When most people think of the Ku Klux Klan, they likely picture a failed extremist group whose activities have been long buried in American history. But a recent paper in the American Sociological Review offers a different view.
The study’s authors say the Klan’s influence did not end with the triumphs of the civil rights movement and has had a lasting impact on both southern and national politics.
In the study, researchers found that the Ku Klux Klan’s activities during the 1960s played a major role in shifting southern voters’ loyalty from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party, an influence that can be seen in voting patterns 40 years later. That voting pattern, the authors say, helps explain the deep schism between the two political parties today.
The researchers reviewed county voting records in 10 southern states in which the Klan actively recruited members in the 1960s as well as the ballot results of five presidential elections between 1960 and 2000.
The findings revealed that in southern counties with Klan activity in the 1960s, there has been a statistically significant rise in Republican voting, even after controlling for a range of factors known to be related to voting preferences. In 1992, conservative racial attitudes among voters predicted Republican voting, but only in counties where the KKK was active in the 1960s, the authors found.
Republican candidates were markedly more liberal than Democrats in their racial views as late as 1958. But that changed during the 1960s when Democratic presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Baines Johnson advocated for civil rights legislation and Republican candidates began to move away from their support of civil rights. The Klan started to support the Republican Party in the 1960s.
How has the Klan managed to have an impact on voters all these years later?
“Social movements, particularly radical and confrontational movements, can influence voting outcomes in the short-term by calling attention to links between movement goals and positions taken by political candidates,” the researchers said.
The Klan used rhetoric in a divisive way that involved constant appeals to vote for whites who favored segregationist policies, said one of the study authors David Cunningham, professor and chairman of the Department of Sociology at Brandeis University.
Thousands of people, who were onlookers and not Klan members, showed up at KKK rallies, triggering conversations about racial politics in households and the larger community and resulting in new party allegiances, all of which had a lasting impact on voters’ social ties and party loyalties for generations.
“Back in the 1960s in counties where the KKK was actively recruiting, it was impossible to not talk about your political beliefs and what side you supported,” Cunningham said.
According to the researchers, their study goes beyond Klan activism and voting realignment and provides explanations for how a failed movement can have a significant social impact that can last decades.
The study concluded that, “Even after [participants’] feelings towards a social movement have softened or changed over time, the restructuring of social relationships can ensure a movement’s influence on voting endures.”