With this weekend’s terrible shooting at a Jewish community center, the KKK is again in the news. Many Americans, though, either view the organization with indifference or low-level contempt. After all, it’s difficult to get exercised about an organization that is most often portrayed as being passé, in decline and lacking power. Yet the KKK is in fact alive and active aross the United States. And I think that we need to understand its origins as a white terrorist organization in order to fully grasp American history and to understand our present.
There’s a scene in the film Mississippi Burning that references the story of a black man named “Homer Wilkes” which is actually based on the true story of Judge Edward Aaron.
In September 1957, six members of the KKK in Birmingham, Alabama kidnapped Judge Aaron, took him to their meeting place, and castrated him with a razor blade. What was unusual about this case is that the men were arrested, tried, and convicted by all-white juries of “committing mayhem” & “assault with intent to murder.” Four of the defendants were sentenced to twenty years in prison. Two who testified against their peers were given five year sentences.
Judge Edward Aaron, a handyman, was walking with a woman when he was apprehended by robed and hooded men. There was a brief struggle before he was subdued and knocked unconscious. Aaron was hit in the head with a pistol, a wrench, and kicked in the face. B.A. Floyd mutilated Aaron as a test of whether he would be promoted to Klan captain.
Aaron was randomly picked for torture. His sin was being a black man. Judge Aaron didn’t die. Instead, he testified at some of his assailants’ and torturers’ trials. He told the jury that when he came to, he was emasculated. He pretended to be unconscious because he heard one of the Klansmen say: “If he wakes up, blow his brains out.” When he was apprehended, he was told that he would serve as a warning to other blacks not to participate in or support integration efforts.
One of the culprits testified that he thought they were simply “going to scare the hell out of a negro” & was surprised at what he saw when he came in from standing guard outside the meeting place. After castrating Aaron, they poured turpentine in his wounds, put him in the trunk of their car, and dumped him in a creek where he was found by police. Judge Aaron, who was reportedly mildly developmentally disabled, was near death from blood loss.
The men who tortured Aaron were ordinary white men: construction workers, supermarket clerks, newspaper editors, etc… Their names were William Miller, John Griffin, Joe P. Pritchett, Jesse Mabry, B.A. Floyd and Grover McCullough. I point out their “ordinariness” because it’s important to note that it wasn’t “monsters” who upheld white supremacy and committed torture against black people and others in this country. It was “ordinary” white people who were backed by the power of government.
When George Wallace became Governor of Alabama, he pardoned the four men who had been given 20 year prison sentences. He did not pardon the two who had turned state’s evidence against their peers. He didn’t explain why he made the decision. He didn’t have to. He restored proper order and made it clear that terrorizing black people was sanctioned by the state.
I’m not sure how many people in this country know Judge Aaron’s story. I don’t forget his story. But I am keenly aware that there are thousands of other stories of white terrorism in the U.S. that I don’t know. Those stories should be unearthed and shared. They tell us something about what we are as a country. They ground practices like stop & frisk in a historical context that helps us to understand the virulent violence of the practice. There is a direct line between Judge Aaron unsuspectingly walking with his girlfriend & being kidnapped by hooded men with the backing of state power & the unsuspecting young black man in NYC who is apprehended by cops for simply walking while black. Stop & frisk terrorizes black & brown young people. History resonates still…