Shelton, Robert M. "Bobby"
Robert M. "Bobby" Shelton
Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan
"We don't want violence but we ain't gonna let [them] spit in our face either."
D uring the growing campaign by African Americans during the 1950s and 1960s to achieve equal rights with white Americans, another campaign began to deny equality to citizens with black skin. This campaign was led by the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), an organization that often used violence, or threats of violence, to stop black Americans from exercising their rights under law.
In the 1960s, Robert M. Shelton was the Grand Wizard (the leader) of the largest organization of several that called themselves the "Ku Klux Klan." He was the public head of a shadowy organization officially named the United Klans of America, Knights of the Ku Klux Klans, Inc. Its headquarters were in his hometown of Tuscaloosa, Alabama. But given the secret nature of the activities carried out by the Klan and by its imitators, it was often unclear who was behind the cross burnings, beatings, and lynchings that plagued much of the South during the 1960s.
Robert Marion Shelton was born in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, in 1929. His grandfather was a farmer and shopkeeper. His father was a "merchant," according to Shelton. Shelton himself grew up in Tuscaloosa, graduated from high school there, and took some college courses by mail. He also served in the U.S. Air Force for three years, during which he was stationed in Berlin, Germany. This was during the period in which President Harry S. Truman (1884–1972) gave the executive order that ended the racial segregation of the U.S. armed forces. (Racial segregation was a system in which black people and white people did not share public services such as schools or transportation.)
Shelton returned from the air force to Tuscaloosa. There he went to work in the B. F. Goodrich tire company and joined the United Rubber Workers union. Sometime in the early 1950s, he also became active in one of several splinter organizations of the KKK, an organization that dated its beginnings to the period immediately after the U.S. Civil War (1861–65; see box pp. 240–41).
The 1950s saw the first stirrings of change in Alabama society. While Shelton was growing up in the 1930s and 1940s, racial segregation was the norm in most southern states, especially Alabama and Mississippi. Blacks and whites in the South had lived separately ever since the original KKK in the late 1860s had discouraged black citizens from claiming their legal rights. Schools, public transportation, restaurants, and churches were strictly segregated.
But starting with the U.S. military just after World War II (1939–45), civil rights lawyers began attacking local laws that kept the two races apart. Slowly, federal courts began ruling in their favor.
Rocky start in the Klan
It was during this time that Shelton became active in the KKK in Alabama. In the early 1950s, he joined one version of the Klan under the legal name U.S. Klans. Always a soft-spoken man, and often described as humorless, Shelton had strong organizational skills that more than made up for his apparent lack of public speaking ability. In the spring of 1960, the Alabama Klan leader, Eldon Lee Edwards, dismissed Shelton on grounds of "incompetence, untruthfulness, and lack of cooperation." Shelton said it was a disagreement over finances.
By that time, however, Shelton had enough influence among Klan members in Alabama to form his own offshoot, which he called the Alabama Knights. Since KKK traditions, such as wearing white hooded robes and burning crosses on lawns to terrorize residents, could be used by any group, Shelton's Knights soon became one of the leading Klan organizations in the state.
The next year, Shelton attended a meeting in Indian Springs, Georgia, with the leader of another small Klan in Georgia. They planned to discuss joining forces. Shelton arrived with eight military-style guards dressed in white shirts, red ties, khaki paratrooper pants, black boots, and marine helmets. His show of force resulted in the merger of Shelton's Alabama Knights with the Georgia Klansmen. Shelton, at age thirty-one, was named Imperial Wizard of the new organization, which he called the United Klans of America. He moved its headquarters to Tuscaloosa.
As the federal courts struck down laws limiting civil rights on the basis of race, whites in many southern states resisted, and no states were more resistant than Alabama and neighboring Mississippi. Although the KKK was not at its heart a political group, in the late 1950s it began trying to get segregationists elected to public office.
Words to Know
- Civil rights:
- the nonpolitical rights of citizens to equal opportunity under the law.
- a person who believes in the economic theory in which the people—usually represented by the government—owns all goods and their means of production.
- incorporation of individuals or groups as equals.
- the execution of someone by a mob.
- irrational dislikes.
- Racial segregation:
- a system in which black people and white people did not share public services such as schools or transportation.
- attempting to overthrow or destroy the political or social order.
- White supremacists:
- people who believe that the white race is superior to the
In 1958 Shelton and his fellow Klansmen helped elect Governor John Patterson over a racially moderate candidate, George C. Wallace (1919–1998); afterward, Wallace declared that he would never be outdone in making racial appeals to voters. Soon after, Shelton was promoted to the job of salesman at B. F. Goodrich and was very successful in selling tires to the state government. (Shelton was eventually dismissed by the tire company for spending too much time on the Klan and later earned a living selling air conditioning before devoting himself full-time to the KKK.)
In 1962 Shelton's Klan members supported Wallace to succeed Patterson as governor of Alabama. Wallace was elected on promises to maintain racial discrimination in Alabama. It was a partnership that would last many years, sometimes secretly, as Wallace went from the Alabama state house to a run for president of the United States. Throughout his career, Wallace was hailed as the champion of the "little guy," the white worker who felt left behind as southern blacks made significant progress in being treated equally under the law.
In the early 1960s the African American civil rights movement rapidly gained ground in the South. College students integrated public restaurants (or made them available to all races) by staging "sit-ins": they sat at the lunch counter and waited quietly, sometimes for hours, to be served, even if the restaurant owner was unwilling to do so. Throughout the South, public universities were integrated by federal court orders. Public schools were integrated, also by the order of federal courts acting under a 1954 U.S. Supreme Court ruling (Brown v. the Board of Education) that the concept of "separate but equal" public school systems was a violation of the Constitution.
The KKK was at the forefront of white resistance. In particular, the Klan tried to frighten black citizens to stop them from exercising their rights. In rural areas, whites dressed in the pointed white hoods of the KKK burned crosses outside the homes of black farmers or town officials to scare them. Black men (and sometimes women) were murdered, hanged from trees as a warning to other black citizens not to try to change things.
Shelton and the KKK played a kind of game with the news media throughout all this. Shelton was often quoted as stating that the Klan did not support violence, but that he could understand how some white people were upset at the change in social relations between whites and blacks. In 1961 Shelton was placed under a court order not to interfere with whites trying to integrate interstate bus transportation—who were known as Freedom Riders—when they entered Alabama.
(Despite the order, when the Freedom Riders got to Alabama their bus was attacked and they were badly beaten.) The Klan also paid for lawyers to defend Klan members arrested for attacking civil rights workers.
Spokesman for the resistance
Shelton emerged in the 1960s as the leading spokesman for whites who hated the new racial equality being forced on them by federal courts. Where other segregationists made fiery speeches, Shelton's mild manner spoke for thousands of lower- and lower-middle-class whites throughout the South. His United Klans rapidly grew into tens of thousands of members—the actual numbers were never revealed—and was by far the largest of the organizations using the Ku Klux Klan name.
Shelton did not mind making statements that seemed ill-educated or unsophisticated, which may have appealed to the sort of people likely to join his organization. He told the New York Times Magazine in 1964 that "my research shows that the full moon brings out the animal instincts, increases their excitement, and they [black people] become violent, restless, inclined to get in trouble and brawls."
Shelton's prejudices (irrational dislikes) were not limited to African Americans. He also opposed labor unions that fought for workers' rights (despite having once joined a union himself) and products made overseas. He opposed the fluoridation of water (the addition of chemicals to drinking water to prevent cavities) as well as the National Mental Health Association, which he thought was a communist plot. He particularly disliked Jews.
In mid-1963 several Klans announced a change in tactics: nonviolence. With little to show for their terrorist attacks on civil rights workers, some Klan leaders hoped they might be more successful with a more reasonable approach.
In his own appearances, Shelton began to stress the Klan's anticommunist positions over its antiblack and anti-Jewish positions. (Communism is an economic and political system in which citizens—represented by the government—own all property and businesses. In theory, the government is supposed to distribute all profit to all its citizens equally. Communism is at odds with the American economic system, capitalism, in which individuals own property in varying levels.) Shelton cooperated with white politicians, such as Governor Wallace, to accuse civil rights activists of being influenced or funded by communists. He also threw the Klan's support to Senator Barry Goldwater (1909–1998), the 1964 Republican presidential nominee running against President Lyndon Johnson (1908-1973). But it made little difference; Johnson won in a landslide.
Shelton's effort to turn away from traditional Klan behavior also did not succeed with potential recruits, for whom burning crosses and terrorizing African Americans was an essential part of the Klan experience. Any effort to clean up the Klan's image was doomed in September 1963 when a powerful bomb exploded at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Four young black girls died. It took fourteen years to bring the main bomber, Klan member Robert Chambliss, to justice, but the public image of the Klan was set: it was an organization that bombed children in churches. (Three other men were also linked to the bombing; one died in 1994, one was convicted in 2001, and the third was convicted the following year.)
What Is the Ku Klux Klan?
"Ku Klux Klan" is the name used by a series of white supremacist organizations in the United States, starting just after the Civil War. (White supremacists believe that the white race is superior to the other races, particularly blacks.) The Klans were known for their use of terror against African Americans and others, including Roman Catholics and Jews.
There have been at least three waves of organizations operating under the name Ku Klux Klan. The first started in 1866 as a social organization for Civil War veterans in Pulaski, Tennessee. Its founder was a former Confederate general, Nathan Bedford Forrest (1821–1877). It quickly turned into an organization that used violence against the social changes brought about by Reconstruction. (Reconstruction was the period following the Civil War in which Congress attempted to reunite the country.) Members of the original KKK attacked Reconstructionist politicians throughout the South and raided the homes and businesses of freed black slaves. The Klan used violence, including beating and lynching (the execution of someone by a mob), to restore white supremacy in the South. Forrest tried to dissolve the group in 1869 after the violence got out of hand, but it continued for another two years. By 1871, the possibility of equal rights for African Americans in the South had been defeated for the time being, and the Klan quietly faded from the scene.
In 1915 a new version of the KKK was organized near Atlanta, Georgia. It was also devoted to preserving white supremacy, but it had a longer list of targets: African Americans, certainly, but also recent immigrants to the United States from southern Europe who tended to be Roman Catholic, as well as Jews and people sympathetic to the Bolshevik revolution in Russia (1917). The second Klan drew its members from mostly white small towns in the South and Midwest. Membership in the second Klan peaked in the 1920s, but it had disappeared by the end of World War II.
In the 1950s several separate organizations, mostly in the South, continued to use the name Ku Klux Klan, but their membership was tiny and their leadership disorganized. But in the early 1960s, as the civil rights movement began making significant progress, membership in the KKK began growing rapidly. In particular, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed discrimination based on race, boosted membership in the southern states. As with the earlier organizations, the Klan of the 1960s drew members from lower- or lower-middle-class whites living in small towns in the rural South. Also like the earlier Klans, the new Klan used nighttime raids with members wearing white robes and pointed hoods to conceal their identities. A burning cross became its symbol of warning to African Americans linked to the new civil rights movement.
In 1965 four Klansmen were arrested for the murder of Viola Liuzzo, a white civil rights worker from Detroit, Michigan, who was shot and killed after taking part in a famous civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery in Alabama. President Lyndon Johnson (1908–1973), in a national television speech, vowed to use federal authority to stamp out the Klan.
After the 1960s the Klan became a marginal organization, allying itself with U.S. Nazis and other right-wing extremists. Although its costumes and symbols continued to anger African Americans, its influence and membership were very small.
A year and a half later, in March 1965, another incident in Alabama tipped the balance against Shelton and the KKK. A white woman from Detroit, Michigan, Viola Liuzzo, was shot and killed while driving civil rights marchers from Montgomery to Selma, Alabama. She was the second white from the North killed that week. President Johnson declared that he had had enough and announced a major crackdown on the KKK. He ordered the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to arrest and charge suspects in the murder with a federal crime: conspiring against Liuzzo's civil rights. Governor Wallace also promised state cooperation in pursuing the crime. (In many earlier cases, state authorities had failed to prosecute murders carried out in the name of civil rights.) Two of the three men linked to the murder were tried in state court but were found not guilty. However, all three were found guilty in federal court and sentenced to ten years in prison.
In 1965, the clock seemed to run out on the Klan. An organization that had survived throughout years of harassing and killing blacks found itself on the defensive. Even former supporters like Wallace turned on the Klan.
Although Shelton used the same arguments and the same robes as the KKK had a century earlier, he was operating in a different world. Where the original KKK defeated the post–Civil War effort to achieve racial equality, Shelton failed completely. A century of experience and a world war, in which the murder of six million Jews by Nazi Germany (and the impressive performance of African Americans fighting in the U.S. Army), simply overwhelmed the racial hatreds spread by the Klan.
No Limit on Hate: The Mentality of the KKK
The explosion in Birmingham's Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, which killed four young black girls, horrified many Americans—but not all. At a KKK rally held in St. Augustine, Florida, shortly after the bombing, a Klan speaker from Texas, the Reverend Charles Conley Lynch, addressed the rally:
"I tell you people here tonight, if they can find these fellows [responsible for the bombing], they ought to pin medals on them. Someone said, 'Ain't it a shame that them little children was killed?' In the first place, they ain't little. They're fourteen or fifteen years old—old enough to have venereal [sexually transmitted] diseases, and I'll be surprised if all of 'em didn't have one or more. In the second place, they weren't children. Children are little people, little human beings, and that means white people. …
"And in the third place, it wasn't no shame they was killed. Why? Because when I go out to kill rattlesnakes, I don't make no difference between little rattlesnakes and big rattlesnakes, because I know it is the nature of all rattlesnakes to be my enemies and to poison me if they can. So I kill 'em all, and if there's four less [of them] tonight, then I say, 'Good for whoever planted the bomb!' We're all better off… . I believe in violence, all the violence it takes either to scare [them] out of the country or to have 'em all six feet under!"
In 1965 and 1966, the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Un-American Activities launched an investigation of the KKK. Shelton, who had claimed for years that communists influenced the civil rights movement, was in the witness chair of the same committee that had gone after American communism in the 1950s. Shelton refused to answer the committee's questions and was held in contempt of Congress. He went to jail for a year.
When Shelton was released from prison, the South had turned unfriendly to his beliefs. Road signs outside small towns criticized the Klan and urged its members to go elsewhere.
In the late 1960s, things went from bad to worse for Shelton and the Klan. In the middle of the decade, the FBI had launched a program called the Internal Security Counterintelligence Program, Cointelpro for short, designed to stamp out organizations it found to be subversive (those that attempted to overthrow the government or social order) through harassment and investigation for possible wrongdoing. The Klan was one of its main targets.
Shelton's star within the Klan was fading. A young man from Louisiana, David Duke, began to emerge as the leading spokesman for white supremacists in the United States.
For More Information
Chalmers, David Mark. Hooded Americanism: The History of the Ku Klux Klan. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1987.
Katz, William Loren. The Invisible Empire: The Ku Klux Klan's Impact on History. Washington, DC: Open Hand Publications, 1986.
Chalmers, David. "The History of the Ku Klux Klan: Rule by Terror." American History Illustrated, January 1980, p. 8.
Chalmers, David. "The Hooded Knights Revive Rule by Terror in the 'Twenties." American History Illustrated, February, 1980, p. 28.
Long, Margaret. "The Imperial Wizard Explains the Klan." New York Times Magazine, July 5, 1964, p. 8ff.
Weisberger, Bernard. "When White Hoods Were in Flower." American Heritage, April 1992, p. 18.