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Today's KKK, Unmasked And Unrepentant

Though a shadow of its former self, the Ku Klux Klan has registered a small uptick since Barack Obama's election and the Ferguson riots. Here's how it looks from one senior member who lives in a Tennessee trailer.

Richard Nichols is a member of the KKK
Richard Nichols is a member of the KKK
Natacha Tatu

COLUMBIA — Tennessean Richard Nichols wears his beliefs proudly and publicly. His Facebook profile photo is an engraving of a black person hanging from a tree. In his photo gallery, between a picture of a blood-drenched zombie and a collection of firearms, a chimpanzee embraces a blonde woman, and the caption reads, “Interracial relations are zoophilia.” There’s also a man in a hood, dressed in a long white robe, with a large wooden cross burning in the night behind him.

“Of course it’s me, in my ceremonial robe,” he tells us, proud like a child in a superhero costume. In the job section, Richard says he’s an Imperial Nighthawk employed by the Ku Klux Klan.

It’s both his job and his pride, his raison d’être. He doesn’t have much. At 43, he claims to hold the title of head of “national security,” which he says places him as the fifth-ranking officer of this secret society that has more hierarchy than an army.

The Anonymous list

We contacted Richard through social media. His name, among some 50 others, appeared in the list published by the network of libertarian hackers Anonymous last December, after the previous summer's killing of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri.

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A KKK gathering in Warrenville, near Chicago, in 2010 — Photo: The Augusta Chronicle/ZUMA/REA

Brown's death led to violent protests, reviving racial tensions in the country. The Ku Klux Klan openly supported the police officer and successfully raised funds for him. Anonymous has continued to denounce the collusion between the white supremacist organization and the Ferguson police, publishing the names and addresses of these “white trash,” as they are often called in the United States.

Nichols gladly would have gone to Ferguson to offer active support to the Klan after the riots that allegedly generated several dozen new memberships. He knows Missouri Imperial Wizard Frank Ancona well. But, he says, “They didn’t let me come.” The situation was too uncontrollable, even for the Klan.

“White pride”

We thought the KKK was dead and gone, with its lynchings and murders that stained a century of American history. But it’s not. Split into at least a thousand small groups — sometimes allies, often rivals — the white supremacist nebula with branches in about 30 states, mainly in the South and the center of the country, stubbornly hangs on.

Worse still, it apparently regained some strength after President Barack Obama’s election. Here and there, small towns are regularly flooded with hateful KKK leaflets.

There are reportedly about 4,000 active members in the United States, a shadow of the 4-million-strong KKK of the 1920s, after the first major immigration wave that hit the U.S., or of the 40,000-member organization it was in the 1950s and 1960s.

No communication with “aliens”

Getting in touch with these holdouts is no easy task. Like in every secret society, the KKK forbids its members from communicating with “aliens,” as the organization calls those who aren't members. Journalists, their bête noire, are even less popular.

Of the 30 members we contacted, Richard Nichols was the only one who answered. No problem, he said. Yes, he will meet us. He ended his message like all the ones that would follow with, “God bless you, Ma’am.”

We met on a Saturday afternoon in a shopping center on the outskirts of Columbia, Tennessee, one hour’s drive from Nashville. It's unclear why he chose this mall, which seems to be frequented by many black and Latino families.

As he approaches, he looks nothing like his social media photos, in which he poses as a tough guy. He’s a small, sturdy, tired-looking man in his forties, wearing jeans, sneakers and a shapeless sweatshirt. From time to time, he bursts out laughing briefly and nervously. He's missing many of his teeth, the result of a brawl with "a group of 10 black people," he says.

Visibly uncomfortable, he offers sentiments from his rudimentary catechism: his will to “protect his race, like black people defend theirs.” He doesn’t really see what’s wrong with that. "They play the ‘race’ card all the time, because everyone in this country is scared of being labeled a racist. I'm not scared."

He mentions his "rejection of foreigners who are allowed benefits while white people aren’t allowed anything," his hatred towards Obama, and "the armed wing of a conspiracy aiming to make thousands of illegal immigrants enter the country." He says he regrets the good old days when public space was segregated. "I don't like having these people around me. I want to stay with my people."

Bodyguards

His ultimate obsession is the purity of his race, "like the Holy Bible recommends," he says. "It's all written in there. You can't go against that." But unlike many of his peers, he says he's not anti-Semitic. "Neo-Nazis, that's not my thing. I'm a patriot."

A strange couple with horn-rimmed glasses and a 1960s look sits down behind us. Jehovah’s Witnesses? Richard glances at them furtively. Is he scared of being overheard? "Not at all, they're my bodyguards," he later explained. "Our enemies are everywhere. They set traps for us. So they go everywhere I go, in case it goes wrong." These so-called security agents are also Richard’s drivers. He used to be a truck driver but has since lost his license.

Apart from his "work" with the KKK and the White Knights of America,” Richard doesn’t have much. No money, no real family, not even a roof of his own. With his fiancée Crystal, who works part-time at a liquor store, he is sharing a trailer with another couple until they find something better. Crystal, who has a gloomy look on her face, marked by a difficult life and the loss of a child, joined the KKK last September "out of love and belief."

The Klan is their family and what they have left of identity. It's a small source of revenue, too, as Richard says it's now his full-time job. What he does is unclear. He "collects the contributions of the members," $12 per month, per home. Who are they? "There's police officers, even doctors," he says. "A bit of everyone. You'd be surprised."

He also conducts "investigations" on future members and enemies. He says he even helps the police sometimes. "We help them do the dirty work," he adds, noting that he "managed to stop some drug trafficking in the city."

But he claims to be non-violent, "as long as they don’t attack us." What about the history of hangings and the lynchings? "That's our history, I won't deny it. But times have changed," he notes somewhat regretfully.

Redneck culture

Richard comes from Pulaski, a small semi-rural Tennessee town with a population of just 8,000, about 30 kilometers from here. The average annual income per household is barely $17,000 in Pulaski — half as much as in the rest of Tennessee and five times less than the national average. It’s here that the Ku Klux Klan was born after the Civil War, on Dec. 24, 1865.

To the great despair of the Pulaski mayor, the Klan is part of the scenery. “When I was little, there were guys in my class who took part in those ceremonies where they burned crosses," recalls Josh, a 29-year-old laborer in town to visit his parents. "We knew such and such neighbor was in it. It was part of the folklore."

The memorial plaque noting the KKK's founding is still here, near the town hall, screwed onto the wall of a small brick house. Embarrassed by this troublesome legacy, the authorities have turned it backwards in protest. "It's part of our redneck culture," says Aly, a young waitress at Kathy's Tavern, the only bar in town.

The town, whose population is 30% black, remains considerably segregated to this day. “All in all, only two black people come here from time to time," Aly says. "I don't know why. They have their favorite places. We have ours. We don't mix too much around here."

Her brother is named Nathan, in tribute to KKK founder Nathan Bedford Forrest. A large rally of hooded members takes place here every year, under police guard, in addition to a festival celebrating "the legacy of American and European cultures."

Initiation ceremony

Nichols grew up in this atmosphere. He has rarely traveled outside Tennessee. Both his father and grandfather were Klan members. He left school at 13, worked one odd job after another, at the farm and on the road, and then nothing.

On his back, there’s a tattoo of the Klan’s coat of arms, two hooded "knights" with a background of occult symbols. "Only three of us across the whole country have been allowed to have it," he says proudly. He remembers his initiation ceremony when he was 18, the prayers before the "illumination of the cross." He describes it as the best day of his life.

"It's like baptism," he says. For the occasion, he learned all about Forrest’s life, the coded language, the signs and the symbols. He promises to provide us with a "passport" to be able to witness a cross burning. Does this mean his associates would accept the presence of an "alien"? "Well yes, of course, because you're white."

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