The Supreme Court recently heard arguments in Virginia v. Black that will determine whether cross-burning qualifies as protected speech under the First Amendment. The Ku Klux Klan, the organization most closely associated with burning crosses, identifies itself as Christian. Why do they incinerate their faith’s most sacred symbol?
The practice dates back to Medieval Europe, an era the Klan idealizes as morally pure and racially homogenous. In the days before floodlights, Scottish clans set hillside crosses ablaze as symbols of defiance against military rivals or to rally troops when a battle was imminent. Though the original Klan, founded in 1866, patterned many of its rituals after those of Scottish fraternal orders, cross-burning was not part of its initial repertoire of terror.
Nevertheless, Thomas Dixon included a pivotal cross-burning scene in his 1905 novel The Clansman; he was attempting to legitimize the Klan’s supposed connections to the Scottish clans. A decade later, D.W. Griffith brought The Clansman to the silver screen, eventually renaming it The Birth of a Nation. Exhilarated by Griffith’s sympathetic portrayal, Klansmen started burning crosses soon afterto intimidate minorities, Catholics, and anyone else suspected of betraying the order’s ideals. The first reported burning took place in Georgia on Thanksgiving Eve, 1915. They have been associated with racist violence ever since.
Modern Klan groups are careful to refer to their ritual as “cross lighting” rather than cross-burning and insist that their fires symbolize faith in Christ. The days of so-called disciplinary burnings, they add, are long since over. Still, nearly 1,700 cross-burnings have been documented since the late 1980s, many of them in the front yards of African-American families—although, in all fairness, the majority have been carried out by lone racist yahoos, rather than by organized Klan groups.