bombing and hear them talk about it in a positive way." Blee has shifted her research to poverty and violence in rural Appalachia. "I am moving back into the safer ground of archival research," she says. "It's less emotionally wearing, as well as physically frightening."

–Mike Sajna

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