Who Is David Duke? Trump Supporter, Ex-KKK Leader Wants to Help White People Like MLK Helped Blacks

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Former KKK leader David Duke, center, participates in a rally where a crowd of white nationalists were met by a group of counterprotesters, in Charlottesville, Virginia, on August 12. Reuters

Newsweek published this story under the headline "The South: The Klan Also Rises" on January 12, 1976. In light of the recent events involving white nationalists in Charlottesville, Virginia, Newsweek is republishing the story. 

"There are thousands of organizations that work for the special interest of minorities. We need an organization to give them a little competition," exhorts the radio ad. "Come to a Klan rally.... See the beautiful cross-lighting ceremony."

The rally is disappointingly small; 350 people gathered in the Ku Klux Klan's Baton Rouge, Louisiana, bookstore, sipping refreshments and perusing the items for sale—Klan jewelry, white-supremacist pamphlets and permanent press robes "only $28 with hood and mask." The folks finally move out into the night chill, to the tune of martial music, for the scaled-down program.

"Good evening, white people," begins Grand Dragon David Duke from the back of a white pickup truck surrounded by armed Klansmen. "Why do we stand here in the cold? That's where a lot of white people are standing today." His audience includes college students, white- and blue-collar workers and their families. The articulate leader himself is a junior-executive sort in styled hair and mustache. He refers to "blacks" in his speech, but the crowd, warming to his message, repeatedly reminds him, "You mean nigger, don't you?"

The Ku Klux Klan has gone through a number of declines and resurgences since its Reconstruction birth as a night-riding cadre of shrouded terrorists, but none more remarkable than its present renaissance among students and middle-class urbanites all across the South. Though the FBI now estimates the membership of the several independent Klan groups at only 2,200, the feds report that the fellowship is once again on the upsurge. "Everywhere we go," boasts John Paul Rogers of the United Klans of America, "we meet a lot of other middle-class, white Americans who decide we got to stick together. People who five years ago wouldn't even talk to us now are stopping me on the street."

Klan leaders attribute renewed interest to economic insecurities brought on by unemployment and affirmative action; a lot of folks, top Klansmen say, worry that they may lose their jobs in the crunch because of minority hiring efforts. "How do you explain to a man that he can't have a job because he's white," complains Rogers, "and then talk about equal rights?"

Hard Sell: The Klan has begun flogging its message with a Madison Avenue hype once unheard of in the so-called Invisible Empire. "We've got to get out of the cow pasture and into the hotel meeting rooms," says Grand Dragon Duke of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. "But it's all window dressing, the substance is still the same." Duke and his Louisiana-based Knights, however, try publicly to blunt that old-time substance with a singular passion for the window dressing. The Grand Dragon is a 24-year-old LSU graduate who has taken to working the college lecture circuit at campuses like Vanderbilt, Stanford, Indiana and Tulane. He pays full-time organizers to raise Klan consciousness in the universities, and he plugs rallies with a hard-sell radio spot aired on top-40 rock stations. Last September, running openly as a Klansman in a state senate primary race, he won a third of the vote in the richest and best-educated district in Louisiana. Duke has even worked his family into the show; wife Chloe is a Grand Genie who has stitched together a robe for their 4-month-old daughter.

The aboveground style is obviously catching. The Florida branch of the larger and more traditional United Klans of America regularly sends its members, in full robe-and-hood regalia, strolling through shopping centers to chat with passers-by and hand out literature and membership blanks. "We got a lot of old wives' tales to dispel about the Klan, like stories about murder and killings," explains Grand Dragon Rogers. Active political campaigning is outlawed by the United Klans charters, but Rogers plans to invite state, local and national candidates to discuss their positions with Klan committees. "Just like the Jaycees, we would like to know what the candidates stand for," he explains.

Enemy: The Klan earnestly claims to be pro-white and not anti-anybody, a position that tempts more squeamish supporters to come out of the closet. "I don't think that the white people should be the minority," said a woman who brought her daughter to the Baton Rouge rally. Accordingly, the federal government's Department of Health. Education and Welfare ("Hate Every White," as it's unfondly called) often serves as an inspirational enemy; the Knights' rally was almost spiked when a Baton Rouge school refused to rent its gymnasium to the Klan under HEW pressure. Next month, Duke will take the school board to federal court, basing his case on freedom of speech and assembly. "David Duke," insists recent convert Sharon Uhl, an LSU student dispirited by minority quotas, "is trying to do for white people what Martin Luther King did for black people."

The analogy, however sincere, is curious, to say the least. The Klan's official line on blacks is to ship them back to Africa, although some gun-toting traditionalists favor a quicker dispatch. And, for all Duke's public agonizing over image, the Klan's underlying appeal to racism remains—and there is no indication that the Klan will change its ways soon, no matter how cleaned and pressed the bedsheets may become.