VAN BUREN COUNTY, Iowa — The Ku Klux Klan is recruiting in Iowa with renewed vigor, alarming citizens contacted by the group.
The Klan, a white supremacist group that dates to the Civil War era, has distributed fliers inside sealed plastic bags weighed down with rocks beneath mailboxes in Van Buren County.
The fliers began appearing March 29. Van Buren County Sheriff Dan Tedrow said his office has received about 20 complaints from several communities.
A promotion in the Van Buren County Register for an upcoming story about the Klan’s activities drew the attention of state Rep. Curt Hansen (D-Fairfeld), who shared his concern with lawmakers Tuesday at the Iowa Capitol.
“I’m appalled that some sort of hate organization is trying to work its way into Iowa,” Hanson said. “This is not a good thing for our community.”
Frank Ancona of Park Hills, Mo., claimed responsibility for distributing the fliers as part of a membership drive and an effort to be more open about the Klan’s activities and goals.
Ancona said he has served five years as Imperial Wizard for the modern strain of the Klan that calls itself the American Traditionalist Knights. Ancona, 47, was featured on a recent Discovery Channel documentary, “KKK: Beneath the Hood.”
“I swore that if I got in my position I was going to change things, and since I’ve been Imperial Wizard, I’ve really pushed recruiting hard,” he said. Members of his group “should be active all over the state of Iowa.”
David Cunningham, a sociology professor at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., who has studied and written extensively on KKK history, said that this latest wave of soft-sell by various Klan factions is nothing new. The same rebranding of a “softer, more citiv side” was attempted in North Carolina in the 1960s, he said.
“It’s almost like an onion, where you have these layers,” Cunningham said, and some Klan leaders “try to sell the outer layers that are really palatable and public.”
David Duke, a former KKK Grand Wizard and Louisiana state representative, probably has been the most prominent public face of the Klan in recent decades, Cunningham said, “showing up at rallies in three-piece suits” as a smooth talker ready to project a “new kind of Klan.”
Iowa has seen previous recruiting
The Klan, labeled a hate group by the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center, has attempted to stake out new members in Iowa multiple times in recent years.
Ancona claims his nationwide membership to include as many as 5,000 followers. Pinpointing the Klan’s actual numbers is difficult since its membership involves a variety of factions. The Southern Poverty Law Center estimates the total number nationwide at 4,000.
And many members, including Iowa’s statewide KKK organizer, or its “Grand Dragon,” still prefer to remain anonymous, Ancona said.
“Iowa’s still one of the states where the members want to stay invisible,” Ancona said.
By contrast, Alcona said, Park Hills, a city of about 8,000 in southeastern Missouri near the Illinois-Missouri border, still “feels like America.” He said that he was wearing a T-shirt with KKK slogans while interviewed by The Des Moines Register over the phone Tuesday. He also has his own Twitter account.
“I’ve had a few dirty looks from blacks, but down here where I live, it’s real accepted,” he said. “I might as well have on a (St. Louis) Cardinals baseball T-shirt. They don’t even look twice.”
Recruitment part of constitutional rights
Tedrow, the Van Buren County Sheriff, noted that so far the Klan activity in his county qualifies as protected free speech under the First Amendment. The only thing the Klan’s activities might inspire is a littering charge.
Ancona concurs: “We’ve got the right to say it, and we’ve got the right to win people over to our way of thinking. Just because a bunch of gay, lesbian, transgender liberals — whatever they are — want us to shut our mouth, we’re not going to do it. We’re going to preach our traditional Christian values in America.”
Ancona is right about his constitutional rights, said Mark Kende, constitutional law professor at Drake University Law School.
“In this country, the Supreme Court has consistently ruled that even racist hate speech is protected by the First Amendment,” Kende said. “The only time it is not allowed is when the speech is an incitement to commit a crime or do public harm.”
Internationally, nations such as Germany, France and Italy -- scarred by the horrors of the Holocaust -- have banned public advocacy for far right-wing groups such as the Nazi party, Kende said. But the U.S. remains steadfast in its free speech protection.
“Typically, the American response is not to suppress the speech. It is to give your own speech,” Kende said. “Arresting people can create martyrs and lend credence to the conspiracy theory that the government is out to get them.”
Counter-speech is more effective, Kende said. He recalled Drake hosting a forum on gay rights. Members of the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan., which vehemently opposes homosexuality, protested the event. (The church is not affiliated with any Baptist denomination.)
“When students found out they were coming, they organized a counter protest,” Kende said. “Drake made sure Westboro’s voice was heard and they were given space to protest. But they had about six people standing there, while there were 500 to 600 students standing opposition to them.”
“It’s ironic, but what the KKK is trying to do can backfire,” Kende said. “The community can galvanize against them.”