October 30, 2018


When the Klan Came to Town: History reminds us that firm and sometimes violent opposition to racists is a time-honored American tradition. (MICHAEL MCCANNE, 10/20/18, Boston Review)

In Perth Amboy, New Jersey, members of the Ku Klux Klan assembled to hear a xenophobic celebrity speak. An angry crowd gathered outside the building and as the lecture began inside, protestors interrupted the speaker and tried to shout him down. Eventually the crowd outside forced its way in. Scuffles broke out and several Klansmen were attacked. Later, the Klansmen complained that their constitutional rights had been violated and promised to return in larger numbers, ready to fight it out with their enemies.

The confrontation could have taken place during the last year in Berkeley or Portland or any number of cities where racists and anti-racists have clashed. But the Perth Amboy riot was one of numerous confrontations with the Ku Klux Klan that occurred during the early 1920s. The Klan was in a second ascendency, riding a wave of anxiety about crime, immigration, and economic unrest, and like the alt-right today, the Klan sought out confrontations by rallying in unfriendly cities.

In response to white supremacist organizing in our own time, radical voices on the left, notably Antifa, have drawn on the tradition of European resistance to fascists to declare that the appropriate response to racist organizing is physical opposition, doxing (publicly "outing" racists), and violent retaliation. Liberal critics, on the other hand, have argued that Antifa tactics break with U.S. traditions of free speech, open debate, and civility. For the most part, both sides of the debate fail to note that the United States has a long history of homegrown militant resistance to racist organizing. In the 1920s, when the Klan sought to secure a place in the U.S. political mainstream by organizing large public demonstrations and mounting electoral campaigns, anti-Klan organizers confronted the KKK using a range of techniques that included open ridicule and violence. Their goals were similar to anti-racists of today: expose the bigots and deny them the ability to march or rally in public. This all-but-forgotten story serves to remind that as long as racist and xenophobic movements have mobilized in this country, Americans have struggled to confront and expose them using every option at hand.

Posted by at October 30, 2018 4:32 AM