With the KKK and the racially-charged violence at Charlottesville dominating the national media, I’m republishing my own article from last year on closely-related topics.
Over the last few decades, I doubt that any American political organization has received greater negative attention in our national news and entertainment media than the Ku Klux Klan, or KKK. For example, although white activist David Duke left that group over 35 years ago, the media still often identifies him as one of its former leaders, and partly as a consequence Duke’s support for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign has regularly been treated as headline news.
Such massive coverage may be objectively demonstrated. Googling “KKK” yields over 72 million results, considerably more than the joint total for “Communist” and “Communists,” and well over twice what you get for “Communism.” Such prominence seems rather excessive, given that throughout most of the 20th century, Communism controlled some one-third of the world’s population, and the resulting political conflict periodically threatened to unleash global thermonuclear war. Even today, a self-described Communist Party governs China, a nation 1.4 billion strong, which by some measures has now passed the U.S. to become the world’s largest economy. Meanwhile, the last time the KKK held any significant political power was almost 100 years ago, during its Midwestern heyday of the 1920s.
And if we focus on the sanguinary consequences of the two movements, the imbalance is even greater. The famous Black Book of Communism, published in 1991, claimed that across the 20th century, Communist regimes had racked up a peacetime total of roughly 100 million human fatalities, and although that latter figure has been widely disputed as a considerable exaggeration, the true number is surely in the many tens of millions, with merely the famine deaths induced by Mao’s disastrous Great Leap Forward of 1959-1961 usually pegged at 35 million or more.
Meanwhile, the victims of the notorious KKK seem rather fewer in number. The Wikipedia entry for the KKK is over twice as long as that for Communism, and hardly seeks to airbrush the misdeeds of that violent organization, but only manages to provide some 15 murder victims, all listed by name, drawn from the combined decades of the 1950s and 1960s, which represented the height of the Klan’s modern power. This apparent gap between 15 deaths and perhaps 70,000,000 or so seems rather wide.
Not only does the KKK total pale in comparison with Stalin and his considerable body-count, but during its two decades of greatest infamy all those hundreds or thousands of armed Klansmen accounted for fewer victims than the number sometimes sent to the Chicago city morgue over a long holiday weekend these days, let alone what various half-forgotten teenage spree-killers produced during their individual short rampages. For example, a decade ago disgruntled Virginia Tech student Seung-Hui Cho killed 33 people within a couple of hours, and he hardly remains a household name these days. Meanwhile, the last of those infamous 15 KKK racial killings took place a full half-century ago.
A considerable disproportionality between media attention and actual activity seems undeniable.
However, there are obviously some mitigating factors in this critique. Communism never came to America in serious form, while the ideological foundations of our culture these days tend to regard racial killings by organized groups as particularly heinous offenses, especially when these are aimed at inflicting terror. By contrast, lunatics attacking their classmates or drug-dealers disputing their business transactions are committing much more mundane offenses. So under this particular victimological standard, the 15 victims of the KKK over the two decades from 1950 more reasonably justify the massive attention they have received.
Furthermore, America has always been fascinated with killings that take place over an extended period of months or years, especially if they involve some sort of unusual pattern, with the monikers of strange serial killers often resonating for decades. There was Richard Ramirez, the Los Angeles Night Stalker, an avowed Satanist who slaughtered at least fourteen victims, mostly in the Los Angeles area during 1985. And who can forget Jeffrey Dahmer, the Milwaukee Cannibal, who killed and devoured some 17 young men in a career spanning a dozen years? So the unusual circumstances or motivation of such murders can easily compensate for the relative lack of raw numbers, and surely this helps to explain the enormous attention paid to the KKK’s rather meager list of actual victims.
As an extreme example of the importance of murder quality over murder quantity, there was the famed Zodiac Killer who prowled Northern California during the late 1960s and early 1970s, but was never caught. Although he may have accounted for as few as five actual victims, the sensational nature of the case inspired several movies and many dozens of books, while the fictionalized plotline of a serial killer who sends taunting letters to the newspapers has probably been repeated in scores of television crime episodes and films. As a child growing up in Southern California, the phrase “Zodiac Killer” was certainly familiar to me.
But oddly enough, another long series of killings centered in that same time and place has received far less attention. When I first encountered mention of the “Zebra killings” some years ago, the term was completely unfamiliar to me, and due to the similarities in name and location, I initially wondered whether it might be an alternate designation for the Zodiac attacks. But despite the chronological and geographical overlap, the Zebra case was actually quite different, and given its explosive details the almost total absence of any subsequent media attention is really quite curious.
Indeed, one advantage of exploring the Zebra killings is there exists only one detailed, somewhat contemporaneous account, and a couple of years ago with my curiosity getting the better of me, I finally ordered the book from Amazon. Zebra was published in 1979 by Clark Howard, an award-winning crime writer, who drew extensively on newspaper archives, court testimony, and personal interviews, with his text running over 400 pages.
The story of the Zebra killers almost sounds like something out of a movie, although no movie was ever made. For decades, the Nation of Islam—the so-called “Black Muslims”—had been preaching that whites were “devils,” the product of a mad scientist’s controlled-breeding experiment, and that killing such “devils” was a virtuous religious act. Then, some time in 1972, certain elements of the sect decided to transform religious dogma into actual practice, and began an organized campaign to randomly kill as many white men, women, and children as they could, with the attacks occurring throughout California but especially centered in the Bay Area and the city of San Francisco. One of the alleged motives was to terrorize the local whites into eventually fleeing that city, thereby allowing the establishment of a black-dominated metropolis.