Former KKK Leader Says Group Is 'Definitely' a Terrorist Organization

Having spent almost two decades as a member of the Ku Klux Klan, Scott Shepherd, who rose to the rank of Imperial Wizard, can say in no uncertain terms that the group is "definitely" a terrorist organization.

There's no law on the books that allows for the federal government to designate a domestic extremist group a terrorist organization, but a petition is trying to change that. A campaign on Change.org calling for the State Department to assign the label "terrorist organization" to the KKK has generated more than 1.7 million signatures.

Shepherd said it's a designation he supports.

"This isn't anything new. They've been a terrorist organization ever since birth," Shepherd told Newsweek. "They're not just domestic anymore. They're in Germany, they're in London. They're in many, many sections of the world now."

Shepherd, who grew up with an alcoholic father in a dysfunctional Mississippi family, joined the KKK at a young age. By the time he turned 19, he was a Grand Dragon. His upbringing pushed him toward the Klan, as it gave him what he was looking for: a family and a sense of belonging.

However, after 20 years of membership, his decision to enter an alcohol and drug treatment center to get DUI charges dropped helped change his mindset. Being at the facility exposed him to people of all races, forcing him to take a hard look at himself in the mirror. In 1994, he walked away from the Klan.

After becoming a "reformed racist," Shepherd met Daryl Davis, a musician and race reconciliator who has convinced more than 200 Klansmen to give up their robes. Once a man Shepherd thought of as a "crackpot" for what he was doing, the former KKK leader now refers to Davis as a brother and someone who "possibly saved my life."

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Daryl Davis, a musician and race reconciliator, has convinced more than 200 klansmen to turn in their robes. Daryl Davis

Given all of the acts of violence and intimidation the KKK has committed, Davis told Newsweek it's "absolutely" a terrorist organization. The KKK is no longer a singular national organization with chapters, but has broken off into splinter groups such as the Knights Party, the Patriotic Brigade Knights and the Loyal White Knights.

"The number of people involved isn't the problem--the problem is the mentality that they hold with the views of white supremacy," Shepherd said, noting people may not carry a membership card but hold the beliefs. "That's what's really really dangerous."

The switch from a central organization to independent groups makes the KKK "more dangerous than ISIS," in Shepherd's opinion, because it's harder to pinpoint membership. If there was a legal process to designate domestic groups as terrorist organizations, Shepherd said the splinter groups could also make for a tough time finding an umbrella term that would encompass them all.

Going after every group at once might not be necessary to have an impact, Davis said. Designating the KKK a terrorist organization and going after one of the Klan groups sends a message to the others that they could be next in line.

kkk terrorist organization
Members of the Ku Klux Klan hold a rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, on July 8, 2017, to protest the planned removal of a statue of General Robert E. Lee, who oversaw Confederate forces in the Civil War. A former KKK leader said the organization is "definitely" a terrorist organization and he would support the U.S. government designating it as such. ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP/Getty

When Shepherd was still a card-carrying member, the Klan was working on an image change he said is now complete. Groups still use white robes and hoods, but they've become less commonplace. The former KKK leader said he was "blown away" at images of white supremacists on the University of Virginia campus in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017: people donned plain khakis and polo shirts as they chanted "Jews will not replace us" and the Nazi-associated phrase "blood and soil."

"I knew then that their plan of changing their image had taken hold," Shepherd said.

Constitutionally, Shepherd acknowledged that white supremacist groups have a right to exist and protest, but said they cross the line into a terrorist organization by being involved in violence and murder. Both Shepherd and Davis noted the KKK has been violent for decades and the difference between now and previous years is that people are starting to take a harder look and fight for change.

White people participated in the Civil Rights Movement, but as Davis noted today, they're joining en masse because the video of George Floyd's death woke them up to a reality that wasn't theirs. Seeing a white officer kneel on the neck of Floyd, an African American, for nearly nine minutes gave white people an understanding of what black people were complaining about for decade--and there's now a "collective voice of many different colors" marching together.

"This is where the page really turns," Davis said of protests and the Change.org petition. "Despite a lot of violence and disruption, this is the greatest thing that has happened so far in the 21st century."