One small comfort for me – as we fight and flail and fall deeper into darkness – is reading about and better understanding other periods of intense struggle, in the U.S. and elsewhere, and occasionally stumbling upon some truly remarkable art that arose from, and was a direct response to, that struggle.
And so every Friday I’m going to endeavor to highlight some of that “rebel art,” and to start things off, I want to give a shout out to the gorgeous, powerful Richie Havens recording, “The Klan.”
Mr. Havens released this song (video below) in January of 1968, but it was copyrighted in 1951 by David Arkin and Alan Arkin (on the Havens release, they were credited as D. Gray and A. Gray).
The timing of the writing of this song, in 1951, is telling. After the national organization of the Ku Klux Klan receded in the 1930’s and 1940’s, the early 1950’s marked the birth of the “Third Klan,” an era of small, independent, decentralized organization. These organizations were built on hatred and anger – and in many cases extremist violence – directed at what they perceived as unacceptable social change, and progress for African Americans.
1951 saw the first flare ups of that extremist violence, the beginnings of a two-year Klan bombing campaign in which at least 40 black homes in the south were bombed, including the deadly bombing, on Christmas Eve of 1951, of the home of two NAACP activists.
This era is also notable for Klan efforts to ingratiate and ally themselves with southern governors and other politicians. Most famously, in 1961, Birmingham police commissioner Bull Connor aided Klan members in brutally attacking a bus load of civil rights protestors, the Freedom Riders, upon their arrival in town.
The deadly bombings and assassinations accelerated and continued throughout the 1960’s, culminating with the assassination of Martin Luther King just four months after Mr. Havens’ version of “The Klan” was released.
It is not difficult to imagine Mr. Havens, when he decided to record this track, haunted by and raging at the death of Medger Evers, of four small girls, dead in a Birmingham church, of countless civil rights leaders and activists murdered and terrorized on a seemingly constant basis for decades. And it’s not hard to imagine Mr. Havens singing this song directly to the too many people in power who, at best, shrugged, and at worst, baldly supported this deadly violence.
It is that historical context that makes “The Klan” so powerful.
I love this song for Mr. Havens’ urgent, pounding guitar, his exquisite, howling voice, his precise and pointed recitation.
I love the evocative, unflinching imagery conjured by the brothers Arkin/Gray:
To see the blood upon their whips
And hear the snarling of their lips…
Each one sucked a hungry breath
Out of the empty lungs of death…
But more than anything, I love the utter moral clarity that kicks off the final verse, both in the lyrics, and in Mr. Havens’ mighty, withering delivery:
He who rides with the Klan / He is a devil and not a man.
The past week and a half in America have been marked by a reminder that our President is a proud racist; that a considerable base of his political support is borne out of overt, and yes deplorable, racism; that there is a disturbing and dangerous revival afoot of far-right, racially-motivated violence; and that the President is all too happy to fan those flames, to all but openly praise that racist violence, because he thinks that’s his route to re-election, and because it seems to turn him on.
Every component of my brief Wikipedia-fueled history lesson above already has obvious parallels in our current, dangerous moment, and it is only going to get much, much worse.
There are noisy voices in our “discourse” right now who would have you believe that the rise of violent, emboldened white nationalism – of a new Klan with a different name – is nothing to get too worked up about.
There are voices – including virtually every “leader” of the Republican Party – that tell us that concerns about our white nationalist President are overblown, that the real problem here is not the hostile, organized and increasingly violent racists, but rather the voices (and especially those, incidentally, of persons of color) who dare to call this evil out for what it is.
And there are too many of us – too many lifelong Republican voters, too many Weak Kneed Comfortable, too many of our friends and neighbors – who find those voices comforting, who tell themselves that all of this is politics as usual, that it will all blow over.
I assure you that, without concerted, collective action, it will not.
I love Richie Havens’ “The Klan” because I hear the song as directly challenging that instinct to downplay or shrug off the ascendance of honest-to-God evil, to set aside our most basic moral moorings because it makes us too uncomfortable to confront reality.
He who rides with the Klan is a devil and not a man.
As we embark on the most dangerous – and likely most violent – American election campaign in well over a century, we need to understand that this is far from politics as usual. There are two very clear sides in this critical moment, and we need to act accordingly.
Our focus with “Rebel Art Fridays” is on more historic art, art which confronted problems that pre-dated the Incident. But that’s hardly to say that there’s not some great rebel art happening RIGHT NOW, in response to the crisis in the U.S. and throughout the world.
So if the raw, bitter, confrontational truth bomb that is Richie Havens’ recording of “The Klan” tickles your fancy, check out First Aid Kit’s raging Me Too anthem “You Are the Problem Here.”
Or you’re interested both in the progression of the Klan/white nationalism – from national organization, to terrorist organization, to political powerhouse – and the way it infiltrates our society in a thousand insidious ways, consider picking up Maurice Carlos Ruffin’s strange dystopian novel “We Cast a Shadow” for one take on what racism’s next act might look like in these United States.
And if you haven’t seen it yet, walk, don’t run, to your local streaming device and spend two hours in the bold company of Spike Lee’s “BlackkKlansman,” which is as powerful a commentary on the reemergence (to the extent it ever went away) of violent racist extremism as I’ve seen.