The Ku Klux Klan is getting back into Mississippi electoral politics.
Last week, the United Dixie White Knights, a south Mississippi-based chapter of the Ku Klux Klan, allegedly sent video of a burning cross to the leader of Mississippi Rising Coalition, a Gulf Coast-based group working to change the state flag, which is the last in the nation containing the Confederate battle emblem.
Following the backlash, which included national media attention, the group denied sending the video and posted a statement disparaging the coalition and criticizing reporters who covered the story, and included a political threat to a top legislative Republican, who has said he wants a new flag.
“Phillip (sic) Gunn is high upon our list of turncoats who chose to stab Mississippi voters in the back because he lusts for National politics. He will soon regret this decision. Our Jackson, Ms Klavern is one of the largest Ku Klux Klaverns in this country and I have given them orders to blanket Gunns district with fliers meant to awaken the White sheep to his actions,” states the unsigned post, referring to the Mississippi House speaker, a Republican from Clinton.
On Wednesday, just days after receiving the video, the Mississippi Rising Coalition filed a federal lawsuit to force the city of Ocean Springs to stop flying the state flag.
Plaintiffs in the lawsuit claim the city is violating the federal Fair Housing Act by flying the state flag and expressing “a preference for white residents and a corresponding discouragement, and suppression, of African-American residents.”
The KKK chapter’s alleged threat was included in the lawsuit.
“(The Ocean Springs mayor and board of aldermen) have emboldened extremists to act out their true white supremacist feelings,” a plaintiff in the suit and Jackson County NAACP President Curley Clark said on Wednesday. “We are here to see if we can find some equality for all of Ocean Springs’ citizens.”
Responding to reports of the video, the KKK chapter’s leader, Brent Waller, vowed increased political action to keep the state flag flying in an official capacity.
“If we don’t start getting in politics, they’ll (activists who want to change the flag) just run the narrative,” Brent Waller, the KKK group’s leader, told Mississippi Today in a telephone interview on Monday. “They try to censor us to keep us and the far right from being heard. We’re living in a state of tyranny today. That’s the way I see it. It just makes us sick.”
During the interview, he again called out Gunn, who is the most prominent Republican leader in the state to call for a new state flag. Gunn’s office declined to comment.
“I’m going to do everything in my power to throw that bastard out on his head,” Waller said of Gunn.
When asked what, specifically, Waller planned, he said: “I know that trick. I can’t give out my strategy. Then they’ll be ready for it.”
Less than three minutes later, Waller laid out that political strategy.
“We’re going to blast his district with flyers,” Waller said. “Maybe we’ll work on his campaign and get inside info. If he rears his head and pops up much more, I’m just going to endorse him — see how he’ll like that.”
When asked if he thought his endorsement would hurt Gunn, Waller replied: “I know it will.” When asked why, he said, “Because they’ll associate him with us. No one ever wants that. We’ve had success with that in the past.”
When asked about which campaign that strategy worked, Waller pointed to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign.
“Some brothers in Alabama endorsed Hillary,” Waller said. “Ain’t none of them boys supported her, but the press sure enough ran with it.”
Local and national news outlets did cover that 2016 endorsement, but nearly every report expressed skepticism that the endorsement was genuine or carried any weight.
The KKK was formed after the Civil War to terrorize blacks and to enforce Jim Crow segregation laws. Its members, typically operating in secrecy have included law enforcement officers, local and state politicians and, in Mississippi, at least one U.S. senator, Theodore Bilbo. In addition to enforcing black codes, Klan members also historically used racial terror to keep African Americans from voting.
Recent years have seen a spate of Klan rallies and other activity in support of the Confederate battle flag, which came under renewed scrutiny after the murders of nine churchgoers by a white neo-Confederate named Dylann Roof in 2015, and against the removal of Confederate statues around the country.
The Southern Poverty Law Center’s estimates that in 2017 the United Dixie White Knights had at least five flyer campaigns in Mississippi and Alabama. In 2016, the group distributed flyers in a black neighborhood in Florence and in the Jackson neighborhood of Belhaven.
Heidi Beirich, director of SPLC’s Intelligence Project, which covers hate groups and their activities, does not believe the group is growing, however. Waller would not say this week how many members are in his group.
“Even though it’s nearly impossible to know membership numbers for any group, the claim that they’re one the largest KKK groups in America is a far from true,” Beirich said. “In the months leading up to former imperial wizard, Brent Waller, closing the doors to UDWK in July 2017, it was clear that it was struggling for members and was trying to form alliances with other Klan groups and hate groups in an effort to stay afloat. While we’ve seen some activity from UDWK in 2018, we don’t believe that the group is gaining significant numbers.”