Safran, Claire

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Claire Safran

Excerpt from "Our Life in the Ku Klux Klan"

Published in Good Housekeeping, June 1992

"'What if,' she began one lesson, 'a little [black] child was hit by a car and lay dying in the road? What if the only way to save that child was mouth-to-mouth resuscitation? Would you put your lily-white mouth on his black lips?' 'No,' the group answered. 'Never.'"

T errorism often seems remote, an activity carried out by anonymous people far away. But some forms of terrorism take place in neighborhoods in the United States, in the midst of ordinary people carrying out ordinary activities. Such is the case with the Ku Klux Klan.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, a white couple from Georgia, Gary and Jan Ralston of Stone Mountain, belonged to a chapter of the white supremacist group. According to the Ralstons, they regularly engaged in activities designed to terrify people of whom they disapproved, African Americans and homosexuals notably. Gary Ralston recalled parking outside the home of a Klan target, simply to frighten someone into thinking his or her life was in danger. Even when the Ralstons discovered that their oldest son was a homosexual, and thus a target of the Klan's hatred, they continued their activities, even if it meant disowning their oldest child.

Eventually the Ralstons tired of living lives filled with hatred, and they left the Ku Klux Klan. Having been on a national television program as a Klan member, Jan Ralston later appeared on national TV after having quit the Klan.

Afterwards, the couple became the target of terrorist tactics by the same organization they had joined a few years earlier. In 1992, they told their story to Claire Safran for a Good Housekeeping magazine article, reproduced below.

Things to remember while reading the excerpt from "Our Life in the Ku Klux Klan":

  • The Ku Klux Klan was originally formed after the American Civil War (1861–65) as a social organization in Tennessee whose members quickly began discouraging African Americans from exercising their newly granted rights to vote. It faded from view, but was reborn during World War I (1914-18) and again in the 1960s during the Civil Rights struggle, when African Americans were protesting for equal treatment under the law. The Klan's targets have also included Jews, Catholics, and homosexuals. The Klan has always been associated with violence, especially lynching (illegally hanging African Americans, usually at night). In the South, law enforcement officials have often been members, even though the Klan has engaged in murder and illegal assaults.
  • Jan and Gary Ralston were both high-school dropouts when they joined the Klan in 1987. In this respect, they are representative of many Klan members: whites living on the lower rung of society. Social scientists have long recognized that the Klan represents a way for poor, undereducated whites to maintain a false sense of social superiority to blacks.
  • Members of the Ku Klux Klan have usually proclaimed themselves to be Christians and incorporated antisemitism (hatred and persecution of Jews) in their philosophy.

What happened next …

The influence of the Ku Klux Klan fell sharply after federal civil rights legislation was adopted in the 1960s, but it never disappeared. The Klan has adopted modern technology, including the Internet, to spread its ideas and keep the organization going. But its influence on Southern society steadily declined as the force of the law eliminated most outward signs of racial hatred.

Did you know …

  • The Ku Klux Klan started in Pulaski, Tennessee, in 1866 as a social club. Its distinctive costumes, white robes with pointed white hoods, were worn for amusement. Soon, however, the costumes were used as disguises and intended to terrify recently freed slaves, most of whom lived in solitary cabins and had no education at all.
  • In the decade following World War I (1914–18), the Ku Klux Klan had a large membership that extended into the Midwest and included more middle class Americans. President Harry S. Truman (1884–1972), who lived in Missouri, was said to have been a member briefly before he became active in politics.

For More Information

Chalmers, David Mark. Hooded Americanism: The History of the Ku Klux Klan. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1987.

Ezekiel, Raphael S. The Racist Mind: Portraits of American Neo-Nazis and Klansmen. New York: Viking, 1995.

Katz, William Loren. The Invisible Empire: The Ku Klux Klan Impact on History. Washington, DC: Open Hand Publications, 1986.

Safran, Claire. "Our Life in the Ku Klux Klan." Good Housekeeping, June 1992.

Sims, Patsy. The Klan. New York: Stein and Day, 1982.

Wade, Wyn Craig. The Fiery Cross: The Ku Klux Klan in America. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987.

Weller, Worth H. Under the Hood: Unmasking the Modern Ku Klux Klan. North Manchester, IN: DeWitt Books, 1998.