It seemed to me during the Fifties that Robert thoroughly enjoyed himself most of the time. He was a politically oriented person and the advent of court-ordered school desegregation in 1954 gave him a cause célèbre along with the usual night-riding and Klan work.
In later years, I became fascinated with the history of the Klan, and I began to research this organization that drove, and was driven by, men like Robert Chambliss. I learned that the Ku Klux Klan had been born in 1866 near Pulaski, Tennessee. It had been formed, some say as a prank, by half a dozen reputable, well-educated young men who felt themselves oppressed and bored during the Reconstruction Era after the Civil War. After an evening of talk and drink in a local judge’s office these men put sheets over themselves and went riding through the streets; they were amused at the fear this raised in superstitious Negroes, who reputedly thought the night riders were the ghosts of the Confederate dead. Their hooded night riding soon took the nature of protecting newly disenfranchised Southern whites, particularly Southern white women. The night riders denied, however, any involvement with violence or attacks on innocent or unarmed Negroes.
Ku Klux Klan spokesmen held that their power was in their anonymity, but that very “invisibility” allowed others, who might be less honorable, to perform acts of violence under the guise of being Klansmen. Violent activities such as floggings, lynchings, and tar-and-feathering prompted passage of laws aimed at curtailing vigilante night-riding.
After being officially disbanded by its Imperial Wizard, former Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest, the KKK did not function again as an organizational entity until 1915, when “Colonel” William Joseph Simmons revived it. Alongside a newspaper advertisement for the D. W. Griffith classic film Birth of a Nation in Atlanta, Simmons proclaimed the newborn Klan as “The World’s Greatest Secret, Social, Patriotic, Fraternal Beneficiary Order.”
He renamed the brotherhood the “Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.” Simmons was a professional fraternalist and a skilled organizer who, with the aid of a public relations team, built the reborn Klan into an empire. At its peak in the 1920s, Klan membership was estimated at between four and five million, with, surprisingly enough, more members in the North than in the South.
In 1922, amidst a rigorous power struggle, leadership of the Klan passed to Dr. Hiram Evans, a dentist from Texas. Under Evans’s hand, the Klan grew to phenomenal levels, which made election of Klansmen to high office and appointment of Klansmen to important posts a rich complement to its numerical and financial strength. Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black, Alabama Governor Bibb Graves, and President Harry Truman top the long list of sheriffs, policemen, mayors, state and U.S. senators and representatives, attorneys general, governors, cabinet members, judges, and justices who stood shoulder to shoulder with farmers, truck drivers, small businessmen, laborers, and just ordinary folks in the hooded Empire.
It was during this flurry of growth that 20-year-old Robert Chambliss entered the organization in 1924. I don’t know much about Robert’s joining or his early Klan activities, but it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that he joined after viewing Birth of a Nation; that film became the epic of self-definition for Klansmen, and Robert and other members of the Birmingham klaverns were using it at meetings into the Sixties and Seventies. I do know that by the 1940s, when I first became aware of Robert’s activities, the Klan had lost much of its glitter and influence. By the time the Internal Revenue Service filed a lien against the Klan for $685,000 in back taxes in 1944, fewer prominent people were members and the national organization had splintered into a number of independent groups.
I believe, as I’ve mentioned earlier, that a large part of what attracted Robert and men like him was the fraternalist status of the Klan. Although Klan influence was waning by the Forties, Robert and his cohorts still enjoyed rank equal to, and perhaps more awesome than, the Masons, the Elks, and the Woodmen of the World. A Klansman knew that his “brothers” would see that he was buried decently and would look after his widow and children, and he expected their backing if he got into trouble. The Klan also gave white men a sense of place and power in a world that often afforded them neither; white men were often competing for low-paying jobs with black men who were living as we did, in neighborhoods separated only by railroad tracks or a stand of trees.
I knew that the Klan traditionally supported public education, family, the Protestant fundamentalist churches, the Southern version of the Democratic party, individual freedoms as guaranteed by the Bill of Rights, states’ rights, and segregation of the races. They also generally supported a right-to-work, anti-union position, declaring labor unions to be Communist.
When the Klan was reborn under Dr. Samuel Green in Atlanta in 1946, it again started to grow. Thousands of working-class men returned from Europe and Japan expecting the spoils of victory as returning heroes, but what they found instead was an economy geared to war, trying to retool itself to peacetime production. Many of the jobs they had had before their military service were no longer available, although the women who had held down the fort were going home to make room for the returning men. They found a shortage of housing and a scarcity of consumer goods, even though rationing had been lifted. World War II had ended the Great Depression, but the boom days of the Fifties had not yet arrived. The revived Klan attracted some of these returning young men, providing the esprit de corps that returning military men had grown to need.
Robert was one of the many old hands who had kept the home fires of the Klan burning, waiting for a fresh start. He had continued to hood up and ride with a few cronies in a loosely formed Alabama Klan during the war years, and the remnants of his original Birmingham Klan group, the Robert E. Lee Klavern, were far from dead.
During my childhood and early teen years, the Klan activities I was aware of were mostly clandestine night riding, involving small groups targeting a single person or a couple. I heard only few details about these occurrences, though. This was in the days before television, when radio mostly provided music and half-hour dramas like “The Shadow” and “Inner Sanctum.” There were no lurid news reports or tabloid extravaganzas of Klan atrocities. Sometimes I heard talk of fires and dynamite, but this was usually styled as “punishment” for people who “got out of line.” The Klansmen were vigilantes. Arrests in these incidents were rare, and convictions almost unheard of.
Many times, Robert would tell about a black man who had been picked up, taken to a remote area, and beaten, tortured, or sometimes merely “harassed” into promises of “behaving.” If the presumed infraction was serious enough, however, the punishment was also severe, perhaps even fatal. At least one of those men that Robert told about was castrated by the Klan. Robert said he and his cronies had poured turpentine on the man’s wounds because “we didn’t want to kill him. We wanted him to live with what happens to a nigger who rapes a white woman.” They then left the man alone to make his way to help or die in the effort. One Klansman was arrested in that incident, and Robert and his buddies raised money for his bail and defense.
Another black man, Robert said, was forced to dig a hole, and then he was buried to his neck; thus rendered helpless, he was kicked, beaten, and taunted. Robert said that they left him alive, also. But did he survive, I wondered. Others similarly buried had gasoline or syrup poured on them. Still others, men and women, were said to be tied to trees and beaten. I often heard tales of beating, dismemberment, and potentially fatal injuries, with mine shafts, rivers, shallow graves, fields, and roadsides considered adequate disposal sites for the victims. I recall Robert laughing as he told about the night that he and a group of his buddies “scared a nigger so bad he jumped off a bridge to get away.” According to Robert and his fellow Klansmen, the most serious offenses a black man could commit were paying too much attention to or showing a lack of respect for a white woman, and rape of a white woman was the ultimate crime, requiring the ultimate penalty.
As I recall these stories, I also recall emotions. I felt revulsion, and I felt fear. My fear was rather primitive, stemming from my sense that the violence was actually indiscriminate; anyone might fall victim if the Klan were to judge them deserving. Even women, white women, were “punished,” I knew. Robert had told us this was done to women who engaged in extramarital or interracial sexual activity, as well as to their partners. Often the beatings of women were carried out by members of the Klan’s women’s auxiliary, who would hood up and go along on a night ride especially for that grisly purpose.
So I grew up being warned about the importance of protecting one’s reputation and having a good name. I was also warned that, if given an opportunity, Robert would tell lies accusing females (and males) of promiscuity or loose morals whether there was any truth to the story or not. It was ironic since we all feared his wandering hands and eyes. “Don’t ever be by yourself with him,” Mama warned. At least two of my young cousins were victims of his inappropriate fondling, and a male cousin told me, “I think he has tried to molest every child in the family—boys and girls.”
I have often questioned why Robert would feel secure enough to talk so openly about his Klan activities. I have also questioned how I avoided becoming completely jaded to tales of this violent life, especially when I look back and consider what a routine part of life it was at the time. But Robert had policemen and public officials among his associates, and by the time I became aware that he should be stopped, I was also aware that there was no one to tell. I realize now that it was not as amazing that so few arrests were made as it was that any arrests were made at all.