This article is adapted from “Robe and Ritual,” the second episode of Slow Burn’s new season.
In 1975, David Duke’s Ku Klux Klan was gathering strength. In April of that year, he drew 1,000 people to a gathering in rural Louisiana. It was one of the biggest Klan meetups in decades.
Duke told the crowd that black people were the puppets of Jews, and he spat out the N-word, much to the audience’s delight. While he started out wearing a suit and tie, Duke eventually changed into a Klan robe and set fire to a 40-foot cross. In a press release, Duke’s Klan explained that they disliked the term “cross-burning.” They preferred to call that ritual, which had symbolized death and terror to generations of black Americans, a “cross-lighting.”
This was David Duke’s dance. He sold himself as a new kind of Klansman while relying on old-fashioned Klan slurs and symbols. Duke didn’t just look to previous white-power movements for inspiration. He also took notice of the fight for black equality—a crusade he considered offensive but highly effective. “What’s happened in this country is that the minorities, by the fact that they stick together, have been able to wield tremendous power in terms of our government,” he said in an interview in 1975.
One of Duke’s supporters said that Duke was “trying to do for white people what Martin Luther King did for black people.” Duke liked to think of himself as a more militant voice. He said, “If I’d been born black, I would have been Malcolm X.”
Duke wanted to sell the idea that his own movement was an equal and opposite force to the push for black civil rights. In September 1977, a Chicago television host named Steve Edwards gave him the opportunity to make that case in an hourlong televised debate. Duke’s opponent was a man widely seen as America’s most influential black leader: Jesse Jackson.
Duke began the debate by trying to make white nationalism sound peaceful and reasonable.
I don’t want to suppress anybody and the Klan is not trying to put anybody down. What we’re trying to do is allow each race to be masters of its own destiny. We think the blacks should have control over their communities and their nations in the world. And we think that the white people, we should have control over ours.
Jackson said that Duke misunderstood the United States.
The genius of America is an experiment that suggests that people of many nations, many races of the world will somehow accept the challenge to learn to live together in some relative proximity and harmony.
As the conversation went on, Jackson and Duke went back and forth in increasingly hostile fashion.
Jackson: Well, you don’t have any monopoly on work. I mean, the fact is blacks have worked hard but didn’t get paid for our work. Even white historians understand that blacks made cotton king and we hoed Tobacco Row and we raised your children when you were too trifling to raise your own.
Duke: You’re talking about physical things, if that’s what makes America then we’re going to have to give the horse the right to vote and give the horse equal power because they even contributed more than the black man did physically.
No matter who said what, the fact of the broadcast was a triumph for Duke. He was being presented as a spokesman for white America, one whose ideas were worth batting around.
Jesse Jackson didn’t need this platform. So why did he agree to go on TV with a blow-dried bigot? “I chose to participate on this program,” Jackson said, “only because I think that as more white people develop economic anxieties and economic insecurities … their fears can be played upon by demagogues.”
In the 1970s, David Duke became synonymous with a certain kind of white supremacy. He built his Knights of the Ku Klux Klan up from nothing, and made it into one of the nation’s leading racist organizations.
But Duke’s following, and the Klan’s reputation, didn’t grow after this debate with Jesse Jackson. At the end of the 1970s, a national poll found that the KKK had an approval rating of just 10 percent—up 4 points since 1965 but still abysmally low.
To revive his dreams of building a mass movement, Duke needed to start something new, and again he looked to the black civil rights movement for guidance. In 1980, Duke announced that he was launching the National Association for the Advancement of White People—the NAAWP. The group’s answering machine presented it as “a nonprofit civil rights organization dedicated to equal rights for all people and to the preservation of the heritage and culture of the white race.”
For Duke, the NAAWP was a clean slate, a group untainted by violence. It was also, perhaps, an admission that he’d taken the wrong approach to white-power movement-building.
This bizarro version of the NAACP didn’t win any political victories. In the first half of the 1980s, Duke worked mostly as a newsletter publisher, writing up and reprinting racist articles. By 1984, Jesse Jackson was a serious contender for the Democratic presidential nomination. That year, David Duke’s name appeared in the New York Times just once.
Historian Lance Hill has followed Duke since the 1970s. He thinks there’s a simple explanation for why Duke lost steam. “Ronald Reagan,” Hill says. “Once Reagan came into power—here’s somebody who expressed many of the policies that the openly white supremacist groups had been advocating as organizing issues. And it just sucked all of the fuel out of the radical right-wing movement.”
If Duke couldn’t beat Ronald Reagan, he had to be like Ronald Reagan. The clean-cut Klansman bit had run its course. Duke’s best path forward was mainstream politics.
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