Patsy Sims' 'The Klan': updated slitherings

December 15, 1996|By VINCENT FITZPATRICK | VINCENT FITZPATRICK,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

"The Klan," by Patsy Sims. University Press of Kentucky. 336 pages. $29.95

This provocative volume, first published in 1978 and reissued here with updated chapters and a new preface, offers no straightforward history of the Ku Klux Klan. Instead, Patsy Sims takes on, with considerable success, the challenge of "getting at the hearts and minds of its members."

Her quest takes her into the foul backwaters of fear and intolerance, of ignorance and envy. Her journey fills her with amazement and loathing. More than once, in lonely places with violent people, she fears for her life.

A native Texan, currently the coordinator of the Creative Nonfiction Writing Program at the University of Pittsburgh, Sims knows very well the hard scrabble American South, that land of poor whites and poorer blacks, of ramshackle frame houses, forlorn country roads and the occasional billboard proclaiming "This is Klan Country."

This environment comes thoroughly alive here, as do its inhabitants. Writing with immense skill, knowing when to explain but just as often when to keep quiet, she lets her characters tell their own stories, often in a language that cannot be reproduced in a family newspaper. With their mixture of braggadocio and bewilderment, they strut and slither across these pages.

Sims drove over 10,000 miles and amassed 150 hours of interviews. Most of her journey took her among the original states of the Confederacy, but she also made her way to West Virginia and Maryland. Resourceful, she conducted interviews in fields during rallies as well as in a prison; people explained themselves in filling stations and cellars and in living rooms of fashionable homes.

Determined to proceed beyond stereotypes, she spoke to a wide range of people white and black, young and old, male and female; the notorious and the obscure, the penitent and the remorseless, the victim and the criminal. She found David Duke, "the Klan's answer to Robert Redford," the most enigmatic. In the volume's longest chapter, she questions how this educated, articulate and affable Louisianan became a trafficker in hate.

The typical Klansman, as this volume indicates, tends to be insular and hates "foreigners" of all sorts - blacks, Jews and Catholics among them. He fears miscegenation, and despises, among other things, homosexuality, sex education, abortion rights and integration. As the federal government grows more monolithic and intrusive, his alienation and sense of rage grow along with it.

Some of the characters in these pages are obviously raving lunatics who embody evil. Others, however, are forlorn souls desperately looking for a cause to give meaning to their drab lives. These marginal figures, with little education and few salable skills, fall under the spell of the worst sort of demagogues.

A number of these people profane true religion. They praise the Lord by day and bomb and burn and shoot by night. One hedge preacher extols "the God of the white race," and the 20th century Klansman tends to use the Bible to support segregation xTC his ancestors used it to defend slavery.

In her revised preface, Sims points out that the lunatic fringe of today's right has shifted its emphasis "from blacks and Jews to ** the federal government, with a core membership committed to a level of violence that makes the Klan pale." Hate never goes away entirely. It may lie dormant for a while, tucked away in the darker corners of people's minds, but, like the plague, it will return to spread its poison. To Sims' credit, but to our consternation, "The Klan" remains horrifically topical.

Vincent Fitzpatrick, the curator of the Mencken Room at the Enoch Pratt Free Library, is the author of "H. L. Mencken," and is writing a biography of Gerald White Johnson, a target of the Klan's threats.

Pub Date: 12/15/96

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