The Clansman

The shootings in Kansas during Holy Week make clear that an attitude of white supremacy endures.

By Bill Leonard

“This is an institution of Chivalry, Humanity, Mercy, and Patriotism: embodying in its genius and principles all that is chivalric in conduct, noble in sentiment, generous in manhood, and patriotic in purpose.”

With those words Thomas Dixon (1864-1946), Baptist preacher, lawyer, legislator and novelist, described the Order of the Invisible Empire in his novel The Clansman: A Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan (1905). Dixon, an 1883 graduate of Wake Forest College and pastor of Baptist churches in North Carolina, Massachusetts and New York, wrote The Clansman as part of a racist trilogy that included The Leopard’s Spots (1902) and The Traitor (1907). All three novels promoted white supremacy and rejected ideas of “Negro equality,” especially giving freed slaves “the vote.”

In his introduction to The Clansman (1970 edition), historian Thomas D. Clark wrote that Dixon “recited every scurrilous thing that had been said about the [Negro] race. In one passage after another he portrayed the Negro as a sensuous brute whose very physical feature was the mark of the jungle and the untamed animal.” Dixon himself characterized Gus, a former slave on whom the Klan visited its anger, with this description: “His thick lips were drawn upward in an ugly leer and his sinister bead-eyes gleamed like a gorilla’s.” Inexcusable words then and now.

Clark, the dean of Kentucky historians, concluded his introduction by asserting that “the sentiments expressed by Dixon were the universal ones of the white supremacists, and were to be voiced in hundreds of different forms within the first half of the twentieth century.”

Sadly, KKK white supremacy endures. I remembered Thomas Dixon, Baptist preacher and KKK sympathizer, on Palm Sunday and Passover Eve 2014, when 73-year-old KKK leader and white supremacist Frazier Glenn Cross was arrested for allegedly shooting three people to death at a Jewish community center and a Jewish retirement complex in Overton Park, Kan. Dr. William Corporon, 69, and his grandson Reat Underwood, 14, both Protestants, were shot at the Jewish community center. Teresa Lamanno, 53-year-old Roman Catholic, was killed after visiting her mother at the retirement complex.

In 21st century America, multiculturalism and religious pluralism means that any of us can be targeted by crazed extremists because of our faith, our ethnicity or a mistaken religio-cultural identity. We are all vulnerable. Frazier, long known for his hatred of Jews and African Americans, founded the Carolina Knights of the Ku Klux Klan in North Carolina in 1980, stockpiling weapons and facilitating paramilitary training to, as he said, “emulate Hitler’s methods of attracting members and supporters.” His alleged action suggests that over a century after publication of The Clansman, the “Order” it romanticized continues to endanger lives in our country’s violent present.

Nor are the Kansas Holy Week events anomalous. Simply Google the phrase “Jewish community center shooting” and see what appears. In 1999, a white supremacist fired 70 shots into a Las Angeles Jewish community center, wounding five people with an Uzi-type submachine gun. In July 2006, a “Muslim American” shot six women, killing one at a Seattle Jewish Federation. In August 2012, Wade Page, an “American white supremacist” shot and killed six people at the Sikh Temple in Oak Creek, Wis. Some think that he may have mistaken the Sikhs for Muslims. In December 2007, Matthew Murray, 24, a mission volunteer, shot four people at New Life Church in Colorado Springs, Colo., killing two. We are all vulnerable.

Yet the same Palm Sunday/Passover weekend as the murders, folks in Winston-Salem, N.C., experienced a small but powerful alternate vision of religion and community when the Afro-Semitic Experience brought their jazz ensemble to town. The group, founded by a Jewish bassist and an African-American pianist at a 1998 Martin Luther King memorial service, plays jazz, pure and eclectic, performed that weekend at Baptist, Methodist, Moravian and Jewish worship spaces.

At the Friday Lenten service of First Baptist Church, Highland, the town’s oldest African-American congregation, the audience included church members, office workers, homeless persons and Wake Forest Divinity School faculty and students. After Communion, Pastor Darryl Aaron invited local Rabbi Mark Strauss-Cohn to offer the benediction. The rabbi began by reminding us that his benediction (in Hebrew) might well have been heard by Jesus as he departed the Temple two millennia ago. Turns out Jesus was Jewish! Who’d have guessed?

The Jim Crow culture that Thomas Dixon helped foster was ultimately dismantled with the help of another Baptist preacher, Martin Luther King Jr. (And a myriad of blacks, whites, Jews and Gentiles). In Stride Toward Freedom King detailed events from the Montgomery bus boycott, that black resistance movement that ended transportation segregation in the Confederacy’s first capital. King also articulated an alternative response to the romance-racism of Thomas Dixon and the terrorist-racism of Frazier Cross.

King wrote: “To meet hate with retaliatory hate would do nothing but intensify the existence of evil in the universe. Hate begets hate; violence begets violence; toughness begets a greater toughness. We must meet the forces of hate with the power of love; we must meet physical force with soul force.”

Sounds a lot like Easter, doesn’t it?

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.