BOONE COUNTY — The humidity is such that the air here in Arkansas seems almost sticky. The forest, dark against the rosy dusk sky, resonates with the sound of insects. A small group of people dressed in long white robes emerges from a small house carrying wooden weapons. On their heads are conical masks that cover all but their eyes. On their chests each has a red circle with a white cross and a drop of blood on it.
The spectral silhouettes form a circle around a large wooden cross in the middle of the clearing. One of them has a flaming torch emitting an orange light. The participants pass the flame to each other before stepping forward to the petrol-soaked cross and lighting it. The fire spreads quickly. All the members return to their positions and raise their right arm. Suddenly, they shout, "White Power!" The burning cross crackles. The smell of petrol floats in the air.
This scene, which feels like it's from another time, took place at the end of August in Boone County, Arkansas, in the heart of the Ozark Mountains. It closed the annual meeting of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, an independent chapter of the racist movement born during the 19th century.
The headquarters of the Knights of the KKK is located in the middle of the forest, at the end of a dirt road flanked by broken vans and rusty cars. Outside the big house, which is surrounded by American, Swedish, British and Swiss flags, about 15 children are playing. Inside, Rachel Pendergraft is preaching to the 50 or so participants who attended the weekend conference. Most are from Arkansas or neighboring states: Oklahoma, Missouri, Kansas. A few also come from the northwest.
"We've built a refuge for white Christians here," Pendergraft shouts amid the watchful eye of Pastor Thomas Robb, who is both her father and the national director of the Knights of the KKK. "A place where they can feel secure, among their own." With her long blond hair and her deep voice, she looks a bit like Marine Le Pen, the leader of the French National Front. "The more the large American cities on the coast become ethnically diverse, the more the white population is taking refuge in the heart of the country, in the Midwest," she continues. "This will make it possible to create a new racially pure nation, a new white Christian America."
The Robb family is the incarnation of this project. "In 1971, I decided to move to Arkansas with my wife to escape the waves of illegal migrants arriving from Mexico," Thomas Robb says. Born in Detroit in 1946, this small jolly man, who enjoys punctuating his sentences with bad jokes, joined the Klan in 1979 and became its new leader 10 years later. He then started developing a sort of stronghold dedicated to the white race in the Arkansas mountains.
Summer camp for children
Today, the Knights of the KKK have 320,000 square meters of land. A school will soon open its doors. Several members of the organization have recently moved to the area to get closer to it. These last few years, Rachel Pendergraft and her brother Jason Robb have partly taken over the direction of the movement. Rachel's two grown daughters, Shelby and Charity, also wear the colors of the Klan: They started a band called Heritage Connection, whose biggest hit is called "Aryan Warrior."
But for now, this "new America" is lacking inhabitants. This is why the members of the KKK are encouraged to have as many children as they can and educate them at home. At 23 years old, Shelby already has several. "We must get them involved in the organization as soon as possible, because they are the ones who will carry on the fight and our message into the future," Jason Robb explains in a drawling Southern accent. These past two years, they have organized summer camps to teach the youth how to become "soldiers of the white Christian revival."
The children are actually just arriving, dressed up as knights and carrying paper swords. "What have we learned this morning?" Shelby’s husband asks the toddlers. "If you want your children to look like you, what should you do?"
"Marry someone who looks like me," a boy of about 10 answers.
This desire to create a white utopia in the heart of the Midwest is a rupture for the Ku Klux Klan. "Up until the 1960s, the group's aim was to reestablish a society ruled by racist laws," explains David Cunnigham, a sociologist at Brandeis University, near Boston, who has been studying the Klan. "But after the civil rights movement, it realized it had lost the war and withdrew into itself, taking on a 'shield' mentality centered on the creation of a white community isolated from the rest of society."
A child sits on the front porch of the national headquarters for the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan in Arkansas — Photo: Chris Zuppa/Tampa Bay Times/ZUMA
Thomas Robb's Ku Klux Klan likes to present itself as a respectable movement, as a simple organization for the defense of white people's rights, aiming to prevent the "genocide" of which they claim to be victims. "We don't waste our time hating on others," says Steve Kukla, a tall bearded man in a shirt bearing the confederate flag. "We prefer to concentrate on loving our own race." But the ideology of the KKK remains basely racist.
In the conference room, the activists are slumped in their chairs, digesting the hot dogs they just ate for lunch. Thomas Robb has some entertainment planned: a montage of 1930s and 1940s cartoons and footage. They show black people with large lips swaying their hips in a suggestive manner, holding fried chicken drumsticks. Pictures of Africans layered over pictures of monkeys. An Arab drinking the urine of his camel. The room is in stitches.
Dubbing with a sword
The emergence of a multitude of other far-right movements in the 1970s and 1980s has increased the number of potential organizations for racists to join and thus created as competition for the Klan. "It started integrating elements from other groups, such as the neo-Nazis from Aryan Nations or the religious fundamentalist movement Christian Identity," from which Pastor Robb draws his inspiration for speeches, notes Mark Pitcavage, a historian of far-right movements at the Anti-Defamation League. The Klan also widened its definition of the enemy to include Latino immigrants and gays.
Billy Roper manifests the spectrum of hate well. The small stocky man with the neatly trimmed beard is the son and grandson of Ku Klux Klan members. "When I was young, I was part of the skinheads," says the 42-year-old former history teacher, rolling up the sleeves of his shirt to reveal his tattoos. "I then joined National Alliance [a neo-Nazi group], before integrating in the KKK in 2012." Speaking onstage, he talks about the "biological" differences between races and points out that President Thomas Jefferson had appealed to "castrate all homosexuals." He also quotes Adolph Hitler to denounce the "Jewish poison."
Night is falling. Rachel Pendergraft and Thomas Robb have put on their white robes and are waiting next to a cross covered in candles. Warlike music is playing in the background. Three nervous-looking men walk into the room and kneel down. The pastor makes them promise their allegiance to the movement. He then pours a few drops of water on their foreheads and touches their shoulders with a sword. They are now members of the KKK.
Alan, a tall, thin 35-year-old man with a shaved head, is one of those new knights. "I grew up in a small town in Iowa, in a very strict Christian family," he says. "I was taught race mixes were a bad thing." Barely out of his teenage years, he joined the army. "I enrolled five months after 9/11. I was sent to Bosnia, Kosovo and Iraq." Back in the U.S., he moved to Minneapolis. "There’s a huge Somali community over there. These people are a threat to my way of living," he says. "But what's worse is the rights the homosexuals got. This goes against everything the Bible says."
Memberships tend to increase according to the news. Barack Obama's election as president in 2008 triggered an influx of new members. As did the recent troubles in Ferguson, Missouri. "There's no better propaganda tool for us than a group of black people throwing Molotov cocktails at the police," Billy Roper says. "During Ferguson, I received 10 to 20 emails per day from people who wanted to join us."
One of the main attractions for new members, despite the official denials, remains violence. Or at least the possibility of it. Last April, Glenn Miller, a member of a Klan branch based in North Carolina, shot three people outside a synagogue in Kansas. In December, Michael Lee Fullmore, a member of another group, was sentenced to 52 months in prison. He was planning to carry out a bombing against a church that many Latinos attended. A few months earlier, Glendon Scott Crawford, from New York and also affiliated to the KKK, was arrested for attempting to build a device capable of delivering fatal radiation doses. He wanted to use it against Arabs.
But these cases are individual acts, not organized. Lacking funds and intellectual assets, the KKK activists look more like a gang of stooges than a dangerous militia. Just seeing the office of the Knights of the KKK is enough to be convinced of that. An antediluvian computer operating under Lotus sits in the middle of a room, surrounded by VHS tapes. The most modern device in the room is a sewing machine used to make the white robes.