Inciting hatred: behind the KKK

June 23, 1999


Inciting hatred: behind the KKK

By Peter Robson and Adam Baker

BRISBANE — For a few days this month, far right organisations operating in Australia dominated the mainstream media. Several members of Pauline Hanson's One Nation party were expelled after they revealed themselves to be members of the racist US-based Ku Klux Klan (KKK).

"Our aim is for a white Australia, a fair Australia", declared one of the expelled members, Peter Coleman, who has been a member of One Nation since its formation and is now the "Exalted Cyclops" of the Australian chapter of the KKK.

"The only reason that groups like this exist is that if you try to talk in a reasonable manner, you are pilloried from post to post. Look at Pauline Hanson. You are forced to be an extremist", Coleman said.

The media have blamed the internet for the emergence of extreme right-wing organisations such as the KKK, a claim that conveniently coincides with the federal government's internet censorship bill.

In contrast, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission and other organisations have suggested that the KKK is thriving on the culture of racism created by government policies such as the denial of native title rights and the scare campaign whipped up against "illegal" migrants.

Tiny organisations such as the KKK in Australia arise due to the climate of racism promoted by the "respectable" racists in the major ruling parties. In a time of austerity, when the government is cutting welfare and bosses are cutting wages, racism is used to divide workers and pit them against each other.

Workers are taught to accept the lie that migrants "take their jobs" to prevent them from campaigning against the real culprits — the capitalists and the governments. We are meant to believe that Aboriginal people receive "special benefits" so that we can be convinced to support cuts to Abstudy and other welfare payments.

Although groups like the KKK lack mass support, they create a climate of fear which helps promote extremist racist ideas. The media attention they receive also allows the government's own racist policies to appear "moderate" by comparison. They can posture as anti-racist because they denounce the KKK or Pauline Hanson.

Terrible history

The Ku Klux Klan, and similar racist, terrorist organisations formed in the US at the end of its civil war (1861-1865). This was a war between the slave-dependent southern states, under the leadership of the Democratic Party, and the industrialised northern states, under the leadership of the Republicans, over what should be the basis of the US economy.

Although billed as a "war against slavery", it was really a fight over whether the southern Confederacy would secede from the US to protect the profits of the southern plantation owners (which depended on slavery) or whether the northern capitalists would dominate and consolidate the United States into a major capitalist power able to compete with England and Europe.

Initially the rulers of the north opposed emancipation for enslaved southern African-Americans, but as the war dragged on, it became clear that the north would win only by promising to abolish slavery. The war then became a war for "justice" and abolition. African-Americans enlisted in the northern army and were a powerful force from within the south undermining the Confederacy. This brought millions of black people into political life.

Following the defeat of the south and slavery, the gains made by African-Americans unnerved the ruling class in both the north and the south. Because the war had mobilised African-Americans against slavery, they felt that they could accomplish more.

Black workers began to demand things like equal pay and voting rights, and they found support from progressive forces that they had fought alongside during the civil war. The ruling class had to find a way to repress the concepts of equality and justice that it had promoted during the war.

The ruling class first mobilised sections of the northern army against workers and freed slaves, but the rebellion within the ranks of the army was just as strong as it was outside the army. During the civil war, soldiers had been told they were fighting against injustice, and many refused to be part of reimposing injustice.

To counteract this militancy, the ruling class of the north enlisted elements of the old Confederate army, which had been indoctrinated with ultra-conservative and racist ideas. They couldn't be used as a regular army, so they were organised as "independent" militias; the best known is the Ku Klux Klan.

The name came from the Greek word Kuklos, meaning circle. The Klan first recruited from southern soldiers but also from farmers who had lost slaves following the war. The group concerned itself mostly with terrorist activity against militant blacks and migrants, but also played a large role in repressing trade union activity. It is estimated that groups like the KKK were responsible for around 20,000 deaths between 1867 and 1871.

In 1875, these reactionary forces organised to terrorise the African-American population to prevent them voting in the Mississippi elections. Through pogroms, assassination and intimidation, the Democrats were able to "win" against their radical Republican opponents.

In South Carolina elections, the Democratic Party sent instructions which said, "every Democrat must feel honor bound to control the vote of at least one Negro by intimidation, purchase, keeping him away or as each individual may determine". The same document also declared: "Never threaten a man individually. If he deserves to be threatened the necessities of the time requires that he should die."

During the period of reaction following the war, thousands of blacks were killed, driven from their homes, tortured and intimidated in an attempt to wind back the political gains won in the period of radical reconstruction after the civil war. Organisations like the KKK, the White Line, the White Leagues and the Red Shirts were the standard bearers of this racist campaign.

The KKK continued its activities, with covert government support, until federal intervention forced it to disintegrate in 1871-72. In 1915 another group formed with the same name and the same ideals and continues to carry out similar activities today.

It is this racist and violent legacy that the KKK in Australia looks to. The KKK here are a minuscule force, having a claimed membership of only 70 in the eastern states. But the racist traditions they draw on are still strong, and it is vital that we campaign against all attacks on indigenous people and migrants to ensure that such racist ideas do not gain widespread legitimacy.

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