Newsweek published this story under the headline of “The Great White Hope” on November 14, 1977. Because of recent outbursts of white nationalism in Charlottesville, Virginia sparking national attention, Newsweek is republishing the story.
It was billed as a “border watch”—a posse of vigilantes patrolling areas of the California-Mexico border to turn back illegal aliens—and it was supposed to show that the notorious Ku Klux Klan was becoming just another citizens’ group doing its bit to help solve a pressing national problem. According to Grand Wizard David Duke, hundreds of Klansmen, unarmed and out of costume, would cruise the border in cars equipped with spotlights and CB radios. If they spotted any illegal aliens, they would call the U.S. Border Patrol, identifying themselves as “American citizens.” But as it turned out, there were more reporters on hand than Klansmen (20 in five cars), and the KKK didn’t encounter a single alien. Duke tried to make the best of it. “I think some Mexicans are afraid to enter the country because of the Klan,” he declared.
In many ways, the showy but ineffectual border watch a fortnight ago exemplifies the new directions the Klan is taking under Duke, 27, an intelligent and articulate Louisianan who earned his B.A. in history at Louisiana State University. Moribund as the shrouded protector of white supremacy, the “invisible empire” of the Klan is now striving for high visibility with a slick public-relations campaign aimed at middle-class whites. Duke hopes to broaden the Klan’s appeal by publicly playing down its overt racism and taking on such social issues as illegal aliens, school busing and affirmative action (the Klan submitted a brief to the Supreme Court in the Bakka case). Duke claims he doesn’t hate blacks and only want to defend the white heritage. “Black people have organizations that fight for black power, and Jews look out for each other,” he argues. “But there isn’t anyone except the Klan who will fight for the rights of white people.”
‘Shirt-and-Tie Image’: Duke tailors his message to his audience—sometimes polite and solicitous for college students, rabble-rousing for his Klan followers. “I certainly was prepared to dislike him,” says Marlene Roeder, director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Louisiana. “But there he was—charming, intelligent and agreeing with me on First Amendment rights.” Some worry that Duke’s approach will win friends for the Klan. “I used to dismiss the Klan as a bunch of service-station dropouts,” says Paul Grosser, a former political science professor at LSU who was once Duke’s faculty adviser. “I take it seriously now. Duke is giving the Klan a white-shirt-and-tie image. He’s appealing to the middle class and tapping their frustrations.”
As head of the Louisiana-based Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, Duke controls only one faction of the Klan; the United Klans of America headed by Robert Shelton may be the largest group. But Duke, through his own polished image, has become the dominant personality of the “new” Klan. By his count, he has made more than 200 appearances on college campuses and on radio and TV talk shows. Just last week, he even gave a telephone interview to a black radio station to explain the border-watch operation. “Illegal aliens are taking jobs blacks aspire to,” he said with determined sympathy. “Our action will really help blacks as much if not more than whites.” But as soon as he finished the interview, Duke picked up a typical Klan pamphlet and joyfully began reading aloud a highly biased “history” of the black race that purports to show that blacks are inferior. Then he read his fan mail to a visitor, taking obvious delight phrases like “dirty kike” or “stupid nigger.”
Swastika: Duke was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the son of a Shell Oil Co. engineer. He attended elementary school in the Netherlands, a military academy in Georgia and an all-white high school in New Orleans—where he first attracted attention in his senior year by carrying a copy of Mein Kampf and wearing a swastika armband. After two years in LSU, where he was a well-known campus speech-maker, Duke dropped out and says he went to Laos to teach English to anti-Communist Laotian officers under the auspices of the State Department. He then returned to Baton Rouge, finished his degree and immersed himself in the Klan. In 1974, he appeared at a South Boston anti-busing rally, and in 1975 he ran openly as a Klansman for the state Senate, winning one-third of the vote in a wealthy Baton Rouge district.
For all of Duke’s personal appeal, there has probably been no significant rise in Klan membership from the 2,200 estimated by the FBI in 1975. And according to officials in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, Duke has actually been losing support in his own backyard—partly because of internal disputes and partly because of his recent conviction for inciting to riot at a Klan rally in Metairie, Louisiana, in 1976. Duke has been sentenced to six months in jail and is now free pending appeal, but the incident may have scared off some potential middle-class supporters worried about old-style Klan terrorism. No matter how people may be stirred by Duke’s white-is-right rhetoric, there is hardly any rush to join an organization that is so cloaked in infamy. Like the ill-fated border watch, Duke’s vision of a revitalized Klan is more hype than reality so far.