What we did in Iowa to chase away the Klan

December 7, 2016

Leonard Klein, a native of Iowa and former member of the Midwest Network to Stop the Klan, explains how the left organized against the rise of the far right in the 1990s.

THE OPEN racism, immigrant bashing and Islamophobia of Donald Trump's campaign has emboldened organized racists like the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) and National Policy Institute (NPI).

Aided by 18 months of round-the-clock free media coverage and not countered after eight years of the Obama administration's inaction on racism and police violence, Trump's filth has led to a recent increase of racist violence.

Many vulnerable communities are frightened. They and their supporters are wondering what we can do to defend them against racist organizing.

But there are examples of successful anti-racist organizing against neo-Nazi, fascist and racist groups in the U.S., and not all in the distant past either. Among them is the Midwest Network to Stop the Klan, which we organized and built in the 1990s.

The Rise of Racism in the 1980s and 1990s

The movement to make racism "respectable" again in the era after the civil rights movement's victories began much earlier than people generally think.

During the late 1970s, Democratic President Jimmy Carter spoke against school busing programs designed to give African American children access to better schools, saying that they undermined the "ethnic purity" of neighborhoods.

Members of the Midwest Network to Stop the Klan on the march
Members of the Midwest Network to Stop the Klan on the march (SW)

Such attitudes among liberals like Carter contributed to the nasty battles over desegregation in Boston and other cities. However, the political establishment's turn to racism would really take off under a well-practiced pitchman in the next decade.

Movie and commercial actor-turned-victorious Republican presidential candidate Ronald Reagan signaled the rise of racism to come by kicking off his 1980 campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi, the town where three civil rights workers were kidnapped and murdered in 1964.

Reagan spoke the new coded language of post-civil rights racism--for example, about the "welfare queens," which was meant to be understood by racist whites as "Black women living it up on your tax dollars." This scapegoating was a key ingredient of the Republicans' "Southern Strategy" to win over the white former base of the Southern wing of the Democratic Party.

The Southern Strategy was part of the backlash against the gains made by the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s: voting rights and anti-discrimination measures for Blacks, anti-poverty programs, women's rights, acknowledgement of gays and lesbians and other social reforms.

The tide turned in the other direction during the eight years of the Reagan administration, leading, among other things, to the strengthening of institutional racism and discrimination. The resulting misery is still felt today.

Likewise, Reagan's successor, George H.W. Bush, would spend much of his one term championing an end to "quotas" in affirmative action programs--another coded appeal to racism meant to convey that undeserving women and minorities were gaining at the expense of white men.

Given the green light by top political leaders, it was no wonder that there was an ugly response from the lowest depths of American racism.

David Duke, a former Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan in Louisiana, began his political career serving in the Louisiana state House of Representatives starting in 1989, after an unsuccessful bid in the 1988 Democratic presidential primaries. During the early 1990s, Duke would run for the senate, governor and the Republican presidential nomination.

Duke launched the Louisiana Knights of the Ku Klux Klan in 1974. In 1980, he left the Klan and founded the National Association for the Advancement of White People (NAAWP). His platform was against school integration and busing. He disgustingly claimed that Black women in Louisiana had children for the sole purpose of increasing their welfare benefits, and he called for the end of affirmative action laws.

But the point is this product of the far right was taking his lead from Carter, Reagan and Bush--stripping away the coded language and baring the racist filth for the world to see.

What embarrassed the establishment wasn't Duke's hateful, oppressive message. Rather, as Bush's Vice President Dan Quayle told the media, "[t]he problem is the messenger. David Duke, Neo-Nazi, ex-Klansman."

The rise of racism in this era had real effects on people's lives. Though the FBI didn't even start collecting national hate crime statistics until 1991, Orange County, California, reported a doubling of local hate crimes from 1990 to 1991, including cross burnings, racist vandalism and personal attacks.

While David Duke was entering political arena, the KKK, including Duke protégé Thomas Robb, and other right-wing groups began organizing in their traditional setting: on the streets. But on the streets is also where racists and fascists are most vulnerable to anti-racist organizing.

Dubuque in the Crosshairs

Dubuque, Iowa, along the western bank of the Mississippi River, has a history that dates back to French fur trapping and trading, before the European-settler push across the continent in the early- to mid-19th century. Dubuque's economy has at various times been fueled by lead mining, lumber milling, riverboat trading, boat-building and agricultural equipment manufacturing.

Dubuque also played an important early role in the free state/slave state conflict of the 19th century. In 1839, Dubuque was at the center of Iowa's first Supreme Court case, known as "In the matter of Ralph."

Ralph, a slave in Missouri, had come to Dubuque in 1834 with the permission of his master to work in the lead mines to raise the money to buy his freedom. In 1839, bounty hunters contracted with Montgomery to kidnap Ralph back to Missouri. The kidnappers were stopped from transporting Ralph to Missouri by a local anti-slavery farmer, and in the resulting case, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled that Ralph had come to a free state and could no longer be considered a slave.

The U.S. Supreme Court, bowing to slave-owner pressure and racism, made the opposite decision on a similar case 18 years later: the Dred Scott decision.

Despite the positive outcome for Ralph, few Blacks settled in Dubuque. As of 1991, only 330 of Dubuque's 58,000 residents were African American.

Dubuque was hit hard by job losses and financial turmoil linked to the farm crisis of the 1980s and the recession of the early 1990s. The Bush administration had failed to address the basic needs of American workers, and people in Dubuque were feeling the pinch, with thousands leaving the city in search of other opportunities.

Dubuque city officials, in an effort to stem some of the outflow and improve diversity, planned to recruit 100 minority families to start to alter the city's racial makeup. That stirred a racist backlash.

Emboldened by the anti-affirmative action rhetoric coming from Washington, several Dubuque high school students burned a cross in the fall of 1991. In all, Dubuque would see 17 cross burnings and other hate crimes in 1991 and early 1992, along with organizing meetings held by the Klan and the white-supremacist Nationalist Movement.

But while a racist minority was raising its head, anti-racists were also activating to oppose them.

When the Nationalist Movement announced it would hold a march of 60 members in January 1992, 150 anti-racists from Dubuque and around the Midwest turned out to counter-demonstrate and drown out the message of hate.

This impromptu counterdemonstration helped to launch a more organized and sustained anti-racist network that would go toe-to-toe with the Klan and other right-wing groups many times over the 1990s.

The Midwest Network to Stop the Klan

Given the emergence of David Duke and rise in racist activity in 1990 and 1991, several branches of the International Socialist Organization had already been involved with the creation of broader anti-racist groups, like the one that mobilized in Dubuque. In February 1992, the ISO initiated the Midwest Network to Stop the Klan (MNSK) to try to connect these local groups and organize broader forces to push back against the Klan and the far right.

The Midwest Network was organized around the idea that the Klan and similar groups had to be confronted publicly, whenever and wherever they tried to organize open events.

The goal was always to turn out the greatest number of anti-racists possible, outnumber the racists, shout them down and show that anti-racist ideas were far more popular than racist ideas.

Other issues and tactics--such as the role of the police or how to deal with the question of free speech when it was raised in defense of the Klan--were open to discussion within the broader groups, with ISO members arguing for our beliefs, but abiding by democratic decisions.

In Dubuque, Thomas Robb and the Klan announced a plan for a May 29 rally downtown. Dubuque Mayor Jim Brady, supported by the NAACP, planned to hold a diversity gathering blocks away, in Eagle Point Park.

Anti-racists felt that the mayor and NAACP were allowing the Klan to have a free platform, and so they began to organize a direct confrontation with the Klan. As Jim Wesenberg told Socialist Worker in February 1992: "If [the racists] don't see people in opposition, it only makes them feel stronger."

By working with individuals and organizations which protested the Nationalist Movement in January, supporters of the Midwest Network spent the next four months organizing to confront the Klan.

One of the first questions that Midwest Network members had to win was about the need to confront the Klan publicly and loudly, and with as many anti-racists as possible--in contrast to the gather-blocks-away plan of the NAACP.

This meant having discussions with Citizens United for Respect and Equality (CURE) to try to persuade its members and leaders to confront the Klan. In January, rather than counterprotest the Nationalist Movement march on Martin Luther King Day, CURE had held a gathering of 250 people across town.

Over the course of several discussions, the Midwest Network was able to win CURE to turning out it members for a demonstration to confront the Klan in May, rather than go to the mayor's picnic. This no doubt played a large part in turning out a crowd of some 500 to 600 anti-racists, dwarfing the Klan's 15 members and small group of curious supporters.

ISO members in the Midwest Network also had to work to unify anti-racist activists in Dubuque itself. Since the Klan and other groups are a threat to Blacks, immigrants, LGBTQI people and other oppressed groups, the ISO often marched under the slogan: "Gay, straight, Black, Brown and white; same struggle, same fight!"

This position wasn't popular in Dubuque at first. Given the conservatism of the era, whipped up by the official racism of the Reagan-Bush years and the homophobia stoked during the AIDS crisis, racist ideas and anti-gay bigotry had to be overcome, even among groups representing the oppressed.

The many discussions we held during these months were important and eventually led to an agreement for a unified rally. But the real shift in attitudes came in struggle.

On May 29, the date of the Klan's rally in Washington Park, the mayor and Chamber of Commerce were picnicking across town. As if that wasn't bad enough, the city had permitted the Klan march by canceling another event in Washington Park organized by the Dubuque Peace Coalition. The Chamber of Commerce and police welcomed the Klan and defended their right to speak out for hate, racism and genocide.

Fortunately, the organizing work of the past months had mobilized a unified group of nearly 600 people--from Dubuque, across Iowa and around the Midwest--who were ready to shout down the racists. "A few minutes before 6 p.m.," Socialist Worker reported in its June 1992 edition, "the counterdemonstrators marched to Washington Park chanting 'Kan the Klan,' 'Black and white, unite and fight' and 'You can't hide behind free speech when it's genocide you preach.'"

Fifteen Klan members, dressed in robes and hoods, showed up late to their own event. They ended their rally close to an hour earlier than planned since they couldn't hear themselves spew their hate.

Demoralized, the Klan left Dubuque and even announced that they wouldn't be attempting to recruit in Dubuque in the near future.

Based on this victory and the experience of unified struggle, the Klan's opponents thrived. CURE and the Dubuque LGBT community forged closer ties--in fact, CURE's banner led the Dubuque pride parade in June.

Lessons of the Midwest Network for Today

Over the coming months and years, the Midwest Network would organize again and again against the Klan, the Nationalist Movement, Duke's NAAWP and the right-wing militia movement that was growing at the time.

Activists worked together across the region to mobilize for counterprotests in Janesville, Wisconsin; Freeport, Illinois; Cincinnati; Indianapolis; Cicero, Illinois; Springfield, Illinois; Madison, Wisconsin; and many other places.

While not all the counterprotests were as successful as Dubuque, the Midwest Network's principle of confronting hate with the largest numbers possible did almost always turn out the large numbers and demoralize the right. In fact, Klan marches planned for Cicero and Skokie, Illinois, later in the decade would be canceled shortly after the Midwest Network announced it was organizing a counterdemonstration.

In cities like Janesville and Freeport--industrial towns that were ruined and hollowed out by successive recessions in the 1980s and '90s, giving the far right its key ingredient of despair to build on--anti-racist marches and protests gave local residents the confidence of knowing they weren't alone in despising the Klan. The momentum swung away from the far right in these cities--thanks to the determination of activists that racism must be met with a militant and vocal response.

Socialists and anti-racists today would be well served to look back at our past successes and failures to help guide our actions as we confront this rise of the right.

After Trump's election that emboldened the far right to try to spread its ideas, racists will use the official bigotry coming from Washington as "proof" that their hate and scapegoating is popular. In fact, the Southern Poverty Law Center reported more than 850 hate incidents in just the 10 days after the election.

We need to organize to defend oppressed people under attack--and push the racist right back into the hole it crawled out from. The successes of the Midwest Network to Stop the Klan can serve as proof that the racists are outnumbered in the U.S.--and can be driven back.

Further Reading

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