“Smash the Klan”: Fighting the White Power Movement in the Late Twentieth Century

Benjamin Holzman is an Assistant Professor of History at Lehman College.  His first first book, The Long Crisis: New York City and the Path to Neoliberalism, is out from Oxford University Press., and his research has also appeared in Modern American History, the Journal of Social History, the Journal of Urban History, and several edited collections.    He was awarded a Rose Fellowship in 2022 for research on his second book, “Smash the Klan”: Fighting the White Power Movement in the Late Twentieth Century.

C.T. Vivian is best known for his involvement in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, especially through his principal role in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and close relationship with Martin Luther King, Jr. But Vivian’s commitment to movements for racial justice continued for decades after the height of the civil rights era. My research in the C.T. and Octavia Vivian papers and the SCLC records has focused on a primary site of Vivian’s later activism: building a movement in the 1980s to combat the violent resurgence of white power organizing that was spreading across the country at that time.

Vivian became deeply concerned about the growth of white supremacist groups in the late 1970s, especially with the rising membership of the Ku Klux Klan, which by 1980 was estimated to be around 10,000, with many thousands more active sympathizers. “Just as we were about to be lulled to sleep, looking in the wrong direction at the right time – the KKK has shocked us awake,” Vivian observed in 1979.[1]

Vivian was already sounding alarms when several major incidents of Klan violence in 1979 sent shockwaves through civil rights communities. In Decatur, Alabama, for instance, an upsurge of black protest catalyzed a brutal campaign by white supremacists determined to keep Decatur’s inequitable racial landscape intact. Just as disturbing, the Klan’s message resonated with area whites, attracting rallies with upwards of 9,000 in attendance. In May 1979, emboldened white supremacists attacked an SCLC-organized march and shot several participants. Bullets just missed both SCLC President Joseph Lowery and his wife Evelyn.[2]

The white power terror campaign in Decatur convinced Vivian, then serving as SCLC’s Acting Director, that those concerned with racial justice needed to come together and forge a new movement to address the growing violence and power of white supremacists. Alongside Anne Braden and Marilyn Clements, Vivian cofounded the National Anti-Klan Network (NAKN). At that time, there was no national, coordinated campaign to defend racial and religious minorities, to track white supremacist violence, to undercut recruitment through outreach and public education, and to develop strategies that could be used to combat white supremacists both locally and nationwide. The NAKN would aim to do just that.

These two archival collections help illustrate Vivian’s principal role in forging and fostering the NAKN’s central strategies. Vivian, for instance, quickly recognized that it would take a range of tactics – protests, media blitzes, lawsuits, educational campaigns, and state action – to combat white power proponents. The NAKN began developing this array of strategies from its initial meeting, which took place just after the SCLC’s Annual Conference in August 1979. There, activists from throughout the country gathered for several days “in work groups thinking through media response, coalition efforts to organize anti-klan rallies, educational materials, church events, a call for Congressional hearings, community and regional forums on the klan, and legal strategies,” as Clements described shortly after the conference.[3]

Vivian also recognized that the NAKN needed to forge a broad coalition that went well beyond traditional civil rights organizations. Vivian worked tirelessly to build a grassroots and organizational base for the NAKN. In the months leading up to the group’s first major action in 1980, for instance, he garnered support by travelling to forty-five towns and cities across twenty-four states.[4] But Vivian, who was called to the ministry in 1954, was especially committed to rousing the religious community – white and black – that had remained passive in the face of rising racial violence. “If the church is the light of the world, then it has been the taillight,” Vivian bemoaned in 1980.[5] “It is time the church decided if it is Christian or cultural,” Vivian proclaimed before one gathering of church leaders. “Churches should be analyzing the culture and distributing materials against racism in the Sunday school curriculum,” he noted. “Christians are in conflict with principalities and power.”[6]

Vivian also consistently emphasized that the NAKN’s efforts would only succeed if they targeted the larger systems of white supremacy and racism that gave root to groups like the Klan. “Like all good surgeons,” as Vivian described the work of anti-racist organizers, “we must study the illness, diagnose its cause and effect, so that America can be free of its fear syndrome.”[7] “The KKK is the visible manifestation of the white racist ideology,” Vivian proclaimed.[8]

Vivian’s clear-eyed analysis of white supremacy and the strategies that would be necessary to defeat it would help guide the NAKN for decades [the group continued as the Center for Democratic Renewal (CDR) in 1986]. But his contributions to the movement went even further. Vivian, whose lifelong commitment to activism began in 1947, had an unyielding faith in the capacity of people to affect change, a faith he consistently showered on activists during the movement’s many ups and downs.

Speaking before his colleagues in the CDR in 1990, for instance, after a decade that had witnessed both white supremacist groups reeling from lawsuits and prosecutions and an ascending conservative movement that rolled back the gains of civil rights activists, he called on his audience to remember the power of collective struggle: “Out of us can come a new sense of what it means to be black and white and brown and red, male and female, gay and lesbian, old and young. Can come a newness,” Vivian declared. The act of organizing together, of fighting against inequities and injustices would, he remained certain, forge “a powerful new social vision that can change the very nature of America and make it fulfill its dream in spite of itself.” With continued collective action, Vivian proclaimed in a message that remains resonant for activists today, “we can’t be destroyed by the forces around us. For we are greater than the forces that have tried to destroy us.”[9]





[1] C.T. Vivian, “Dear Friends,” July 27, 1979. C.T. and Octavia Vivian papers. Box 21. Folder “Southern Christian Leadership Conference, 1965-1995 [4 of 4].”

[2] SCLC press release (undated). Southern Christian Leadership Conference records. Box 123. Folder “March Against Fear and Injustice, Decatur, Alabama, 1979.”

[3] Marilyn Clement, “The Growing Anti-Klan Movement,” November 26, 1979. Southern Christian Leadership Conference records. Box 92. Folder “Office of the President Joseph E. Lowery December 1-6, 1979.”

[4] Martha Woodall, “The Committee,” The Greensboro Record, January 28, 1980.

[5] Quoted in D. Vance Hawthorn, “C.T. Vivian: ‘Sermon’ at Simpson,” Des Moines Register, November 11, 1980. Copy in C.T. and Octavia Vivian papers. Box 37. No folder.

[6] Quoted in Dedria Humphries, “Churches Should Halt Racism Now: SCLC’s Director,” Michigan Chronicle, March 29, 1980. Copy in C.T. and Octavia Vivian papers. Box 74. Folder “SCLC.”

[7] Vivian, “Dear Friends.”

[8] Quoted in Humphries, “Churches Should Halt Racism Now.”

[9] C.T. Vivian, “Keynote Address CDR Nov. 1990 Conference.” C.T. and Octavia Vivian papers. Box 32. No folder.