For God, Race and Country
On April 11, 1865, two days after Robert E. Lee surrenders to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox, the Civil War, America’s bloodiest, is officially over. President Lincoln calls for a Reconstruction of the country – a rebuilding of trust and a dedication to peace. However, what follows was a period that would be marked by racial massacres, vigilante violence, and a violent retention of free labor by many slave owners. The South had lost, but it was the newly freed slaves who suffered the most during this period.
The social order had been turned on its head; no longer were there slaves. The response – America’s first terrorist organization, the Ku Klux Klan is formed. Approximately one hundred and forty-three years after it’s founding, the Klan continues to pass the torch to its next generation. They seem like remains of a forgotten past- still donning hoods and lighting crosses in the year 2011- but the Klan perseveres and their ideals live on all these years later.
When I make pictures, I ask the permission of others to be allowed into their lives – to observe, and to ask questions – in order to learn and understand something that is outside of my own experience. Sometimes, however, photographs are made that offer little understanding. Sometimes we walk away with questions that offer no answers. The more time I spend with Klansmen, Klanswomen, and their families, the more I find myself with the unanswered questions of why these specific people continue on in a course of segregation and hatred. And sometimes, in rare moments, someone in front of my lens begins to open up in ways that can give us a glimpse into answering these “Why” questions.
When I first began photographing members of the Klan, the question I came to them with was, “What is the reason you believe in racial superiority?” The problem with asking that question, is that people often do not truly understand why they do the things they do; often they cannot deal with the reality of why they believe what they believe.
It is always because of something else. Something deeper.
Something behind it all.
One summer night, in 2002, after hours of interviewing, I turned off my tape recorder and stopped asking questions of David, a young member of the Klan. He lay on the hood of his car outside a trailer, and, looking up at the night sky, he explained to me that two black men murdered his mother in 1992, when he was only twelve years old. His voice was hard when he told me this, but not angry. She was a taxicab company owner, and they robbed her, getting away with only $17. I had just spent hours with him, asking him questions about why he was involved, how he had become a Klansman, what he believed, and I had come no where near this. It seemed David had a reason to turn to something so dark, yet it was a reason he could not even vocalize.
Earlier that same night, while explaining to me how the Klan justifies what they believe, David quoted John 3:16
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
I told him about a close friend of mine, who was Catholic, and an African-American man. I wanted to know if he would not be permitted eternal life based on that scripture, because he was black. David paused a moment and said he had never thought about it that way before. He said, based on the scripture, he thought my friend would have eternal life.
A couple of months later, I received an email from David, and he said that, based on my questions and our conversations, he began to feel that the Klan had it wrong, and that he had decided to leave. All of this, because I was just doing what a journalist does: ask questions.
I will continue to explore why members of the KKK continue to believe what they believe and why they believe it by looking at three families of the South Mississippi White Knights who I am already in contact with. I will utilize funds from the Aftermath Grant as a resource for traveling back to Mississippi from Connecticut during the late spring, summer, and fall of 2012. A portion of my exploration will be to revisit David, the young man who left the Klan, in order to chronicle his life now. Out of the post Civil War South, this fraternal organization was formed, and continues to grow today.