When 44 Klansmen strode into Washington, D.C. on Sept. 3, 1990, they had plans to march down Constitution Avenue to the U.S. Capitol. But some 3,000 city residents had a different idea.
Faced with massive resistance, the Christian Knights of the Ku Klux Klan were forced to take a bus with police escort to the east side of the Capitol, according to The Los Angeles Times. There, they speechified to themselves and a gaggle of reporters before heading out of town.
Meanwhile, counter-protesters trying to reach the Capitol wielded bricks and bottles as they scrapped with police. The Washington Post reported that by the end of the day, there were eight injuries, including four police officers, and three arrests.
Still, news accounts reported a palpable sense of relief in the city that things hadn’t turned out worse. Eight years earlier, in 1982, a 15-minute Klan demonstration in Lafayette Park led to looting and dozens of arrests, and left 11 officers injured, The New York Times reported at the time.
“I guess I’m pretty happy with the way it turned out,” 23-year-old D.C. native Edward Cohen told The Los Angeles Times in September 1990, “although I promised to bring my wife back a hood.”
It was a short-lived victory. The next month, about two dozen Christian Knights returned to march down Constitution Avenue. Counter-protests led to 40 arrests and left seven police officers injured, one seriously.
Now the District of Columbia is holding its breath again as residents wait to see whether Sunday’s rally turns out to be a rousing success or an embarrassing bust for its organizer, white supremacist provocateur Jason Kessler.
The event, dubbed United the Right 2, marks one year since a deadly white supremacist protest in Charlottesville, Virginia left one person dead and dozens injured.
Washington’s history with the Klan could shed light on how Sunday’s protest will go.
Hoping for the best, preparing for the worst
“[T]here is no city better equipped to handle large-scale events, including First Amendment events, than Washington, D.C.,” the District’s police chief, Peter Newsham, told reporters on Thursday. “Our goal of safeguarding everyone and ensuring that property is not damaged will not deviate for this event.”
Kessler has estimated that between 100 and 400 white supremacists are planning to march from Foggy Bottom Metro Station to Lafayette Park, where they’ll hold a rally. Counter-protesters also have a permit for Lafayette Park, but police say they will keep the two groups physically separate.
Newer white supremacist groups like the Proud Boys and the Traditionalist Worker Party outnumbered the Klan in Charlottesville last year. But the “Invisible Empire,” as the KKK is known, has the longest history of any group that took part in that demonstration, with periods of dramatic growth and steep decline since Reconstruction.
Throughout that long history, policing has played a big part in shrinking the Klan’s size and influence, according to David Cunningham, a professor of sociology at Washington University in St. Louis.
“You see a direct relationship between the police’s ability to restrict the Klan’s everyday activities and the Klan’s ability to maintain itself,” Cunningham, author of the book Klansville, U.S.A., told ThinkProgress.
A warm welcome
The Klan’s most infamous visits to the District came in 1925 and 1926, when around 30,000 and 15,000 Klansmen and women, respectively, marched openly in D.C. — with few if any counter-protests.
At the time, the Klan was at the height of its political and social power. While it was still opposed to people of color, immigrants, Jews, and Catholics, the Klan of the 1920s presented itself as a white Protestant civic organization rather than a vigilante terror group.
Unlike the so-called “alt-right” of today, the 1920s Klan was full of “family men” in their their 30s, 40s, and 50s, according to Linda Gordon, a professor of history at New York University.
“Klan lodges began to function, in many places, something like a Rotary Club,” she told ThinkProgress. “To some extent, in some places, joining the Klan was really a way to join the middle class.”
The “Konklave,” as it was called, in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 8, 1925, drew tens of thousands of men and women in white robes and hoods from across the country. It also drew breathless coverage from The Washington Post, which trumpeted it as “one of the greatest demonstrations this city has ever known.” The following day, the Klan inducted 200 new members beneath an 80-foot firey cross in Arlington, Virginia.
Fight or flight
The Klan has planned three marches in D.C. since 1926 — one in 1982 and two in 1990. Twice — in 1985 and September 1990 — the Klansmen opted to let police drive them to their rally points once they saw the size of the counter-protests.
“If the Klan had showed, there would definitely have been violence,” Cohen told The Los Angeles Times in September 1990.
His prediction came true the following month, when the same Klan group returned to D.C. and marched down Constitution Avenue in its robes. Police kept the 24 some-odd Klansmen separate from the 2,000 counter-protesters who came out to register their opposition, according to The Los Angeles Times. But some demonstrators rushed police lines, leaving one officer with a fractured neck after she was hit with a rock.
Even in 1982 — when the Klan opted to leave off their robes, take a police escort to Lafayette Square, and spend just 15 minutes answering questions from reporters before leaving — the day ended with violence. Eleven officers were injured and 38 protesters were arrested, according to The New York Times, after demonstrators looted two buildings, smashed several windows, and overturned two cars.
“We don’t want a confrontation,” one counter-protest organizer, Brian Becker, told The Los Angeles Times in September 1990, “but the Klan is such a provocation that we don’t know how people will react when they see hoods and robes.”